After interviewing Fundacion ARU last May, I also got together with Osvaldo Nina, Lykke Andersen and Carolina Cardona of the Instituto de Estudios Avanzados en Desarrollo (INESAD). Osvaldo Nina is its current Executive Director, while Lykke Andersen was INESAD’s first Director. Carolina Cardona is one of their junior researchers. As with Fundacion ARU, my three interviewees recounted their experiences in doing research in Bolivia; the challenges they have faced, like funding and resources; their approach towards development research; their communications strategies, among other issues. Most interestingly, we discussed their inclusion of consultancy work in their think tank.
Osvaldo holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Chile, and was Director of the Socioeconomic Research Institute of the Universidad Catolica Boliviana de La Paz for over ten years. He also was a consultant for the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.
Lykke holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Aarhus in Denmark. She has significant experience in research on development and environmental issues in Latin America, as Executive Director of INESAD, at the Universidad Catolica de Bolivia and as a consultant for the World Bank.
Carolina is an economist from the Universidad Privada Boliviana and is a research assistant on issues like the labor market, the financial system and has done research on the environment.
Andrea Moncada: How did INESAD come to its existence?
Osvaldo Nina: Before INESAD we used to be a consultancy. We were five young people that got together to do paid consultancy work. After two years of experience, we met Lykke Andersen who is an expert in environmental issues, and it turned out that she wasn’t so much a consultant as a researcher. From there we began the challenge of creating our institution. A book that has inspired us a lot is called Beautiful Mind (the biography of the economist John Nash). I told Lykke that I wanted to have an institution like the one created to position the University of Princeton. We gave her that idea and created the logo for the institution, and we had the idea of doing research because when we did consultancy work, we had no more responsibility over it when we were done. We wanted to keep on researching on development issues, have discussions with people, present our work, and that had to be done as a research centre.
AM: You were the first executive director of INESAD. How was it like to be the first person in charge of taking the institution forward?
Lykke Andersen: I like to be in the first phase of construction where everything is quite new and interesting. I was very happy to be there when the institution was taking shape and we had to go through a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork and establish more rigid rules, which is what’s necessary for a more mature institution. I liked very much to be in the first phase.
AM: Did you have many problems with bureaucracy in order to establish a research centre in Bolivia?
LA: During my time, during the first years we were completely informal. Afterwards we won a project from the Inter-American Development Bank and they sent us a cheque, and we couldn’t cash it because we weren’t a formal institution. So we quickly created an institution.
ON: Not so much create it but make it formal. We had to create the foundation in order to cash that cheque.
LA: No, first we were a civil association in order to cash the cheque. That worked fine for a few years and then the IDRC came and said that we had to be a foundation in order to work with them, and that’s when the toughest paperwork came. Now all of our researchers are under contract. Before, we used to work in a very informal way.
AM: I read on your webpage that you consider that in order to do research on development, the researcher had to be someone who lived among developing country problems. I’d like for you to explain why you believe that.
LA: There are many institutions dedicated to development but that are located in the United States, in Denmark, in London, and they are university professors that live in a bubble that’s completely different from real life, especially life in developing countries. It’s hard for them to imagine effective solutions for problems here. They can imagine it but many times they have tried to implement them without results because they are not familiar with the context, and the challenges were different.
ON: It’s not that there weren’t solutions; it’s that the implementation of these solutions was not viable. A researcher from Germany might think that it had to work like in Germany, but here it doesn’t work that way. You need a more domestic, more national, more local solution, where you incorporate context and local rules. You can’t change everything from one day to another; it needs to be done little by little taking that cultural context into account.
AM: What are the greatest difficulties you’ve encountered when doing research in Bolivia?
ON: We had had two difficulties as a research centre: financing and human resources. As for financing, as in the majority of countries in Latin America, there are no funds for independent research. The state does not support it, there is no access to credit in Bolivia, and you can’t do independent research a hundred percent of the time without money. That’s why we do a mix of research and consultancy; we have to play with both, because otherwise we would be unsustainable.
In terms of human resources, many people who have a doctorate have better opportunities abroad or in the state, where they will have a regular income. Competing with these is hard. But if you create an institution that gives opportunities, you create an incentive so that people are motivated, as in Lykke’s case. She was working at the Universidad Catolica Boliviana’s research centre and made a third of what she makes now, but she had time to research and that translated into more work opportunities and projects and more international exposure.
AM: Do you see yourselves as a consultancy or as a think tank, or as a hybrid?
ON: At INESAD we do research institutionally. But on the issue of the environment, for instance, for which the government wants solutions and plans, we work as consultants.
LA: Consultancy and research go very well together. Consultancies also show you where the demand for research is. I used to be at a university in Europe where the emphasis was placed on research, and everything was super theoretic and practically useless for real life. If you mix consultancy and research you land on something much more useful. Research, especially in Bolivia, has to be useful.
AM: How do you feel about research at the university level in Bolivia?
Carolina Cardona: That is one of the challenges for INESAD: substituting the research that universities should be doing but don’t. There are three universities, one public and two private, that have research centres but they don’t do research because there is no financing in Bolivia that makes that possible.
ON: i don’t think there’s a lack of interest in doing research. We’re happy to do it, but the problem is that there are no regular means to do research. People want to: I teach a class at a university and share our research and the students feel more engaged when you show them what you do. I think there’s an interest, but there needs to be financing – for instance like the Think Tank Initiative, which asks for more institutionalization, a directory, so that when people want to finance your institution they will consider you to be a transparent institution, mature, responsible. These last four years we have done projects thanks to TTI’s requirements, which asked us to have a transparent system.
CC: The fact that we’re a foundation has also helped a lot.
ON: That’s why institutions abroad look at us differently, not just a consultancy that does a project and leaves it behind. They see us having institutional memory.
LA: The basic problem is that research is a public good, and it should be the state that pays for it. In Bolivia the state does not prioritize it, in contrast with almost any other country.
AM: How is your relationship with the government like?
ON: It’s good. What happens is that we give them suggestions and recommendations. As an institution you can’t tell them what to do; you have to recommend. Or, for example, you have to provide instruments, like our SimPachamama, which is software that simulates reforestation. We don’t tell them what to do, we just suggest that they use the software and see for themselves the consequences of reforestation, and think about what policy they can implement. We give it to them so that they can make decisions.
Another mistake is to present yourself as the boss, as the one who knows what is best for Bolivia. What you should do is indicate what research there is, and that it should be analysed and discussed; we only suggest they look at it. Lykke has negotiated with the United Nations’ financing network and we have gotten 2 million dollars for the government. Now she is working with the Danish cooperation, and has gotten 26 million dollars for reforestation policies.
LA: What I do know is work with the Danish cooperation and the Bolivian government in order to design Denmark’s support to Bolivia during the next five years. I am in the middle trying to design the best programs possible.
ON: That way of looking at impact on public policy, how to support and propose ideas to it, is being used to work with public policy on health. The same philosophy is being used with the Spanish cooperation. We don’t tell them we’re the experts; we just give the instruments based on evidence.
LA: A lot of it has to do not just with instruments but with communication, with the capacity to be efficient intermediaries between governments who speak different languages, not just formal languages but also informal ones.
AM: Do you have any communications strategy in order to disseminate your work? Is there anyone in INESAD in charge of dealing with the press, for instance?
ON: We have an alliance with a communications institution called Inspira. We aren’t communicators: it costs too much to put someone in charge of just institutional communication. What we’ve done is hire this institution, and it’s a win-win alliance since we’ve helped each other grow. They’re helped us identify who we have to talk to and what we have to do. We’ve set up communication channels like Facebook, our webpage, photography: we’ve done institutional lobby that way. We have that support, and we still have a lot to do, but it’s costly for us; that’s why we’ve done it through a third party. It might not be a full-time thing, but we’ve done it.
We also have an international internship program that Lykke organises.
LA: We’ve hired someone to lead an international communications team. She’s not here now, and the whole team is placed around the world – most are volunteers. We have a national blog and an international blog. The latter is written around the world, and gives us much more visibility.
AM: They blog the work you’ve done?
LA: And other things, too.
ON: The idea is that the blog should be interactive, so that we foster discussion on development and throw ideas around.
LA: It also helps us to publish articles in other media.
AM: How is your relationship with the press like? Is Bolivian press interested in research?
ON: What Inspira has taught us is to lobby so that the media will cover what we do. However, our strategy is to associate ourselves with other groups, like for instance the College of Economists of Cochabamba (a small city in Bolivia). We do events with them, we know they haven’t done the research, but that way the press comes and covers the events. It’s a strategic alliance. That way we don’t do it alone and everyone can participate. We always look for someone who has more presence, because doing it alone doesn’t make sense. That’s too selfish.
I get calls from the press all the time asking for my opinion, and I give it. We can’t have a bad relationship with the press because once you ignore them they’ll never call you again. What we say we always base it on the research.
AM: How have you incorporated your younger researchers? What is the process that a university student interested in working at INESAD has to go through?
LA: The president of the board is the vicerector of the Universidad Privada Boliviana. He always chooses the best students and sends them here, which is a great benefit.
ON: That’s for young people. For instance, Pablo Rocha, who has won a contest now works for us. I met him at the conference on development that we organise annually. At the university some of us teach classes, at the conference we meet people who show us their publications and sometimes they write to us. We also give scholarships to some students.
LA: To international students we give 700 dollars so that they can come here.
AM: I’d like to know what recommendations you have for other think tanks in developing countries, based on the experience that you have had.
ON: First, I think that you have to bet on young people. Once I finish my time here, I want for INESAD to keep going and for that to happen young people need to stay. They will be the future directors managing administrative tasks. If we want our institution to be sustainable, there have to be young people so the generation can change. Young people also have new methods, new approaches: if we don’t incorporate that, we won’t move forward.
LA: At the TTI conference in South Africa, I participated in a panel on the conflict between consultancies and independent research. My recommendation would be to not be so afraid of consultancies because you learn a lot. Consultancies generate a lot of bonds, and at the same time you make money so I think it’s a good idea to balance it with research.
CC: Additionally, at least in Bolivia’s case, most consultancies are done for the government. That way you build a relationship with the public sector and your institution is known. As Osvaldo said, they decide whether they use it or not but the link is formed.