Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to La Paz, Bolivia, and interview the directors and researchers of the think tanks belonging to the Think Tank Initiative: Fundacion ARU and the Instituto de Estudios Avanzados en Desarrollo (INESAD). With both institutions we discussed what it is like to be a think tank in a country like Bolivia; their relationship with the current government and the challenges they have faced when conducting research. We also touched upon Bolivia’s tertiary education and its relationship with the state of research in the country, and any communications strategies they had. Finally, both directors from the two institutions interviewed gave their recommendations to those individuals looking to set up think tanks in other developing countries.
This post is the transcript of my interview with Fundacion ARU’s director, Werner Hernani-Limarino, and one of their main researchers, Paul Villaroel.
Werner is a co-founder of the Fundacion; he previously worked in the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington DC and in the Instituto de Pesquiza Economica y Social in Rio de Janeiro. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania.
Paul is the team leader for the institution’s Monitoring and Evaluating group and holds a BA in Economics from the Universidad Privada Boliviana.
Andrea Moncada: How did you come up with the idea to found Fundacion ARU?
Werner Hernani-Limarino: It’s due to a series of casualties. In 2006, I had come back from my doctorate and I had funds for research and began looking for interested parties. Unfortunately, there weren’t many think tanks in Bolivia and universities at that time and even until now do not conduct much research. So, Miguel Vera, Wilson Jimenez and myself put in contact to analyze the idea of funding a new institution. The three of us are a strange combination of academic research and public policy processes. Finally, we took a decision right there to found an institution that would let us raise funds to conduct research. At the beginning that is all we wanted to do. I think that little by little we were successful. As soon as ARU was born we had around three or four contracts for research, in important networks like the Research Centre Network of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).
AM: Who are the ones who solicit you the most research? Who are your clients?
WHL: In the beginning we did things for the World Bank, for the IADB and for research networks funded by foreign foundations. At this moment, we work with government institutions, international funders and civil society institutions.
AM: Has the Bolivian state ever requested research from you?
WHL: Not directly, but last year we have won a public request for the Credito Productivo Individual Impact Evaluation. This is a product of the Banco de Desarrollo Productivo, a financial institution of the government. In this project, we held a national survey with a sample of 4,000 households. We evaluate the credit impact on households and economic units welfare, communicating the results directly to policy decision makers.
AM: I saw on your institution’s web page that you focus a lot on evidence based policy. If you conduct applied research, and the state does not seem interested in using it when formulating public policy, what is all that research used for?
WHL: At the beginning, when Fundación ARU was born, it was very hard to get funds for an individual researcher and easier for an institution, which is why the goal was to raise money to do academic research. We didn’t have a clear goal regarding influence, but we still managed to be influential. For example, we put together a document about the social safety net policy in Bolivia, in which we analysed the progressiveness of neutrality of social policy here. Our influence model that time and partly now is through research: we convince political actors in the international cooperation to use part of our research findings to discuss them with the government and so the link between us and the government was created.
AM: What is your concept of a think tank?
WHL: Since we didn’t find a space in universities to conduct research, because they are the ones who should be conducting research in my opinion, we did it ourselves and that was our goal as a think tank. Afterwards, considering the sustainability of ARU, we decided to raise funds to move from individual research to institutional research. One thing is when you pay yourself a salary to do research, and another is when you have to raise funds to rent an office, or giving research a certain format so that it is a product you can disseminate, or do something as basic as making our research have an influence on public policy. Considering this new model, we began to see who could be interested in financing an institution, not just individual research but the institution as a whole. Fortunately we found the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), which permitted us to think about a much more ambitious model.
AM: ¿Do you feel you couldn’t have done it without TTI’s support?
WHL: We had the principles in mind but at the beginning it’s very risky. I think we were good at doing quality research but we didn’t have the structure to institutionalize it. That requires investments that are hard to find and only TTI has had the initiative and vision to invest in up-and-coming young institutions.
AM: What is the situation of university research in Bolivia?
Paul Villaroel: Research as an activity in Bolivia is just getting started, it’s very basic. Universities are trying to teach students but in some cases they do not even have human capital to teach them properly and then dedicate themselves to research. For example, when I finished university I wanted to be a researcher, but there wasn’t many think tanks where I could do this in the country, so I worked for a while in financial and commercial projects. Luckily I found ARU, where there was space for young people like me that wanted to dedicate themselves to research but who didn’t have the freedom or the capacity to grow. You begin at ARU as an assistant but you are free to grow as much as you want. At ARU it didn’t matter what title you had or what your age was, if you were good, you climbed up.
WHL: In my point of view there are two types of research. There is bad research, and there is real research. Real research is a combination of two things: data and trained researchers who have the ability to find the right method to process that data and come to useful conclusions for public policy that can provided answers to structural problems in our country. In Bolivia data is scarce and some existing data isn’t available for the public. On the other hand, even when there are a lot of highly trained people, the opportunity cost of these people to dedicate themselves to research here is very high. It is much more lucrative for an individual with a PhD to work in international cooperation, where they would have a guaranteed salary. What is interesting about ARU’s model is that we have wagered on generating information and showing young people that there is a space where they can do research and mentor them so that they can see their potential and grow within the institution assuming bigger and bigger roles.
AM: What are the biggest challenges the Fundacion has faced when doing research?
WHL: The biggest challenge is the demand for research. There is no demand and you have to create it. The second biggest challenge is the absence of data and trained researchers. So, We have had to focus on both, data and training researchers. ARU researchers are proof that it can be done, and that there are people who are interested. For example, Paul has been the main researcher in evaluating the impact of the largest program that the government has had in the last 5 years. A team led by him has generated the information, has put together the report and has presented it to policymakers and achieved impact. Ahmed Eid, another of our researchers, is preparing to create another regional report on some of Bolivia’s structural issues, such as if inequality has decreased and why, and the government’s role in this. Ana Velasco, team leader for our Political Economy Group, is coordinating a regional project with Guatemala and Ecuador that focuses on an issue that has not been addressed yet in Latin America, which is social cohesion. Finally, Alvaro Chirino is the coordinator of our data unit and had organized national surveys with different thematic in many projects. I believe that shows that researchers can be trained; I do not have any doubts regarding the quality of the products they create.
AM: What communications strategy has Fundacion ARU implemented to disseminate its products?
WHL: There is no one institutional strategy to communicate our work. To me, there is a separation of processes. One thing is to generate the information that allows you to do the research. Data creation for us is essential. Once you have that, then you develop the research that lets you influence public policy. After that comes the question of how to make the research get to the decision makers so that public policy can be influenced. In Bolivia, and I am sure this is a situation that can be generalised to other countries, public policy is not lineal but chaotic. There are many actors from the government, from civil society, international actors, all trying to convince one another on what needs to be done.. We believe (and we have researched about this) that it is silly to think of one lineal communication strategy for a decision making environment that is so chaotic. If you want to relate with academics, you need an academic paper. If you want to relate with public policy actors, it’s worthwhile to create a permanent space for discussion for them. If you want to relate with the press, the most you can do is give them figures for them to interpret.
We have done a seminar with public policy officials, we pay them to attend, in order to discuss the information we give them. These are called Evidence Based Meetings (EBE) , they are interesting because they are permanent spaces where we can bring our research and discuss it openly. We have created a space for academic discussion, composed of workshops called Applied Research Workshop, where we academically discuss our products; we have created a product not yet launched called Facts in Figures: it’s a platform where we upload figures and tables that the media can access so that they include them in their articles, since we do not communicate directly.
AM: How is your relationship with the press?
WHL: The press plays a role within public policy; it has its own interests. In Bolivia you’re either with them or against them. The press here is quite sensationalist and research tends to give complex results, so it’s hard to communicate with the press without them labeling you. Given the current national context we feel it’s better not to talk to the press. Additionally, due to the model we describe, it could get us in trouble. . We focus on research, and once we have the results we see what communication strategy is the most appropriate to disseminate our findings.
AM: What would you recommend to other people who want to start a project similar to Fundacion ARU?
WHL: I believe that there is no single recipe for a delicious dish. I strongly believe in the need to analyse the context they’re in, the resources they’re going to have available to do research, the political context in which decisions are made. My recommendation would be to not copy any model. We think that we have identified our context well and we are a research centre that has not copied any other model. Look to where you want to get, what resources and challenges you have, and adapt a model to those circumstances.