The Think Tank Initiative Global Exchange: the elephants in the room

19 February 2015

The TTIx2015 has gathered around 200 people from 65+ think tanks across the world. It has focused on research quality and outreach and cannot be expected to cover all topics under the sun but here are some that I feel are missing -and that are very important:

Governance and management

A participant said it best during a plenary conversation on research quality:

He is right. Governance and Management are crucial for ensuring research and outreach quality. And this is a topic that is rarely discussed in public.

On Think Tanks has a Topic Page on this: Topic page: Governance and Management and if you read through the interviews with think tank directors you will see that this is what keep them up at night.

Some interesting articles on the topic:

This topic also includes (or could include) staffing policies and practices.

Funding and, more importantly, domestic funding and business models

Sonja Stojanovic put it best (I think):

Funding, in the long run, is going to be crucial for think tanks. More importantly, the key to their sustainability will be in domestic funding. This is because, foreign funders will leave -soon in some regions and later in others. And when this happens they should know what to do.

Foreign funders poses several important challenges:

  • They tend to set their own agendas, forcing think tanks to negotiate (sometimes unsuccessfully) with them to find a middle ground between what is important for their countries and what is a priority to the funders.
  • They are, for the most part, unaware or only vaguely aware of local politics and cannot therefore easily judge their grantees contribution to their societies; tourist funders demand excessive monitoring and evaluation from think tanks. Anyone who follows the blogs or email posts of Aid ‘research uptake’ funders and consultants will be aware of their obsession with ‘understanding politics’ in the countries where they intervene; that they have to try so hard is a sign that they do not understand.
  • They are unreliable, too. Their funding decisions are based on political, financial and technical factors that come together thousands of miles away in the boardrooms or offices of governments, corporations or foundations far removed from the political and financial cycles that affect think tanks.
  • They won’t be there in the long run. It is inevitable that foreign funders will leave. In most emerging economies, foreign funding is likely to start to dry out. This is already happening across Latin America where donors perceive that resources for research are not lacking -the problem is the willingness to pick up a bill that has been paid, for too long, by the aid industry. At the same time, governments are increasingly sceptical about the ‘good intentions’ of foreign funders. You do not have to be the US to question the intrusion of foreign governments in your politics. This is happening in India, Indonesia, Ecuador, and other countries, too.

What can think tanks and funders like the TTI (and its own funders) do to leverage domestic funding for think tanks? Is there an exit plan in place? Should there be one? These are questions that could have been asked at this global exchange. It may be too late by the time the next one comes along.

Addressing funding on its own is not good enough, though. It needs to be part of a broader discussion about think tanks’ business models.


Transparify launched its 2015 Transparency report on Tuesday. Not many of the think tanks present were rated but a DIY rating On Think Tanks carried out last year (to be updated soon) showed that not many are very transparent.

One that has come on top is Grupo FARO, in Ecuador. Its director has said that this is more than the latest fad. This is an issue that demands urgent reform.

There are a few reasons that have been presented to argue against being more transparent. We could summarise them into two camps:

  1. Freedom of their funders to choose not to be named
  2. Security of think tanks and thinktankers in difficult contexts.

But do these arguments stand to scrutiny? Isn’t transparency a weapon against capture? Is it a principle that should be upheld by evidence based organisations?

A few days before the exchange we heard an alternative approach to think tank transparency. Can funders open the lid on funding?

There is more on this issue here: Topic Page: Think tank funding