The threats to think tank survival are real

17 October 2023

The Island of Curaçao has seen nine governments in 13 years, since it became an autonomous nation within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Each with very different political and economic ideologies.

This instability of governance has contributed to a culture of fear and political interference that is threatening think tanks’ legitimacy and influence.

Our experience aligns in many ways with the findings from the 2023 think tank state of the sector report, in which think tanks in the Latin America and Caribbean region reported one of the highest levels of concern about their political context.

In this article, I look at how this is playing out in the Caribbean context, and how the Think To Do Institute is striving to maintain its independence, legitimacy and influence amidst this challenging political context.

Threats to success

A culture of fear

Both the legitimacy and the outcomes of think tanks are being threatened by two deterrents: the culture of fear and political interference.

The culture of fear is the theory that fears are commonly manipulated to achieve political objectives.  Fear can be an intense and irrational instinct and emotion that is particularly vulnerable to manipulation.

All the following types of fear are being manipulated in the Caribbean and Latin American and have been experienced locally.

‘Us’ vs ‘them’: The positioning of ethics, national, cultural, social or political groups against each other.  This begins by convincing a group it is under attack by another group.

The unknown: Fear of the unknown may cause individuals to choose an irrational choice over a rational choice that involves the slightest ambiguity. This is dominated in politics with misinformation campaigns that put emotional decision making above data-driven decision making.

Change: Fear that a proposed future will be far worse than today. Researched-based future scenarios take people out of their comfort zones and the more fragile the state the more difficult it is for people to move forward or make long-term economic and social programming.

Failure: In the Caribbean and Latin America where many societies are fragile both socially and economically, the fear of failure on a personal, institutional and governmental level are strong counter forces to data-driven decision-making and evidence-based change.

The culture of fear, and political interventions have given evidence to the weakening forces of political instability and polarisation, governance challenges, absence of programmatic agreements or proposals from the government and opposition parties to address critical problems, changes and challenges to civil society organisations, economic challenges and the continued weakening of institutions.

Media freedoms

Data is the life blood of think tanks. Democratic thought and processes its arteries and veins. 41% of think tanks in Latin America and the Caribbean surveyed for the 2023 state of the sector report said that media freedoms are getting worse in the region. No one said it was improving.

Certainly, through our work locally and across our connections to other think tanks in the region, we recognise the government’s suppression of the media (won’t answer questions, share data or reports); intimidation (refuse to print news articles, or put ads in the paper if there is a certain point of view expressed by the media outlet), and disassociation/ discrediting of reports, facts that are against a political view.

Mitigating the threats    

Thinking and doing

As one of a handful of think tanks in the Caribbean, and the only think tank in the Western Caribbean, we decided that we wanted to not only think but do.

We learn more from doing than thinking alone. When we do things, we realise all the subtleties, nuances, complexities and plurality of viewpoints of the problems we are trying to solve. We are convinced that do tanks are the new think tanks.

Legal structure and financing

As a young think tank, great care was taken to ensure our independence both legally and financially due to the size of the local population.

A private foundation is the legal structure of the Think To DO Institute.  The founders and primary donors form a board of directors who oversee the work of the foundation and its staff and flexible bench of experts. The donors and board of directors agree to not interfere in the work of the think tank.  This has been important to the success of the tank and its independence.

Initial funding came from founding donors. Private donations from other individuals, groups or other foundations continue to be the foundation of the funding and come without restriction or attempts to influence the work of the foundation.

Funding is stable but could be greater, enabling more research outcomes and products.  There is evidence of less resources that can pursued through grants with other think tanks or funders of research across the globe due to less democratic practices, and less unbiased processes in determining funding for research.