The woes of domestic philanthropy in developing countries

8 February 2013
SERIES Funding for think tanks part two: the private sector 9 items

The Idaho Stateman recently announced that retired U.S. Republican Sen. Jim DeMint has founded a conservative think tank in South Carolina. DeMint spent 13 years in the US House of Representatives and the Senate; he is now investing $300,000 from his remaining campaign money to establish the new Palmetto Policy Forum. This think tank will be promoting conservative ideals in order to influence public policy.

While initiatives such as these where politicians or other influential individuals take an interest in financing research and its dissemination are quite common in the United States, the United Kingdom and other rich nations, the same does not occur, with the same frequency, in developing countries. Domestic philanthropy, even this ideologically driven kind, may not be considered a worthwhile investment, or in some cases, like in India, philanthropists might be more interested in putting their resources in foreign research institutions:

Indian corporates, on the other hand, have never been a major source of funding for research, even if they are increasingly funding education. Thus, Bharti’s Sunil Mittal, the only Indian mentioned in a Wikipedia list of world’s 100 top philanthropists, has liberally funded school and college education, including institutions like the Indian School of Business, but when it comes to supporting think tanks, he has so far preferred to help the Carnegie Endowment rather than any policy think tank in India. Same applies to most of India’s celebrated billionaires.

The lack of domestic funding is not particular to India: a study done in 2008 on foreign funding and social research in Peru showed that only one fifth of the social science books of the sample analysed did not receive foreign funding. This is a scenario highly likely to be found in many other developing countries.

Could it be the prestige of having connections to an institution such as the Carnegie Endowment that incites these billionaires and philanthropists to donate their money? Perhaps. Certainly developing countries and international donors should place further emphasis in persuading local philanthropists that investing in local think tanks is certainly a worthwhile endeavour.

It may well help develop their own countries’ knowledge sectors, strengthen an industry in which they have a stake, or even gain political advantage over their competitors. Nobody said think tanks had to be interest neutral, after all.