Think tanks and elections: Reflections and lessons on scaling impact across Latin America

29 March 2022
SERIES Think tanks and elections 17 items

Elections can be a great moment for think tanks: a chance to step forward as the link between policy, evidence and the public. 

As I look back over 17 years of think tanks in Latin America engaging with elections, it’s fascinating to see how ideas and lessons have been exchanged and scaled. 

No one set out to scale this model of engagement – it happened organically. But in hindsight, there is a lot to learn.

17 years of think tanks informing electoral processes

In 2005, CIES – a network of research organisations across Peru – launched a new project to inform the 2006 presidential elections. They presented research-based proposals to candidates, engaged with political parties, the media and the public, and organised the official presidential debates.

Among many outcomes, one of the proposals’ authors – Mercedes Araoz – went on to lead the Peruvian ministries for trade, production and the economy. CIES repeated this project in the 2011 elections, and every presidential election since.

In 2009, at an annual meeting of Latin American thinktankers (co-organised by ODI in the UK and CIPPEC in Argentina) the founding director of the Ecuadorian think tank, Grupo Faro, learned about CIES’ experience and decided to replicate it in Ecuador.

CIPPEC was paying attention too and, in 2010, they started Agenda Presidencial in Argentina, which included a series of ‘memos to the president’. The Think Tank Initiative (TTI), which launched in late 2010, helped share these experiences further. Over the next decade, there was a proliferation of election focused initiatives in Latin America: CADEP in Paraguay, FODSDEH in Honduras, FUSADES in El Salvador, Espacio Publico in Chile, ASIES in Guatemala, IEP in Peru and others.

Meanwhile, with each election cycle, think tanks were learning and innovating. Grupo FARO relaunched its pilot project as Ecuador Decide in the lead up to the 2017 elections – which included a website comparing party manifestos and organising five national assembly candidate debates and a televised expert debate series with citizen participation. In Argentina, after the major presidential candidates refused to join a public debate in the 2011 elections, 2015 presented a new political climate and CIPPEC successfully hosted the first presidential candidate debate.

Over the years, On Think Tanks has helped to champion, connect and document these initiatives. See for example our publication ‘Think tanks: why and how to support elections’ which shared many of these stories and lessons.

Then in 2021, a relatively new health policy think tank in Colombia, INNOS, invited us to speak at an event on the role that thinks tanks could play in the 2022 presidential elections. The INNOS director had joined our School for Thinktankers the previous year and so was familiar with the initiative.

17 years after CIES’ 2006 project, INNOS developed and launched the Agenda Electoral project.

Scaling impact: reflections and lessons 

At a 2011 meeting of think tank leaders in Lima, CIPPEC’s Executive Director, Fernando Straface, referred to the proliferation of think tanks engaging with elections as ‘a Latin American technology’. It’s not a technology like a seed or chip that can be mass-produced and scaled. It is an intellectual technology – but it too can be scaled.

I’ve used the IDRC’s four guiding principles for scaling impact – justification, optimal scale, coordination and dynamic evaluation – as a lens to offer some reflections and lessons.

Scaling takes time, it can’t always be ‘projectised’  

We never set out to scale the impact of this ‘technology’. Maybe we should have. However, turning it into a project, with a logframe and indicators, would have been hard. 

The need to move beyond the ‘project logic’ is one of the points made in a new call to action from the Global South to funders who want to support scaling impact. While project funding cycles tend to last two to three years, it takes significantly longer to scale the impact of research and innovation.

Many of the think tank election projects took place over multiple election cycles. They would mostly begin by testing the demand for tools and each cycle allowed them to introduce new elements and lessons.

Scaling is also not a linear process – sometimes it’s optimal to reduce the size. For example, in the 2021 Peruvian elections, minimum interest and capacity from the political parties to engage in technical issues meant that think tank efforts had to be scaled back.

Locally led, rather than a donor-imposed, justification for scale was important 

The moral and technical justification to replicate or adapt these projects in different country contexts came from the local think tanks themselves. It wasn’t a foreign donor-imposed initiative. This also meant that those who took on the projects were accountable for their justification; in part, because they had a stake to play in the outcomes (which included possible backlash from increasingly polarized political contexts).

We cannot predict if or when other think tanks in other countries will decide that they should develop a similar project. The context in many countries is not conducive enough: Venezuela and Nicaragua are two extreme cases.

Partnerships and coalitions were essential 

Nearly all the think tanks in this story worked in partnerships and coalitions within the national context. And scaling would not have happened without coordination between think tanks across the region. Funding and networking facilitated by IDRC, ODI, CIPPEC, TTI and OTT made it possible for think tanks to help each other and share their experiences.

Trust is very important. Grupo Faro was a small organisation when they approach CIES for guidance. It helped that they belonged to the same community that ODI and CIPPEC had been nurturing. The Latin American network of think tanks that emerged from the TTI made sharing of ideas and information much easier, especially as many of the executive directors, researchers and communicators developed personal as well as professional relationships.

Core funding supported think tanks to evolve and scale 

Good ideas evolve. The experiences and the individual tools used by think tanks across the region share many common characteristics but are also very different from each other. 

TTI’s core funding made it easier for think tanks to decide, internally, if and how to implement their own versions of the original project.

Local organisations, with access to good ideas, funding and networks, will innovate and scale impact. They should be supported, trusted and encouraged to do so.