‘Think tanks are becoming bland’

29 August 2011

Andy Williamson, writing for The Guardian offers an interesting view in the world of British think tanks. Does it offer a warning for think tanks elsewhere? According to Williamson, think tanks must be:

critical, imaginative, creative places where a culture of new ideas is backed up by rigorous research. Creating this kind of buzz is what makes a thinktank space special: lose it, and you become tired and boring. But what is the point of this without action? To put into practice the intellectual capital they generate, thinktanks need to become “do tanks”, and ensure rigour and intellectual stamina are not diluted.

This buzz is difficult to create -let alone sustain- for many think tanks. Often their researchers come from the academic world (donors like to fund academic research -but do not often realise that this is better funded in Universities, not in think tanks) and their mind-set is still closely influenced by it.  Letting go of one’s ideas, expressing an opinion, publishing anything before re research is completed are things that take time to get used to.

Williamson warns that the economic downturn has affected think tanks in the UK:

The economic downturn has seriously affected the ability of many thinktanks to fundraise and function effectively. Building the necessary depth in the research agenda has become nigh on impossible, with the focus being instead on short-term, opportunistic pieces, which is hardly strategic or motivating – one of the reasons I decided to leave my post as director of a political thinktank after almost four years.

Although he is not talking on ‘international development’ think tanks I can see the parallels. Money has not been as difficult to get hold of for the likes of ODI, IDS or IIED; or their southern counterparts in Africa and parts of Asia. But increasingly, although with the exception of those benefiting from TTI funds, this money is coming in the shape of consultancies (or long term contracts with very specific expectations on outputs and impact) rather than long term commitments to the organisations’intellectual buzz. Work there too has become short-term, opportunistic and often in-coherent (with no clear overall argument or big picture).

The problem, he warns, is not just in the think tanks themselves. The system shows some inherent flaws (or should we call them tensions?). He points out that to stand out -to remain relevant and attractive to funders:

Many stake out ideological positions. This gives you a platform, making you attractive to certain groups who might fund or promote your work – as long as your ideology is in fashion. As the tide inevitably turns, you must run for the middle ground: a rather overcrowded space. So we have seen IPPR and Demos proclaim neutrality – indeed Demos reinvented conservatism alongside a rise in right-of-centre thinktanks, setting the whole cycle up for the next shift, like some Japanese deer scarer.

He argues that the alternative to this ideological affiliation is to remain non-partisan -but is this possible? (and does he really mean, non-ideological?). Think tanks that choose this route may be:

Less hostage to fortune, you can focus behind the scenes, less swayed by popular (or populist) agendas. [But] Non-partisan generally means non-radical too; you can be perceived as a little bland. The upside of blandness is that you’re safer for institutional funders, such as government. So that’s good? Well, no, because it’s fickle. In fact, right now funding has evaporated.

This approach, which is the approach that many think tanks in the international development industry (northern and southern based) have chosen (actively or simply by default) has critical flaws:

The biggest flaw though is that it ties a hand behind your back, forcing you to plot a course between sufficiently vocal critique to be worth bothering with and not gnawing too hard on the paymaster’s hand. Pressure comes from management to soften findings and minimise any direct criticism of the funder. When you know you must go back to the same shrinking pool for your next round of funding, it makes maintaining independence challenging.

The he makes a point I’ve ben trying to articulate for some time. Even since I left ODI I’ve been traveling quite a bit. I’ve spent time in Africa, Asia, Latin America -many times working with and within think tanks. I’ve noticed that much of the research updates I get from the international development think tanks that I follow online or via twitter feels increasingly irrelevant to the day to day concerns of local policy communities. They feel more and more out of touch:

That’s usually because they are. After all, they deal with ideas – theory – not actually “doing”. But the problem is more nuanced. If the thinktank is well grounded with good connections, then applied theory-led but praxis-based research is the valuable long-term valuable model.

What is the solution for developing country think tanks, then?

Some come to mind:

  • Donors could try to mobilise (leverage) more domestic funding from private sectors or new generations of philanthropists.
  • ‘Northern international development think tanks’ (inevitably the gate keepers of the industry) could attempt to do less and focus more -maybe even making way for new competitors in the market of ideas. Their funders should challenge them on the relevance and usefulness of their recommendations more often than they do: saying that someone must be more strategic is not a valid recommendation -anyone could do it.
  • Where possible donors should consider if it may not be better to fund young and experienced researchers to do their work sitting in a local think tank instead of an expensive central london office. Sure they would not be known in the international circuits as much but their skills (if they have them) may the be able to focus on what is relevant to the countries that Aid is supposed to be helping rather than on what may be just interesting for them. (No need to pay too much for this, by the way, as more researchers and analysts should help drive the cost of research down.)
  • Donors should try to reward innovation and commitment. For example, look for initiatives developed by the think tank themselves and offer to fund them to do more of it or to do it better. In Zambia, where I am right now, the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection has developed a Basic Needs Basket that is published every month in 12 towns. This is a great conversation piece and demonstrates commitment. Support more of that. See what else they may be able to develop with the experience they now have. Don’t just call them up to do work that a bunch of researchers and policymakers though of in an office in London. They may do it because it pays (that is the nature of the business) but not because they really want to.