Think tanks are on the agenda in India: Skills, Scale and Speed

30 July 2014

My Google Alerts have been busy with news of calls for more and better think tanks in India. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office the web has been bursting with opinions and responses to this statement:

“the input of intellectual think tanks” should be substantially enhanced for better policy frameworks.

Last year I spent a week in Beijing with Chinese think tanks. Back then, the consensus among all those meeting in the first Chinese think tanks conference was that China needed more and better think tanks. This was also the call made by others in China. In 2012 I wrote:

Hu Yongii of China Daily has written an article on how the period of transition that the Chinese government is currently undergoing has expanded Chinese think tanks’ role, by being more frequently consulted by government officials and agencies. Think tanks offer advice on their specialty subject to the National People’s Congress, and they also propose innovative ideas for local governments to implement policies and to apply said policies to other parts of the country if possible.

So now it is India’s turn. And no other than her new Prime Minister has made the call.

In a new book he recently published, Getting India Back on track – an action agenda for reform, he said that:

universities should be actively involved in research and analysis of the developmental process, to contribute in the best possible way for policy-related decisions.

In doing so, Narendra Modi recognises that think tanks (and policy research centres in general) can give India a competitive advantage over its competitors; particularly, China, who has already committed down this route.

The Hindustan Times reports:

On the day Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi arrived in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India would need to work on “skill, scale and speed” if it hoped to compete with its northern neighbour.

By Skill, he meant investments in universities and int he capacity to train people in the future: teacher training, in other words. We tend to forget about this when we discuss the impact of think tanks. One of the most important contributions they can make is not directly on politics but ‘sideways’ across society.

By Scale, he meant big ideas; bullet train rather than minibus. There is a balance that has to be struck here, of course. How useful is an aerospace programme in India? Well, quite a lot if it is used properly. Large initiatives may seem too far removed from the problems that ordinary people face but they can create opportunities for research and development that may not otherwise be possible.

By Speed, he referred to the manner in which decisions were made. Here it is worth citing him:

 he referred to the slowness of decision-making and policy implementation in India.

“Files moving in the government,” he said half-seriously, “are driven by a special fuel that not only makes them move slowly but sometimes even slip into reverse gear.”

Think tanks can be a rather cost-effective way to kick-start a new development process. They were instrumental in democratisation processes in Latin America and Eastern Europe, have played central roles in policy revolutions in the UK (e.g. with Thacherisms and New Labour) and the US (e.g. in Roosevelt’s welfare reforms, Johnson’s own, and more recently in both George W Bush and Obama’s electoral successes). They have been given a central role in China and now in India.

But to do so they will need more than encouragement from the Prime Minister.

Back in 2012, Samar Verma and Anshu Bharadwaj, argued that India was freezing out policy research:

The Indian Council for Social Science Research () is India’s premier government agency for promoting social science research; its present funding is just Rs 51 crore. In real terms, funding to ICSSR for the period 2005-06 to 2009-10 actually declined by seven per cent!

The ICSSR supports 25 social science research institutions, and the average grant per institute shrank by 17 per cent in real terms over the five-year period ending 2009-10. It is no surprise that these institutions are becoming increasingly dependent on international foundations. For example, the International Development Research Centre-managed Think Tank Initiative programme’s total annual grant to nine selected Indian think tanks itself is approximately Rs 16 crore, which is nearly half of what ICSSR provides to its 25 research institutes in India!

Let us compare this with the situation of social science research in China. The budget for social sciences, including for teaching and research, has been increasing by about 15-20 per cent every year since 2003. The Chinese government has assessed social sciences as being as important as the natural sciences for the country’s progress. According to the China country paper by Huang Ping in the Unesco ‘World Social Science Report’, never before have social sciences had such an impact on China’s social policy and social change.

They called for a more active role from domestic industry and philanthropy which has not been supportive of policy research. But this is easier said that done. Think tanks, in India and elsewhere do not excel at fundraising outside their usual networks of development agencies, bilaterals, NGOs, and government agencies. In an article about Gateway House’s funders, a think tank that has its origins in private industry and philanthropy in India, a useful explanation is offered: think tanks struggle to make a case for themselves:

The benefits from funding a research institution have been less visible.

The what’s-in-it-for-me question has often been upfront and for corporate donors at least, often unanswerable. “The stance of many corporates towards this funding has been: what will this buy me in terms of influence?,” says the head of a research institution. “Most corporates take the view that they have their own channels of policy influence anyway, they don’t need think tanks.”

Maybe the arguments presented by Modi will help them to develop their own ‘value proposition’.