Think tanks in Latin America: what are they and what drives them?

28 January 2013
SERIES Think tanks: definition and terminology 17 items

Think tanks are nothing new in Latin America. When, in 1790, the Sociedad Académica de Amantes del País was founded in Lima, the first think tank in the continent was also possibly established. The Sociedad became a space where colonial Peruvian intellectuals would meet to discuss and publish their ideas in the form of dissertations and, later on, through the famous Mercurio Peruano, published between 1791 and 1794.[Note]This essay was first published in Spanish in Foreign Affairs Latin America: [/note]

Since then, the region’s Republican history has seen the formation and development of a great number of think tanks emerging from intellectual reflection and political action. And in the last decades of the past century the number of think tanks has significantly increased.

These new think tanks share the objectives of Sociedad Académica de Amantes del País to explain the social, political and economic situation of their countries as well as in a commitment to the search for change in the policies and practices of several public and private actors.

The origin of Latin American think tanks, then, is found in Politics (with a capital P) but its development has been affected by a great number of factors that have, in different contexts and historical moments, generated an equally large number of classes or families of think tanks that live side by side in a political–intellectual space.

Think tank families in Latin America

The concept, and the fact that it is a term in English, is not accepted by all the organisations that can be described as think tanks. By think tank I’m referring to a very diverse group of organisations that have as their main objective to influence, be it in a direct or indirect manner, the ideas, policies, relationships, and practices of other political actors, public or private (we can also consider think tanks oriented to inform about corporate practices but that is not within the scope of this essay). For that they perform a number of functions such as attempting to establish or form the public agenda, create spaces for debate, train future political and/or technocratic cadres, legitimise and/or audit political, economic, and social policies and actors, educate the informed elites, and even mobilise human and financial resources for political parties and other interest groups.  The label demands that the organisations inform their arguments with research – or that at least they look to legitimise their participation with credentials of intellectual rigor, real or not.

I am not going to list all of the think tanks in Latin America in this essay, nor attempt to rate them, but here there are some examples of the centres I am following these days (which is not a judgement on others) –I invite you to look them up online to see the great diversity and richness among them: the Centro de Implementación para las Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento  (CIPPEC, Argentina), Grupo FARO (Ecuador), the Corporación de Estudios para Latinoamérica (CIEPLAN, Chile), FEDESARROLLO (Colombia),  the Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental (SPDA, Peru), the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (IPEA, Brasil), Fundación Idea (Mexico), Centro de Investigaciones Económicas Nacionales (CIEN, Guatemala), Asuntos del Sur (Chile, Argentina), and CEPAL (Latin America).

These centres belong to several organisational families, some of which, we do not always recognise as think tanks: NGOs, centres for academic research, research consultants, political or partisan research centres, certain political groups, guilds, professional colleges, chambers of commerce or international organisations, and interest groups, to mention a few. Not all, it must be said, recognise or label themselves as think tanks. In fact, many of the organisations today that have adopted the label have done it simply because their main donors seem to be only interested in financing think tanks.

There are many who behave more like non-governmental organizations (NGOs) than research centres and yet still fulfil all of the functional and organisational characteristics of the centres recognised as think tanks in other parts of the world. This is explained in part by their origin from organised civil society and in part by the type of financing and the support they receive from their involvement with certain international and local NGO networks. In some cases, these are think tanks that began their days as service providers or advocacy campaigns –many times from a human or environmental rights perspective. In time, they have adapted to changes in the terms of the public debate and the demands of the international cooperation on which they ultimately depend, and in the process have adopted think tank characteristics: for example, the production of studies and analyses and the participation in spaces where technical credentials are worth more than claims of representation. The SPDA in Peru, which doesn’t define itself as a think tank, is a member of this family.

Another think tank family comes from, and in many cases has stayed in, academia. The majority resist adopting the label –and with some reason. Many, especially those that remain within universities, must balance some of the think tank functions that are more oriented towards influence with their pedagogical responsibilities. Presenting themselves as think tanks, with all that it implies, could create tensions that may affect the universities’ educational and research functions. Others, however, are comprised of researchers that, in search of better income opportunities or more freedom, away from the administrative and pedagogical responsibilities that universities impose, established or joined independent centres that approach the ideal of the university without students. A few good examples of this family include FEDESARROLLO and CIEN.

Unfortunately, the lack of long term institutional financing for this type of organisation has turned some into another type of think tank that is very common in developing countries: the (not-for-profit) research consultancy. This model reflects the sector´s dependence on international cooperation. These think tanks, especially in countries where cooperation has played a historically important role, specialise in long and short term research projects under the modality of service contracts. As a consequence, the space that they have to define and follow their own agendas greatly depends on the personal relationships between the researchers and their sponsors, usually officials from cooperation agencies, and is thus highly uncertain in the long term.

This type of think tank is characterised above all by the promotion of a technocratic image that attempts to argue that the ‘evidence speaks for itself’. Its dependence on cooperation makes active political practice, understood as openly ideological, not impossible but hard, and that is why they tend to stay away from the political in favour of the purely intellectual debate. However, it is common in Latin America to see some researchers from these centres move from think tanks to the government, ‘brought in’ by political leaders to serve as ministers or political advisors in search of a multi-partisan independent image. This is common in nearly all countries.

Another group that tries to keep itself at the margin of public political debate is the one comprised of public research centres; either as a part of or affiliated to state entities. Most are oriented towards hard science, military studies and foreign policy, macroeconomic or financial analysis and regulation. They are generally not recognised as think tanks by their peers in the private sector or by the international cooperation, even when it’s the latter that finances some of their activities. This is an important model that is commonly left aside in think tank studies at the global level. James McGann, for example, has only recently included them in his criticised global think tank list. Researchers wrongly assume that a think tank cannot exist within the state apparatus. They do not consider that this assumption would eliminate from the analysis a sizable part of European, Indian and Chinese think tanks; and several in Brazil. IPEA, for example, is a member of this family of think tanks.

There are in Latin America, however, clearly political think tanks, openly ideological and even with partisan affiliations. This is clearly observed, unsurprisingly, in countries with more developed and stable political systems. Chile, Uruguay and Colombia are commonly mentioned in this group. In these countries it is not hard to identify partisan think tanks interested in discourse as well as in results; in political arguments as well as in technical viability.

The main difference between these centres and more technocratic institutions is how formal their relationship is with other political actors. In this case, it is the political centres themselves that enjoy the political association. In the technocratic institutions’ case, on the other hand, ties do exist but they are mainly informal and personal: between researchers, politicians and experts that, for example, belong to the same networks or socioeconomic groups.

Closer to the political think tanks than to the technocratic institutions, due to their origin and funding sources, are those centres focused on topics of little interest for international cooperation: for example, defence and international relations; and those recently established think tanks that promote new debate on the legalization of drugs in the region, like Asuntos del Sur. These think tanks combine their academic orientation in their studies and publications with clearly political and lobbying strategies that demand a closer relationship with the power elite. Generally in Latin America as in other parts of the world, their researchers come from the spheres in which they want to make an impact: officials and diplomats in retirements or taking a break from their professional obligations.

Generally, the staff in this type of think tank, as in other parts of the world, belong to the political–intellectual and economic elites. Their main audiences are the educated political class that is found in political parties, state institutions, the media, civil society, academia, the private sector and a large number of interest groups.

Finally, there are in Latin America an important number of transnational think tanks. Institutions like CEPAL, RIMISP and even FLACSO, which have the same functions as national think tanks but have a regional vision: be it because they are interested in obtaining lessons and developing proposals in several countries, because they look for transnational solutions, or because they seek to make an impact on transnational actors such as cooperation agencies or groups such as Mercosur, the Andean Community or UNASUR.

It is also worth including in this last category those think tanks based in Canada, the United States and Spain (although other parts of the world could also be included) whose studies and initiatives have effects on the Latin American political–intellectual space; directly through actions targeted at local political actors or indirectly through their governments’ own politics.

Accelerating factors

Why is it that there are such differences even though we share a relatively common history, the same language, belong to the same regional professional networks, and face similar problems? The secret is in the way the differences in think tank origins have been accentuated by the manner in which a series of ‘accelerating factors’ have interacted with them and affected their development.

In a study on think tanks and political parties that I edited with Kristen Sample in 2009, we found a clear and long-lasting relationship between these two groups of organisations. For example, Luis Fernando Londoño found political publications with very similar characteristics to those that come from today’s more political think tanks and that played an important role in the formation of the Colombian republic in the middle of the 19th century. As politics became more formal and the public apparatus became more complex these publications became media outlets and later created a space for the formation of think tanks close to the main politicians and parties –and even factions within the parties.

This relationship with parties is clearer in societies where political institutions are stronger. In Chile, according to Adolfo Garcé, there are many more internal think tanks (13) than in Argentina (6), Mexico (5), Peru (3) or Bolivia (0). In the last two cases, it is even difficult to classify parties as such and not just as political groups.

For Garcé, like Martin Tanaka’s work in Peru also suggests, the key is in the level of institutionalisation of the political system and the political parties. Where there is higher institutionalisation, there are more opportunities for think tanks to form and develop.

However, it is difficult to identify the factors that have a positive effect on the formation and development of think tanks without having to accept that the relationship could very well be in reverse. For example, as the problems that governments face have become more complex, they have resorted to setting up more professional and technical public bodies and services. In turn, these new cadres create new demands for information and technocratic support from outside of the public sector. But we could also argue that it was the formalisation and development of think tanks outside the state that promoted the professionalisation of technical and political cadres. It is more likely that this is, like in the case of political parties, an example of co-emergence

Educational development also plays an important role. Chile’s investment in higher education and research in social sciences for at least two decades before Pinochet´s coup in 1973 can explain the high number of think tanks in that country. Jeffrey Puryear has described how military repression led many university-based researchers to create new organisations, think tanks, under the Catholic Church’s protective mantle, the international cooperation, and other organisational models. The role of academia is obvious: they provide the researchers that think tanks need.

The Chilean case is important because it highlights a paradox of think tanks’ history in Latin America. Contrary to what is usually assumed regarding the causal role of democracy on their formation, it was actually the years of repression during the Pinochet government that saw the emergence of many new centres. These became a fundamental medium and space for the design and implementation of the resistance strategy. A resistance that happened for the most part in the political–intellectual space.

This interpretation of the events explains why many Latin American think tanks use highly “democratic” organisational models: governed by their own members, with decision–making committees, internal elections to elect leaders, etc. Think tanks that were created during authoritarian periods looked to promote democracy through example. This is a characteristic that I have found only in Latin America and in the first think tanks that appeared in some US cities in the last decades of the 19th century, where the model was based on citizen organisations of an ‘amateur’ nature.

However, it is unquestionable that democracy, or processes of political inclusion, have a positive effect on think tank formation. Orazio Belletinni and Adolfo Garcé coincide in this analysis. The opening of the political space that took place in Latin America in the 80s and 90s created spaces for new actors that came from academia or civil society to focus their efforts on making an impact on public policy with a more political emphasis and without the fear of repression. But this space was also taken advantage of by other private actors that in some cases recurred to these organisations in order to promote their own political and economic interests.

These changes are important for the study of think tanks since they signal an opportunity for intellectual renewal in the political–intellectual space. In Chile, the return to democracy weakened the think tanks that fought for it but created spaces and support for new leaders and think tanks to emerge, this time mostly associated to the right that was leaving power.

Transitions can have unexpected effects on think tanks, especially when they happen at the end of long periods during which a model or a group in power has ruled over all others. In Great Britain, the electoral political cycle comes accompanied with the formation and closure of dozens of centres creating a community in constant search of ideas and new styles and ways of communicating with the public and politics. This renewal is part of the process and is expected by its participants.

And it is precisely when there is a conflict in the political–intellectual relations that think tanks are in higher demand. Therefore, it is at points of great transition when think tanks face their biggest challenges. The transition from class politics to identity politics that has happened in Bolivia, according to Rafael Loayza Bueno, has been costly for parties and think tanks anchored in the traditional model. The political–intellectual terms of exchange determine the elements that are acceptable in the construction of those arguments that think tanks produce and communicate. Cold evidence cannot still be relied upon when the debate has moved towards the field of values and identity.

The processes of economic liberalisation in Latin America saw movement in the opposite direction: from values to evidence as the main elements for the construction of political arguments. During the years in which the Washington Consensus took hold in the region, many economic think tanks were bestowed with important contracts and scholarships from the World Bank, the IMF, and other agents interested in the adoption of this policy package. One can thus say that the driving force wasn’t liberalisation per se but the effort to liberalise: some think tanks, on this occasion, acted as the political–intellectual pawns of national and international economic interests.

In this sense, more technocratic think tanks managed to close the space to the more overtly ideological organisations and changed the terms of political–intellectual exchange. Participation in the formulation of policy became more and more the right of technocrats and experts. This situation isn’t completely different from what happened in Chile during Pinochet when the technocratic option wasn’t prohibited, but the political option was. Something similar occurred in Fujimori´s Peru during the 90s. And in Argentina, where economic policy went through a type of privatisation in which public experts (from parties or civil society) lost influence in comparison with private experts (from consultancies or international organisations and their researchers) during the same period.

The international component cannot be left aside as an explanatory factor of the formation and development of think tanks in Latin America –although it plays a lesser role than what is observed in Africa, for example. For Kelly Bay, Cecilia Perla and Richard Snyder, there is no doubt that research in social sciences in Peru is highly dependent on international cooperation. And this happens in a context in which public financing in the region, according to Martín Lardone and Marcos Roggero, is limited and uncertain. Only in some countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, is there less dependency on foreign sources and it doesn’t limit the formation of new centres. However, in countries like Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia, the availability of international cooperation financing, which has in fact withdrawn from the region, defines a sort of ceiling for the creation and development of think tanks. The ones that have managed to develop in the last few years have done so by exploiting initiatives from some still active donors in the region or appealing to limited private sector support and interest and a more professional public sector that demands more information and consultancy services.

In conclusion, the image that emerges in my studies of think tanks in Latin America and other parts of the world is that what matters the most for the creation and development of think tanks is the level of institutionalisation of other spaces of fields of society: academia, the public sector, the political system, the market, the media, and civil society in general –including the presence of a philanthropic and cultural class. Societies that are more institutionalised across these different fields of society are more capable of renewal when the political–intellectual terms of exchange change: new think tanks emerge and those that remain focus on reform.

It is within these other groups of actors and spaces that think tanks find conditions and opportunities that maximise their contributions to society. Without this institutionalisation we can see what Bay, Perla and Snyder describe in the case of Peruvian academia, despite a few remarkable cases: many institutional affiliations, hyper–productivity, forced interdisciplinary work, parochialism, and an inevitably weak community of think tanks that is dependent on the unconditional support of international cooperation.

New changes in the terms of the political–intellectual exchange

In this context, of organisations with a high level of diversity and various forces that affect their development in unclear and unpredictable ways, what does the future hold for think tanks? In order to answer this it is important to identify what changes in the terms of exchange in the political–intellectual space are likely in the future.

A process that is already affecting the Latin American think tank community is the quick withdrawal of international development cooperation. It is inevitable that their funds are being diverted to areas where academic capacity is inferior and the needs of the population are more visible. The few funds that remain, with the exception of the Think Tank Initiative and some foundations like Ford, for example, now have many more conditions and expectations than before.

The effects of this withdrawal are important. First, it can generate opportunities for the research agenda to become more national and political –ideologically speaking. Second, the financing vacuum can be covered by public funds. The end result of these two possible changes on think tanks’ intellectual independence is uncertain.

In this context, too, it is not clear if the region will see the emergence of a new generation of philanthropists that fulfil their peers’ role in developed countries –and who recognise the power that think tanks can give to those who know how to use it. In Brazil, the Fundação Getulio Vargas, which is possibly the Latin American Brookings, is an example of what can be done. But some examples in Chile, Argentina, and even in Peru show that this possibility is not altogether unreachable.

Another change in the terms of exchange of the political–intellectual space that think tanks face today has to do with the possible fall of the hegemony of the academic model of knowledge creation and the dwindling importance of personal networks in financing and political impact. It is no longer inconceivable to suggest that the internet and the digital tools that it offers have changed the way in which we produce and access information, generate ideas, and participate in the public sphere.  In the last few years the traditional scientific research model has been criticised for its opacity and lack of interaction with the public. An important example is the criticism that has ben levelled at researchers involved in climate change studies.

In Europe and the United States, but to some degree in Latin America as well, the public is becoming used to the idea that very few thing, including research, can be done behind closed doors or in private.  The ease with which it is possible to access information through a simple internet search, for example, has reduced the patience that we give to our politicians and so-called experts. Sharing, rather than controlling, awards credibility in the new world.

Furthermore, citizens now expect better access to the political actors’ decision–making processes. We expect to be able to communicate with politicians, journalists, and experts without great difficulty. And we expect this communication to happen in different media and spaces –spaces defined by us and with terms of exchange in which users, and not decision–makers, have power.

The academic paper itself is under attack in Europe where researchers are taking serious advantage of the opportunities that the internet gives them. The London School of Economics has taken it so seriously that it has a research program dedicated to the subject.

This isn’t just an issue of changing communication spaces. In fact, the costs of entry to the world of ideas and political participation have been reduced significantly. What Latin American think tanks face now is the arrival of an endless number of new actors with the capacity to fulfil the same functions that we associate with them. And, unlike the old think tanks that have to learn to use these new spaces and participate in them, for these new actors the simultaneous co-production of knowledge and public exchange with different actors of society are everyday occurrences.  It is how they are being formed themselves.

Therefore these changes promise important effects on the Latin American think tank community. A new family, of virtual or digital think tanks, has already come to life in the US and in Great Britain where the concept is more developed. These have minimal costs of entry and exit to the sector, share roles and characteristics with organisations like the press, advocacy campaigns and social networks, and employ strategies and tools of research, management and communication that are virtually unknown by many of the think tanks in the region.

Once again, the level of institutionalisation of the political–intellectual space and the actors that participate in it will be what defines the capacity for renewal of think tanks in each country.