[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review. ]
Asia claims to have seen the biggest growth in think tanks over the past two
decades. Aside from standalone organisations, many research focused centres
are based within universities or are embedded in government departments. The complexity of public policy work across the region has encouraged evidence-based analysis and the development of practical solutions to a growing range of problems. Rapid economic growth has also encouraged new organisations to spring up.
Think tanks in this part of the world play a multifaceted role and carry out diverse activities. Some are very research-oriented, while some are more action-focused with strong advocacy and public participation components. Others do both – getting involved in actually implementing the evidence-based recommendations they promote. There has been an interesting trend of corporate sector bodies taking interest, especially in research where technology is involved. This has moved companies, trusts and foundations into the think tank space.
Aside from conducting research and developing reports to feed into policymaking processes, think tanks provide behind-the-scenes advisory services and capacity building, as well as constantly engaging with policymakers to understand what the government needs and helping to fill those gaps. Working in consortiums has also become an important activity.
Stories of policy influence
All this work has paid off. There have been many instances of think tanks successfully influencing policy process over the last few years. In Pakistan, for example, the Social Policy and Development Centre (SDPC) provided technical support to help strengthen the Sindh provincial government’s case for decentralising the collection of general sales tax on goods, from federal to local governments. This has boosted the income of provincial governments and is helping to decrease their dependence on federal government budgets. SDPC achieved this impact by developing a strong report on the issue, published in time for a key working group session. The report not only prompted debate, but also gave provincial authorities the tools they needed to argue their case more effectively, ultimately triggering an important process of reform.
In India, the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) was asked by the Kerala State Planning Board to help them draft a more gender-responsive budget for 2017-18. CBGA focused on scrutinising previous budgets from a gender perspective, devising actionable recommendations and providing direction for departments to become more gender-aware. In the coming years, this is expected to lead to an increase in budgetary priority for programmes and schemes designed for women and girls.
Think tanks continue to face challenges. Some have to do with rapid changes in the political and economic situation of different countries in the region, and by extension shifts in policy priorities, while others are more specific organisational issues, related to funding and human resources. In response, think tanks have had to adapt and come up with strategies to stay relevant. CBGA has chosen to invest in its communication efforts, with a particular focus on using social media platforms to get their messages heard. They have complimented this with a strong focus on relationship-building within key policy bodies and institutions.
As in other regions, securing predictable funding remains an issue, especially for research that spans beyond donor funding cycles. Working in consortiums has been a way to get around this. Think tanks have also started approaching the private sector for funding to fill gaps.
The lack of sufficient funds to hire, build capacity and retain staff continues to be a challenge. As a rule, most think tanks require researchers who are not only highly skilled, but who are also good managers and communicators, and who can respond and address topical issues that may be beyond their current area of focus. In some cases, organisations are struggling to find candidates that tick all these boxes. As a result, organisations who manage to find the right people are putting more effort into developing and motivating their staff so that they stay longer.
What will the coming years hold for think tanks in the region?
Think tanks in South Asia have matured and grown to become strong influencers. Some have oriented themselves to help address issues relating to public policy and others have become part of movements that support grassroot-level activities. Still others have emerged as leaders in their domain, seen as experts within government bodies.
There is likely to be a continued expansion in the range of activities (e.g. research, advocacy, advisory services) that think tanks undertake, as well as in the areas that they focus on. Addressing gender and environmental issues – including women’s empowerment, reducing violence, mitigating pollution and saving energy – are particularly topical in the region at the moment, with research-oriented bodies coming up with innovative contributions. In India, the use of solar vehicles to combat air pollution has become a primary activity. Creating ‘smart cities’ that are sustainable and meet the needs of the population is also becoming an area of focus for some think tanks.