‘Tourist’ funders are unhelpful when supporting and evaluating think tanks

22 May 2013
SERIES Funding for think tanks part one: domestic funding 15 items

I’ve been in Peru for the last couple of weeks working on several projects related to think tanks: helping to establish a think tank focused on forestry based on a series of blogs I wrote, organising a national think tanks award, and getting to know a bit more of the local think tank scene.

For a number of reasons, this time around I haven’t yet been in touch with my usual contacts. Instead, I’ve been exploring the local scene via connections with political journalists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, policymakers, and politicians. This has led me to reflect about a few issues that have been at the back of my mind for the last few months.

It is a very small world, after all… and it is looking the wrong way

There are quite a few think tanks in Peru. More than many people think there are. Here is a list of about 40 organisations that could use the label. But few know both what think tanks are and any of the organisations in that list. Some of the Peruvian think tanks that enjoy great popularity among donors and international development researchers in the US or Europe are unknown to Peruvians working in policymaking bodies, the private sector, well-known political publications, and local philanthropists.

I found something similar in Zambia. The think tanks that were well-known to international development industry workers in Lusaka and the UK were virtually unknown to journalists and business leaders.

While foreign funders may not be ‘forcing’ think tanks to work on what they want them to work on (and, arguably, that is what happens in some contexts) I think it is safe to say that many organisations are busier engaging with global development discussions than with local political debates. This focus on processes happening outside their own political space limits their interactions with other local institutions and this has the effect of isolating them further (further than what think tanks already are by their own nature as elite organisations).

Proof of influence is only necessary when funders are not there

When I ask think tanks in the UK about how the measure their influence I am faced with a blank stare.

‘Measure?’ Sure, how do your funders know that you are influential? ‘Well, they just know’.

And this is true. Funders know who is influential and who isn’t because they are part of the same political scene that the think tanks they fund are part of. Think tank funders fund think tanks because they want to influence politics (and policies). By funding them they are making calculated choices about what to do with their money, who to give it to, when, etc.

So when they fund think tank it is because they know how influential they are. And just as they know before they fund them they would also know if they ceased to be influential -or if they became even more so.

But when it comes to foreign donors this situation is different. A foreign funder, working out of London, Washington, Ottawa, Brussels or Canberra, is not part of the political scene where it is sending its funds. It does not know who is influential and who isn’t. It has to rely on local offices staffed by people who spend just a few years in each country and, for the most part, socialise with other expats (there are of course exceptions to this) or consultants who undertake, often during short visits to the country, context or stakeholder analyses that cannot replace the tacit local knowledge about power and politicians, journalists, and anyone who really lives there has.

Foreign funders are like tourists that need to rely on guides written by other travellers or local ‘guides’ who filter what they should and shouldn’t know about the countries they are visiting. Worse still, they are risk-adverse tourists. They are not the off the beaten track kind of tourist but rather the kind that spends months on Tripadvisor before choosing a hotel or restaurant. They are the kind who bring their own water and packed lunches to the day tours they have booked weeks in advance via their local travel agent.

And because these foreign and detached funders cannot ‘just know’ who is influential in a country half-way across the world they resort to asking for proof (of the kind they may get from travel advice fora and rating agencies). And this proof translates into the kind of evaluation of impact that takes so much of our and of think tanks’ time.

Making funding local

The nature of funding is critical. One solution for all this is to make funding local by setting up a local research fund (other solutions include funding tertiary education systems). Instead of large (or small) vertical funds (which is how most think tanks in developing countries are getting their funds), foreign funders should take the initiative in setting up locally managed and led research funds.

Their funds could be pooled together (even a single funder like DFID that funds several think tanks through a number of initiatives: research consortia, contracts, the Think Tank Initiative, etc. could try to coordinate things a bit better) into a fund managed by a locally appointed board (representing local institutions: academia, the media, political parties, the private sector, civil society) and secretariat.

A well-managed fund (and there is no reason why it is necessary to hire a foreign consultancy firm to do this: even some of the poorest countries have successfully managed businesses: responsible and effective) could attract other sources of funding. In fact, the fund could be set up in coordination to the State. Other donors and even local foundations could be encouraged to contribute to it.

My guess is that as soon as the ‘funder’ becomes local think tanks will begin to pay greater attention to local processes and agendas and they will open new channels of engagement with a greater range of domestic social, political, and economic actors. The wold of think tanks will inevitably open up.

And as a consequence of this refocus of their attention, the question of influence will have to change. No longer will foreign agents, many of whom have never even been to the countries funded by their projects, have to demand proof of influence. The local fund will know. How? Well, it will just know.

An update

This post received a comment on Facebook from Andrej Nosko, at the Think Tank Fund, that I thought was worth including in this post and attempting to respond to:

Enrique very helpful questions getting to the point. I was just wondering whether influence should be the ultimate goal. In a complex domestic policy scene relevance might be worth more than influence (which can be based on other factors than quality policy research). I like the idea of local research fund but am weary of other problems that it could bring for example of the conflict of interest (clique of insiders equally disconnected from local community). Finally the design of the local fund would need to take into account the vanity of donors and their desire to be seen mainly outside (attribution rather than just contribution) as having impact in the local community

I think Andrej’s reflection on influence is correct. Influence should be an ultimate goal and other more immediate ones need t be given more attention. Particularly, it is important to focus on the organisations themselves a bit more. Are they properly staffed, resources, governed, managed, etc.

His second point related to the problems of a fund. I agree that there are huge problems with big funds. But I should have clarified that I did not mean to suggest that this would the only way for think tanks to access funding  -in fact, a research fund would most likely fund universities.

The point of a fund is that it gets donors, governments and local philanthropists into the practice of working with each other, of funding think tanks (and research in general), and of developing local funds.

It also gets think tanks and researchers more generally into the practice of engaging with a local funder instead of multiple foreign funders.

It may be strange for all at first, and mistakes will definitely be made (including it all becoming a clique or having some biases) but it is important that these are incorporated into a learning process.

I would expect that new local initiatives will emerge -out of a sense of competition and emulation. Maybe the ‘right’ will set up its own fund; and so the ‘left’ will do the same. And in response, the centre, will set something up, too. Or maybe the old fights of the left and the right will be left for the ballot box and political opponents will learn to work together in these new spaces.

Andrej last point is spot on. Yes, such an approach will need to address the vanity of donors. No longer will they be able to say that ‘their think tanks’ have done this or that. But I think that many of the recommendations that this blog has made over the last couple of years  face the same challenge.