Transparency for think tanks: the latest fashion or an urgent reform?

22 November 2014
SERIES Think tanks and transparency

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Orazio Bellettini, Executive Director of Grupo FARO in Ecuador. It presents ideas and reflections generated on the panel “From Research to Impact, from Transparency to Independence” included in the Second Latin American Think Tanks Summit organized by the Getulio Vargas Foundation and the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) from the University of Pennsylvania. As Transparify is about the start rating think tanks once again, Orazio Bellettini reflects on the future of transparency for think tanks.]

On September 7, 2014 a newspaper published the article “Foreign powers buy influence at think tanks”. You might think that this would be the headline of a radical and nationalist newspaper denouncing imperialist intervention. But the newspaper in question was The New York Times, who was enquiring about the independence of the research conducted by US think tanks that are financed by foreign funds. As expected, the news sparked an intense debate in the community of think tanks, the media and public policy makers about the relationship between funding and the independence of think tanks.

As we know, think tanks are important institutions because they conduct analysis and generate evidence-based proposals that inform and, in some cases, change the way of thinking, and often, the decisions of people, public institutions and societies as a whole. Several of the most prestigious think tanks base their credibility on the rigurosity of their research and their independence from interest groups.

On the other hand, we know that think tanks are funded by individuals, businesses, public institutions and international cooperation agencies. Funding from the aid agencies is often assumed neutral, but this is not always the case. Many of the contributors to think tanks have, as is reasonable to expect, certain value-based preferences, political views and interests. And think tanks, by not making their funding sources public, provide arguments for those who distrust of the independence and credibility of their research.

How transparent are think tanks?

In 2014, the Transparify initiative, promoted by the Open Society Foundation, published its first report in which it analysed the financial transparency of 169 think tanks in various regions of the world.

Transparify awarded 5 stars, the highest rating, to those organizations whose financial information is two clicks or less away from the front page and provides details about each of its donors, the amount received and the research project funded by these resources. The initiative allocates 4 stars to think tanks who show most of the relevant information, with anonymous donors being less than 15% of the total budget. Finally, think tanks are awarded 3-1 stars if they only share partial information; and 0 to organizations that do not publish relevant information or updates on the origin of their funds.

According to Tranparify, among the 169 think tanks surveyed, only 21 are highly transparent (5 stars), another 14 have significant levels of transparency (4 stars), 13 think tanks receiving 3 stars, 70 received 2 stars, and 30 only 1 star. The remaining 21 think tanks have no information about the source of their funding. The average for this group of 169 think tanks is 2.2 stars and the 11 think tanks in South America that were studied received an average rating of 1.8 stars. The results are similar to those found by Enrique Mendizabal in his analysis of another cohort of think tanks in Latin America. This means that on average, think tanks publish only some information about their donors but without disclosing the amounts received from each.

Transparency for think tanks: the latest fashion or an urgent reform?

Proponents of transparency support it with several promises: more funding, more opportunities to build partnerships with other sectors, more credibility in think tanks recommendations, and, ultimately, more impact.

However, it is important to recognise that transparency poses several difficulties. First, there are countries where publishing the salaries of researchers may place them at risk of kidnapping or extortion. Additionally, since some of the contributors are individuals and organisations who do not want to make their donations known, there is the argument of protecting people’s right to privacy. Finally, there is the argument that if a think tank ensures rigor in the way it conducts its research, the level of transparency regarding the sources of funding should not compromise their independence.

Beyond the pros and cons, it seems necessary to ask if transparency is just a hot topic or if it is part of that group of institutional reforms that contribute to increasing the credibility and, ultimately, the impact of think tanks.

Without analysing the validity of the claims in the article published by the NYT or of the criticism of governments in various countries to the independence of think tanks, it seems clear that transparency has a technical dimension (information about the origin and mode of funding) but also a political dimension related to the trust of the public opinion which directly affects the ability of think tanks to fulfill their mission of bringing together various sectors of society and being listened by different governments, thus informing public policy.

We know that receiving resources does not automatically compromise the independence of a think tank, and we also know that publishing the financial information does not make one immune to accusations of conflicts of interest.

What seems to be true in societies that increasingly value information is that if think tanks want to remain relevant actors capable of enriching the public debate, becoming the promoters of spaces where different sectors of society come together, as well as supporting the implementation of reforms with social and political support, they must build the trust and credibility of different sectors of society.

It will be very difficult to achieve this without transparency of the source of the resources and the quality of their research processes. This is the way in which think tanks will succeed in their role as promoters of pluralistic, democratic and prosperous societies.

For a quick and dirty Transparify-like review of the think tanks present at the meeting, please see here:Latin American think tanks -how transparent are they?