Undue influence: what is it, how is it exerted, and how to address it in the future?

11 September 2014
SERIES Funding for think tanks part one: domestic funding 15 items

The New York Times article on foreign funding of US think tanks has led to some interesting discussions. The article focuses on two interrelated aspects of this funding: their source and the mechanisms used. The former, I would argue, is not as important as the latter.

But it has also opened the door to an old discussion on think tanks’ independence. Tom Medvetz wrote an excellent response on the myth of independence that goes straight to the point: they rarely are -if they ever were.

A think tank could argue that as long as their funders have not say in what they study and how they use their findings, the source of funding should be of little concern. Short of taking money from corporations, governments, and individuals with serious and legal questions hanging over their heads, think tanks could seek support from anyone who is willing to offer it.

Ideally, too, they would avoid conflicts of interest: not taking money from those they are supposed to influence or monitor.

Unfortunately, for something think tanks, funding from the State and a few corporations is the only funding that is available. They must rely on a diversification strategy and transparency to ensure that their credibility remains intact.

Some may be able to go further: they could avoid heavy conditions from their funders, refuse commissions, and introduce clauses into the contracts they sign that give them complete control over their research.

But for think tanks in developing countries, where funding from domestic sources is limited and difficult to secure, avoiding foreign funding is a significant challenge. What has been presented in the US as a scandal, is a common practice for developing country think tanks.

In this context, the question of undue influence is hardly ever mentioned. It is assumed that because foreign funders are primarily driven by a desire to reduce poverty in the developing world the terms of their support cannot be challenged or questioned. After all, they want what is best for the poor; think tanks are no more than a mechanisms, a pawn, to achieve their objectives.

Funders that support think tanks do not see these organisations as valuable in their own right. They are valuable as long as they are useful in advancing the policies that their funders believe to be lead to their preferred outcomes. This is true to every funder anywhere.

Even funders that offer institutional support (and who do not ask (too many) questions about what the money is used for) are not free from this. First of all, institutional support, after all, is not all they offer: research funds come with a pre-approved agenda; the high level events they organise have been carefully designed to respond to the current minister’s ideologically driven interests and promises; the large research programmes that provide long term opportunities for researchers also follow fixed agendas; all funding is conditioned to theories of change and plans for influencing policy; etc. These are sometimes subtle but many. And together, they can be quite convincing: influence your governments to support our policies if you want our funds.

Secondly, institutional support serves a purpose. It is part of a broader ‘theory of change’: stronger think tanks will improve public policy by making it more informed. If they thought they could inform public policy by other means, they would.

Foreign funding of think tanks

Think tanks in developing countries are routinely funded by foreign governments. The following list describes a number of mechanisms used; some of these can be used to exert undue influence, other give think tanks more space:

  • Institutional grant: There are not that popular but recently, initiatives such as the Think Tanks Fund and later the Think Tank Initiative and KSI in Indonesia, have given this approach greater attention. This mechanism, with differences between funders, involve the think tanks developing their own plans and seeking funding to support them. There are, in some cases, some conditions (e.g. not using the funds to purchase real-estate or build new offices) but by and large the think tanks are more or less in control. If used properly (by the think tanks, I mean) they can change things around giving think tanks an edge over other funders.
  • Accountable grants: Some think tanks have managed to secure accountable grants from foreign governments. These grants are less prescriptive than regular contracts but cannot be used for just about anything. There is a formal understanding between the funder and the think tank that the funds will be used to support or entirely fund a particular project or effort. Think tanks can maintain their intellectual autonomy in these cases -although not all do.
  • Direct think tank led contracts: Foreign governments can’t just hand over grants. So they must employ other mechanism. A preferred approach is to pay for projects that fall under service contacts or consultancies. In these cases the think tank is the service provider and the service is offered to a third-party (anything from ‘the public’ to policymakers who are meant to be informed or influenced). Different funders will demand different things; increasingly, funders are demanding that these projects are intended to achieve some kind of influence over government and other political actors.
  • Direct funder led contracts: This is a more straight forward consultancy. Here, the funder wants a service delivered for itself or for a ‘partner’ (e.g. a local government). Think tanks get hired to undertake research or analysis that responds to questions posed by the funder. The think tanks can be chosen through open or closed procurement processes depending on the size of the contract. Think tanks are able to maintain their intellectual autonomy if they are able to negotiate appropriate terms of reference but could find their capacity to publish the results limited. By and large, though, government funders do not tend to be concerned about findings being used in other publications.
  • Indirect grants: A good way to get around the problems of grant-making is to set up a large programme or fund managed by a consultancy firm, think tank, University or NGO (or a coalition of some or all of them) that can then provide grants to think tanks. Unless the fund has been set up to provide institutional funding (e.g. TTI is one such programme) then the thematic agenda will no doubly be set by the funder (or funders). Think tanks will need to make sure that their research interests match those of the fund’s -which will have been defined a few years in advance when the business case for the fund was being developed. Yes, it can take a couple of years for a funding mechanisms to reach the think tanks and, although research needs may come and go in that time, this may not be reflected in the funding mechanisms itself.
  • Indirect grants -consultancies: Indirect grants managed by consultancies deserve special attention. Since some of these funds are quite large, donor governments then to hire large consultancy firms like KPMG, PWC, ASI, and others to manage them. So, for example DFID signs a contract with a consultancy and then it (managing the fund) will sign the contracts with the think tanks. The fund is rarely set up as an independent organisation and is instead dealt with as a project of the management contractor. This presents additional concerns: think tanks need to be concerned about the conditions set by the original funders as well as those set by the fund’s managers. And these, the conditions set by consultancy firms, should scare any think tank. The intellectual property clauses, as one example, tend to be dangerously close to censorship. We’d be wrong to accuse the consultancy, though. By their own nature they cannot take risks with think tanks, who, by their own nature, too, are likely to rock the boat and challenge the status quo.
  • Indirect contracts: This is another mechanism that could also involve consultancies. Unlike the granting programme or fund, this is a project with clear policy or service deliver objectives in which the think tank has been subcontracted to deliver a very specific service. This service could include many things depending on the project. For instance, DFID and the EU likes to develop and fund large multi-country and multi-actor research policy consortia. These are supposed to be collaborations between organisations (including think tanks) to undertake research with the explicit purpose of influencing international and, mostly, national policy. In these consortia, usually a northern based consultancy/think tank/university/NGO manages the contract and subcontracts consultancies/think tanks/universities/NGOs in developing countries to implement the project locally. Commonly, all participants are expected to undertake similar research, follow similar protocols, aim for similar policy objectives, and progress at about the same speed. I have yet to find a case where the local think tanks have led and where the local think tanks chose the global manager. Inevitably, given the procurement design, the northern based wanna-be manager seek-out its preferred subcontractors to build them into the proposals.
  • Conference participation support: One thing I’ve always noticed after years of attending conferences is how unbalanced the participation is in favour of US and European based researchers, practitioners and policymakers. Invariably, panels tend to be manned (often with men) by ‘experts’ from a handful of donor bodies, universities or organisations. Key note speakers belong to the alumni networks of a few institutions: universities, donors, and think tanks. Since the events are held in English, they have an obvios advantage. Cost, too, is a limiting factor. Few think tanks can afford to send their researcher to far flung places without the support of a grant from a donor or as part of one of the projects mentioned above. Who do you think will get the fully-paid invitation: the researcher who is all for conditional cash transfers or the one who has some reservations about them? the one whose love for randomised control trials is unstoppable or the one who prefers to have an open relationship with a few methods depending on the situation?

Think tanks may or may not use these funding mechanisms in conjunction to manage an acceptable degree of intellectual autonomy. Not all are able, however.

What should the future look like?

There are two elements to this answer. First, we should address the source of funding, and second, the mechanism of funding.

An argument made many times through On Think Tanks is that funding needs to be increasingly domestic. Think tanks are political actors and must therefore be accountable to their own political community. Foreign funding opens up a number of questions about the sovereignty of national polities and governments.

Domestic funding, however, need not all be from domestic sources. We’ve got to be creative. One source of domestic funding, the ideal, is from a strong domestic philanthropic community. Even politically motivated groups and private interests are better than foreign ones. As long as the flow of money is transparent, we should not worry much about its source. And in any case, think tanks are political actors like all others. We should not be shocked to find out they are. Foreign philanthropists and donors are simply too far removed from local politics. They may be good for think tanks but they aren’t necessarily good for the political system.

Another excellent source is the State, ideally through institutional funds, independent from politics and channeled, for the most part towards universities. Think tanks can benefit from these funds indirectly.

But, foreign funders can get involved only not directly. In my view, the bulk of their funding should support national or sub-national research funds. Maybe funds that pool together public, private and foreign funds to support domestically-set research agendas.

To cement all this, think tanks will need to work together to develop their own or their community’s own capacity to negotiate better terms of reference with their funders.

They will also have to focus their influencing efforts on their current and future funders; on their national procurement systems and their civil society legislation; on their national research funds and innovation systems. In fact, what better use of institutional funds than this? Rather than short term gains, think tanks that benefit from institutional funding could focus their attention on improving the situation for all think tanks in their country.

Surely, foreign funders cannot be expected to fund them forever… nor should they be funding them in the first place, or so the NYT would argue.