What are think tanks doing in South-East Asia? Insights from the Bangkok Forum

13 March 2017

The “Empowering Ideas: Think Tank Development Forum” took place in early February in Bangkok. Organised by World Learning and the Future Initiative Thailand Institute with support from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, and funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Citizen Exchanges,  the Forum brought together over 120 representatives from 18 countries, with the purpose of discussing think tank development and cooperation in the region. Participants included South- East Asian thinktankers, academics, practitioners, representatives of international organisations and policy makers, as well as think tank specialists from around the world.

On Think Tanks was invited to share its experience and knowledge about the think tank world in different sessions.

Let us share some of the key insights of the forum:

  • A wide range of organisations. The specialised literature has been discussing for decades the boundaries of the think tank label. In fact, the composition of participants in the Forum by and large reflected what being a think tank in South East-Asia means today. The event brought together a broad variety of institutions and organisations, all of them claiming the label “think tank”: from public policy research institutes to centres within universities (more academic oriented), and private sector foundations, as well as units within government. The diversity enriched the discussion, but underlined the importance of the key role think tanks must play (to deserve the think tank label): conducting policy research with the aim of influencing public decision making.
  • A mission for think tanks. Both days of the event were opened by speeches by high level former policy makers and politicians. Both speeches called on South-East Asian think tanks to be protagonists in South-East Asian politics and public life: “As the world gets more complex, it is important to come up with innovative policy ideas”, remarked Surin Pitsuwan, former ASEAN General Secretary. Moreover, think tanks in the room were asked to make explicit their values: “I dont believe public policy is ever value free. Public policy is not only about technical management issues: all policies reflect choices, and choices reflect values. Think tanks do not need to be shy about the values they represent. Make them explicit. There is no neutrality in issues where society needs to make a choice”, emphasized Abhisit Vejjajiva, Former Prime Minister of Thailand.
  • Hot topics. The forum was organised around sessions that covered a broad range of topics: from institution building and sustainability, through quality control, branding and messaging, fundraising, coalition building and networking, advocacy and policy impact. Some of the topics attracted more attention than others, and this provided an interesting picture of the main challenges now facing think tanks in the region:
    • Communications and digital. The interest that both the organisers and the think tanks have in these topics was reflected in the various sessions and workshops devoted to them: workshop and talks on engagement with the media, use of digital tools, marketing, branding and messaging, were delivered by international and regional journalists, academics, consultancy firms and think tanks.
    • Monitoring & Evaluation. Think tanks at the Forum demonstrated a keen interest in understanding the impact of their work. As an early stage of this debate, the discussion initially focused on the output level – activities such as appearances in media, followers in social media, and then gradually tackled the outcome level through methodologies such as bellwethers.
    • Funding and sustainability. Sustainability is one of the main concerns of South-East Asian think tanks. Specially, going beyond core funding and diversifying funding sources by bringing in new supporters such as private sector and contracting with government.

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Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning about policy influence: how to get some certainty amidst all the complexity
Writing to achieve policy impact
Re-thinking funding models

  • Room to increase collaboration (regional and overseas). South-East Asian think tanks want to learn from each other. This is what the “Building Think Tank Influence and Effectiveness” Program led by World Learning was about. This is reinforced by a strong sense of the need for more regional integration in South-East Asia and the Pacific in light of a new global context. But think tanks in the region also want to learn from other cultures. As one of the participants suggested: “South-East Asia is at a very exciting time. We are starting to look at the outside world. Think tanks have been very lazy in the past, focused on their own concerns. We need to collaborate more, share resources and knowledge to make a greater impact”. There seems to be ample room to link the program fellows, and other regional thinktankers, with other similar overseas programs, especially in Southern regions and Eastern Europe, where there are more commonalites in terms of contextual and organizational challenges.

The “Empowering Ideas: Think Tank Development Forum” was a great opportunity to bring together South-East Asian think tanks and research organizations, place them in the broader regional politics and policy community, deepen on current collaborations (through World Learning fellowship Program), plant the seed for new linkages (not only with western organizations, but also with other Pacific countries like Vanuatu), and give an overview of key organizational aspects for think tanks. In a nutshell, the forum was a strong call for these organizations to play an important role in their national and regional policy discussions. If something was clear, is that they are not alone: the South-East Asian think tank community is big and powerful, full of think tankers eager to learn from each other to make a difference in the policy debate.