What to do when governments’ political repression also erodes intellectual capacity

7 January 2013

Something I have found particularly interesting in the study of think tanks is that the often-mentioned causal relationship between civil liberties and the number of think tanks is sometimes difficult to defend. China has seen a rise in think tanks alongside the rise of a very strong and controlling State. Chilean think tanks thrived precisely during the dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s. Democracy helps, of course, but more important seems to be the capacity of the participants of the political process and the value they award to research.

Chinese thinktankers are freer to develop and share their ideas than we think. And politics, not research, were banned in Chile. Their governments (and, by the way, I do not, in any way, condone or excuse or accept Pinochet’s regime) were keen on using research based evidence to inform or support their decisions -and they drew heavily from local and international sources.

In this context, think tanks, even independent ones, have been able to develop. And even if they have not been influential (strong States tend to keep think tanks at bay) they have expanded and in some cases made important contributions. Think tanks in Chile certainly did: pro-market ones during the 1980s and the centre-left ones during the 1990s with the return of democracy. Arguably then, Chile’s successes of the last 2o years under democracy can be considered to be down to having the capacity to develop the right policies. And this capacity was largely developed during the years of dictatorship.

The story of how Chilean researchers reorganised themselves in think tanks after being thrown out of universities is a fascinating one and worth reading about in Jeffrey Puryear’s book Thinking Politics. It started before the coup d’état, probably 20 years earlier with significant investments in tertiary education by the Chilean State, supported by international foundations and partnerships with universities in the United States and Europe. The repression of the military regime attempted to extract political thought and activism Chile’s universities but not the research capacity per se.

In fact, when researchers began working out of the newly formed think tanks again, the regime welcomed their ‘evidence based’ analysis. Engaging with them conferred them with a sense of legitimacy that it so desperately sought. In other words, research, and think tanks (as well as other research institutions) served a purpose for the State.

But when repression and control undermines the capacity to research it also undermines its future policymaking capacity. This is what appears to be happening in Russia: a very good example of what not to do and why funders must not quit too soon or work hard, right from the start, to mobilise an influential domestic philanthropic community.

On the Moscow Times, Anders Aslund writes about the Rise and Fall of Russia’s Economic Think Tanks:

The current witch-hunt against nongovernmental organizations is not only harming freedom but also hurting Russia’s intellectual life and policymaking. In the two decades since communism, Moscow’s economic think tanks underwent a dramatic development of which I have been part. Independent economic think tanks arose around 1990 and peaked in the early 2000s. Since 2005, the government has forced them into a rapid decline. Today, their survival is in question.

The story is one that is familiar to some parts of the world but that may offer some lessons to initiatives seeking to develop sustainable think tank communities. Below is an abridged version of a very interesting story:

  • In the 1990s, many impressive independent think tanks were formed, largely with Western financing. George Soros’ Open Society Institute was the pioneer. Other American foundations followed suit: the Eurasia Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and the MacArthur Foundation.
  • In the early 2000s, Russian oligarchs started pouring money into nongovernmental organizations, including think tanks. The main source was Mikhail Khodorkovsky‘s Open Russia Foundation, modeled on Soros’ Open Society Institute.
  • From 2000 until 2003, Moscow probably had the best economic think tanks in the world outside the U.S. They were freer, livelier, and more significant than the predominantly state-controlled or underfinanced private think tanks in Europe.
  • Then, the descent began. It was entirely orchestrated by the Kremlin. The big blow was the arrest of Khodorkovsky on Oct. 25, 2003. Through this single act, the Kremlin sent an instant message to the oligarchs: You must not offer financing to independent think tanks. Most of the domestic private financing disappeared. Meanwhile, the bulk of the foreign financing had vanished because private domestic financing was plentiful and Russia had become rather wealthy.
  • A second blow was dealt when the government stopped carrying out reforms after the failed monetization of social benefits in January 2005. Oil prices skyrocketed in late 2003, so why pursue reforms enhancing efficiency when money seemed to be a free utility? Since minimal policy was being pursued, the government demanded neither economic research nor policy advice.
  • The third blow was devastating. In January 2006, Putin signed the law on nongovernmental organizations. The regime exposed think tanks to all kinds of harassment through audits and raids, claiming that they might not have complied with all tax laws.
  • Now, the Kremlin has just delivered a fourth, and possibly mortal, blow to independent economic think tanks: the law on foreign agents. In effect, it has rendered foreign financing illegal.
  • Remaining independent research institutes or their staff seek protection with one of the two big state education institutions that also harbor think tanks, the Higher School of Economics and the Academy of the National Economy. Both are liberal, and they offer intellectuals both protection and financing.
  • As in late Soviet times, the best hope for independent professional thought to survive in Russia seems to be in liberal state institutions.

What does this all mean for think tanks and their supporters? For one, think tanks can be a force of change: they can help to bring about democratic change. They can also provide safe spaces in which policymaking capacity can be nurtured during these ‘dark times’. But this demands that we think outside of the box. Just two ideas:

Over the last couple of years we have seen many cases of ‘governments in exile’ taking over control (or attempting to take it) of their newly ‘liberated’ countries. Libya and Syria are two recent examples. But the same thing happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, before. Often these groups have the best intentions but lack the policymaking capacity needed to run a country: and this is manna from heaven for the armies of international consultants and donors! Today, the environment in places like Russia, several central Asian countries, Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, for example, is not the most friendly to free thinking think tanks. But rather than retreat and decimate these countries of the little policymaking capacity some of them have why not attempt to develop and maintain that capacity in centres hosted by neighbouring countries (or other relevant places)? linked to the diasporas, the local opposition (and even ruling groups), and other players more closely focused on less intellectual pursuits.

Another possibility is to focus on developing or maintaining these countries’ tertiary education sectors: investing in universities’ capacity to train future generation of researchers may, in the long run, help bring about the necessary changes or at least populate the institutions of the State, civil society and the private sector with competent individuals.