When influence can be a bad thing: “think tanks are crushing our democracy”

15 September 2011

George Monbiot has published a rather interesting commentary on Comment is Free about the  damage that secretive think tanks can make on democratic institutions.

I have talked about this before, arguing that direct impact, without public debate, can be damaging to the development of necessary democratic institutions such as political parties (I dedicated a whole book to this), the media, parliaments, etc.

Monbiot here focuses on how ‘secret’ interests are funding public policy influence and the effect that this has on how we conduct politics:

When she attempted to restrict abortion counsellingNadine Dorries MP was supported by a group called Right to Know. When other MPs asked her who funds it, she claimed she didn’t know. Lord Lawson is chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which casts doubt on climate science. It demands “openness and transparency” from scientists. Yet he refuses to say who pays, on the grounds that the donors “do not wish to be publicly engaged in controversy”. Michael Gove was chairman ofPolicy Exchange, an influential conservative thinktank. When I asked who funded Policy Exchange when he ran it, his office told me “he doesn’t have that information and he won’t be able to help you”.

In other words, if think tanks demand better policy making then they must be ready to achieve this by the right means: they must be ‘better’ themselves. In this blog, Goran Buldioski has argued that think tanks can gain independence if they strive to be transparent. George Monbiot takes it to another level saying that if they do not then their action can in fact be damaging.

I would like to encourage other journalists and researchers to follow on his footsteps and call your local think tanks enquiring about the source of their funding. Paraphrasing Monbiot (I’ve replaced the words in italics):

I charge that the groups which call themselves independent think tanks are nothing of the kind. They are public relations agencies, secretly lobbying for the donors and NGOs who finance them. If they wish to refute this claim, they should disclose their funding. Until then, whenever you hear the term independent thinktank, think of a tank, crushing democracy, driven by the big Aid industry.

Interestingly, though, these efforts are likely to find that it is not unusual for think tanks in developing countries to openly name most of their funders. Many funders in fact demand that they give them preferential space on their websites and corporate communication materials. So is it then that, unlike their British counterparts, they are not undermining democracy?

No. I think that the issue of whether funding sources are disclosed or not is important but not crucial. If all funding was disclosed and all parties were open about the source of their funding -and ideas- then the public policy debate would be richer as a consequence and democracy would be strengthened. We, as citizens, would be better informed (even by ‘paid for by’ evidence that may hold some truth) and capable of make our own assessments and choices. The same applied to newspapers and the media in general. I think it is clear to anyone what to expect from The Guardian or The Times and so would not take what they write about at face value. By reading both papers however, one may be able to get a more balanced view on issues of public interest.

The worrying situation in some developing countries is that the funders of research and influence are foreign. Ideas and influencing efforts then are driven by objectives and targets that have been externally set and not by local interest groups, that exist in any democracy and are eventually accountable to local rules. We should remember too that local interest groups include unions, consumer associations, and civil society coalitions -it is not just large corporations.

A policy maker in Zambia told me earlier this year that he preferred to read the advice from business associations because he knew what they were interested in and could therefore make up his own mind about the reliability of the evidence that was presented to him. With NGOs, he said, you cannot know if it is what they really think or if they are saying whatever their funders want them to say.

Besides funding, then, what I’d really like to know then is how is it that the think tanks in my country developed their research and influencing agendas. Again, it is the question of autonomy that concerns me most.