Whose money is it anyway? think tanks and the public: an Indian debate

11 December 2010
SERIES Funding for think tanks part two: the private sector 9 items

Gyaneshwar Singh commented in this blog’s Submit a Request page that during his research he found that:

… there was always a question in mind that though public policy relates to the public, the public is not aware about the policy and policy process. How can public policy be brought to the community / public level in view of promoting a true democratic system?

The answer to this question would certainly merit more than just one blog but I would like to begin by pointing out at something that does take place in India –and that I have not able to find in many other developing countries in relation to think tanks.

Last week I re-published the Think Tank Initiative’s annual report. The traffic it generated led me to a number of blogs and articles published in India in response to the initiative’s launch.

But more than a mere response, the articles describe a lively debate about the value of research in policy, the role of think tanks and the way this policy system is supported.

In April 2010, Kanti Pajpai wrote on the Times of India an article named: Rebooting India: Think Tanks in India’s Democracy. The article highlighted the contributions of think tanks to democracy in India and offered very interesting suggestions about the functions that think tanks can fulfill:

  • The first is to help create policy where there is none. A think tank may direct government and public attention to an emerging or a neglected area of social life which requires policy intervention.
  • A second function is to fundamentally change the direction or nature of existing policy by means of a paradigm shift. It can do so by showing that the original conditions that brought forth a policy intervention have changed or that existing policy is ineffective.
  • Third, think tanks can help modify existing policy for the same kinds of reasons changed conditions and lack of effectiveness.
  • A fourth role is to monitor existing policy to see if it is implemented properly and to bring success and failure to the attention of the authorities and the public.
  • Then, think tanks have an information role in respect of the larger public. They may simply disseminate to ordinary citizens, without critical commentary, what the government is doing in various areas of social policy and educate the man on the street the nature of various programmes. Finally, think tanks can incubate ideas for the future. This is a vital role, one that focuses not on immediate policy concerns but rather has a more distant horizon. It is also perhaps a more theoretical function in the sense that the think tank in this role is concerned with constructing a whole new vocabulary and set of conceptions about various areas of social life with perhaps no immediate relevance or application.

These are an excellent contribution to this blog’s discussion on the functions of think tanks.

In august 2010, Sanjaya Baru, the prime minister’s former media advisor, wrote an article for IMAGINDIA arguing that India’s best known-think tanks:

on economic policy, national security and foreign affairs, were finding it easier to raise funds abroad than at home, be it from a bureaucratic and feudal governmental system or from a miserly and disinterested corporate sector.

India’s own philanthropists, he argued, are more likely to support foreign think tanks and research centres such as Yale or Carnegie. The few funds available from Tata Sons and Ambami Family’s Observer Research Foundation have proven too difficult to access and as a consequence Indian think tanks have turned their attention to foreign funders.

For Baru, however, this should not be a source of worry and he points out that in fact India enjoys of a highly dynamic think tank community (there are 65 international relations think tanks).

Some do not agree with this, though, and Jagdish Bhagwati, writing for the Times of India, responded to Baru by suggesting that India should in fact worry about the source of funding for research:

Funding does constrain what you will do: this is simply a matter of prudence, not of being “bought”. I will give one personal example. I was on the board of an important Indian NGO which deals with trade issues. This NGO was fully sympathetic to myriad writings by me and professors Arvind Panagariya and T N Srinivasan, among others, warning how the demands to include labour standards in trade treaties and institutions were tantamount to “export protectionism” (in the sense of seeking to raise the cost of production abroad to moderate competition). We had forcefully argued that these demands must be rejected as being driven by labour unions in the West, which were wrongly fearful of trade with the developing countries.

Having been funded by foreign agencies which wanted them to work with foreign think tanks, the Indian NGO had organised a seminar on the subject in Washington DC, under joint auspices with Carnegie. It wanted me to play a prominent role, but it had to agree to my being downgraded because Carnegie had embraced the protectionist agenda on labour standards. With foreign funding, both current and prospective, the Indian NGO felt that it had little choice and sought my indulgence. I resigned over the incident from the NGO, only to return later as i saw the difficulty in which foreign funding had placed its able director. He had integrity; he was penitent. But he had to be prudent or his NGO would be financially crippled.

He argues for a more concerted effort by the Indian Government and Indian foundations and philanthropists to support local think tanks and experts.

I have long argued, therefore, that the Indian government and corporate sector also should support our own NGOs and think tanks which then do not have to be overwhelmed by foreign-headquartered NGOs and foundations which inevitably reflect different perspectives. To win in a duel, you have to make sure that you do not use a knife against someone armed with a pistol.

What Bhagwati is describing (just to stress the point that this also happens in the ‘West’) happened to the Overseas Development Institute in relation to the World Bank. Teresa Hayter’s account of what happened with a report that was critical to the World Bank can be read in Aid as Imperialism.

This has been taken up, more recently, by Anuraag Sanghi, writing on Quick  Take – As it Happens, who, in Collusion or collaboration? The Think Tank Initiative, provides a nuanced account of the ways in which Indian think tanks are being supported and the manner in which they are engaging with policy.

If I understood it correctly, Sanghi is critical of the role that foreign funders play in the development of India’s think tank community particularly because of the intellectual and ideological constraints their involvement imply –echoing Bhagwati’s call for worry.

This is a fantastically interesting and important discussion. I have always been rather skeptical of the democratic claims that India tends to make (we Peruvians like to say that we are democratic too, but deep down we know this is probably not true: having elections does not make us one) but this does in fact illustrate a rather mature democratic intellectual debate (maybe by an elite –but there is nothing wrong with that) similar to what we find in Europe or the U.S.

How to make the policy process more public? Well, my first answer is that we must start to debate it in public. And this is a great start.