Windows into the world: a think tank function

14 August 2012

I’ve written about think tanks as ‘windows’ before: Particularly Chinese think tanks. The idea comes from Murray Scot Tanner’s Changing Windows on a Changing China: The Evolving “Think Tank” System and the Case of the Public Security Sector. In it he argues that Chinese think tanks were set up with the explicit purpose of creating ‘windows’ into other political, social, and economic spaces at a time when China was relatively cut-off from the world.

Imagine a Chinese official travelling to Washington to learn about the US political system at the height of the Cold War. It would have been a long trip for nothing, really. But a scholar could meet up with his or her peer in an American university and have a chat about the US and Chinese political systems without much (relatively speaking) trouble. And the trouble was really quite small. Chinese think tank patrons knew that there had to be some information going the ‘other way’ if the ‘windows’ were to serve their purpose.

I have been reminded of this by a recent article: China and U.S. discuss cybersecurity via think tanks, on FierceGovernmentIT. In a way, this takes it beyond Tanner’s window metaphor. Here the think tanks appear to be acting as agents for their governments in international negotiations:

Two establishment national security think tanks–one Chinese, the other American–have been holding what a former Homeland Security Department official says could be described as proxy negotiations on cyber war and cyber espionage.

I find the idea truly interesting. It makes us think about their independence from governments’ agency. I’ve often questioned whether some think tanks in the international development field can be seen as truly independent if they are entirely reliant on contract funding from their governments. In essence, I feel that this makes them their agents: promoting their ideas and policies overseas. But the idea that much more exiting and open discussions between states could take place simply because the interlocutors were not bound by the bureaucracies and formalities of their governments is nonetheless worth considering; and it might be more honest, really.

Another issue that comes to mind is the role that think tanks in developing countries could be fulfilling in helping their own societies to learn about what works and does not work elsewhere. China and Vietnam have several research centres focused on the study of other countries and regions: Europe, the US, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, South Asia, India, etc. (Have a look at the list of centres in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and its Vietnamese equivalent.) This effort to learn about others is, I think, a sign that these countries are taking their development (not in the sense of ‘poverty reduction’ but in the sense of the desire to progress) seriously. And it reflects what the ‘West’ has done for ages. These centres act as windows into the rest of the world, they facilitate learning from others in ways that governments can never really follow, and encourage the development of a clear sense of the place that they inhabit in the world.

Are there many southern research centres studying not their own countries but the developed world? (Any in some countries or regions?) Would the traditional research funders (the DFIDs, IDRCs, Gates, Fords and others) be happy to fund research on European political history? Comparative politics in Europe? Latin American republican history (post independence)? Urbanisation policies of American cities? Japanese industrialisation policy? I think you get the point… I do not think there is a ‘market’ for this. The prevailing idea, it seems, is that none of this matters. It if is not immediately related to urgent policy decisions it is not worth funding. Or that, if it does, then this is knowledge that is probably carried over by researchers from these places when they get involved in ‘development’ research and policy.

This, we know, is not necessarily true. I may be a Peruvian economist but my understanding of Latin American economic history is limited. This is not my specialism. Maybe my professor at university in Peru would be a better candidate for this approach of knowledge transfer. But even then, how could we know what part of the this rich history is relevant for African (and I do not mean Africa as a country), South Asia, etc. economic development? Rather than send a political scientist from Latin America to ‘teach’ North Africans about the region’s long-term democratic struggles, wouldn’t it be better if an Egyptian based Latin American studies centre identified the narratives and lessons that make most sense for them? Maybe they could compare them with the lessons learned by a European Studies centre.

Or, a different approach could be taken and instead of regional or country specific centres thematic ones could be set up. Peru has just announced the formation of a centre to study democracy (its challenge, I think, is to make sure it does not just focus on democracy in Peru or Latin America but set its sights much farther afield -and historically). So what about a Centre for Government in Lusaka that studies not just Zambian or African political systems but also covers the US, Latin American, European, and Asian systems? The same goes for health, education, agriculture, economic policy, etc.

The situation is quite dire, I think. In the past, this absence of research from the south about the north was ‘corrected’ by studying in northern universities. They became windows into the rest of the world. Economists, political scientists, anthropologists, etc. gained degrees in top US or European universities (as well as Russian, Japanese, etc.), returned home and applied some of what they learned. (I must say that I do not buy the usual criticism to this model: that what they learned was not directly applicable to their ‘developing’ contexts and so in the end did more harm than good. If this is the case then I think we must be honest and recognise that the problem lies with the people themselves. It does not take much to know that there are differences and that we has to adapt our knowledge to the context. Not just North to South but also within the North and within the South. This is more a critique on people (laziness, carelessness, etc.) rather than the model. Having said that, I have also argued that it is time that we stop travelling to learn about things on which we could be knowledge leaders.)

Today the model is changing for the worst. At least in the economic and social sciences many young graduates from developing countries are joining the ranks of the development studies ‘professionals’. So the very people who could bring back new ideas as in fact closing the window (door is a better metaphor here) on that opportunity. This is the equivalent of quantum physicists from, say Bolivia, studying about scientific fundings in Peru instead of, say, Denmark or Germany.

So what about some funding to study the rest of the world? We do it in the UK, the US, and the rest of Europe. The Chinese have done it, too. And it seems to have worked.