Experiences with Collaboration Projects: Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs (CENAA)

12 May 2014
SERIES Articles and Opinions

Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs (CENAA) is a nongovernmental think tank focused on issues of foreign policy, defence, and internal and external security. Our main activities involve research and shaping Slovak security and foreign policy, transition projects, publishing, education and training of young professionals.

We are rather small organization with 6 full time and 4 part time staff members and also significant number of external expert on the contractual basis and of course with many hardworking interns. It can be seen from our basic focus that cooperation especially with experts and think tanks from other countries is crucial, since none of the questions we aim to tackle could be analyzed and answered without taking into account the broader regional or global context. With various aims and ideas of our flagship projects, we have very diverse experiences of collaboration with other think tanks: some good as well as some bad and failed ones. In this post I will try to briefly describe them and characterize their most important and significant features and aspects.

Overview of different types and depth of cooperation

Following the basic thematic pillars upon which our projects are designed, I would distinguish four types or degrees of involvement of other think tanks into our own projects or into projects which are already elaborated in partnerships. Given the fact that each of presented degrees of cooperation has its own rules and nature, they also differ when it comes to good and bad experiences, i.e. their benefits, challenges and costs.

  1. Projects where the cooperation with other think tanks is limited to the involvement of individual thinktankers/experts if their participation is highly beneficial or even inevitable for the project. This is the case of especially when we need expertize on very specific topic which is not entirely covered by our own personal capacities. This includes the one-time collaboration as well as long-term involvement of certain person as a representative of other research institution into the project activities.
  2. Cooperation to strengthen international networks of contacts, such as ensuring of certain ratio of contributions from different regions to our annual publication “Panorama of global security environment”, certain ratio of representatives of different countries in our annual Summer School of Young Professionals or ensuring speakers from required countries in annual the NATO 2020 conference. This form of partnership is formalized and designed mostly for looking for new contact rather than deep professional research or policy-making activities.
  3. Common international projects, elaborated and submitted in close partnerships, mostly with foreign think tanks. This covers especially transition projects in the South Caucasus, mainly in Georgia, in the Balkans or a recently concluded project in Afghanistan, where the involvement of collaborating think tanks at least from target countries is necessity.
  4. Relations among Slovak think tanks, i.e. local collaborations, should stand as a separate category. Since we have very specific policy area in our focus, there is only limited number of think tanks who deal with the same issues and the trend is that the relation among them is more competitive than cooperative. On the other hand, even though the cooperation among NGOs is not very common, the cooperation on the individual basis among members of these institutions is much more standard.

Evaluation of good and bad experiences from previous cooperation projects

During its ten years of its existence, CENAA has been involved in a significant number of national as well as international collaborative projects and has become a member of many international platforms with broad range of successes and challenges. Here are some examples as a basis for evaluation of the most common benefits, challenges and failures:

Cooperation within Visegrad Four Framework in South Caucasus

In 2012, CENAA launched new transition project in South Caucasus countries, focused on the security sector reform, transfer of experiences of Visegrad Four countries and institutional capabilities-building of participating countries in the field of security sector reform (SSR). The project is funded by International Visegrad Fund which supports and enhances the collaboration among think-tanks by providing funding under the condition of common collaboration projects involving participation of all four of V4 countries as well as all concerned countries. This project proved to be very enriching in the means of exchange of experts’ knowledge on security sector reform in several countries. Furthermore, it also showed the strength of the influence of cultural and institutional factors as well as differences in cooperating styles of nongovernmental think tanks on the one hand and governmental think tanks on the other, as well as how different is cooperation based on close personal contacts from cooperation which is established without previous personal experience. 

Partnerships in publication, educational and training projects

Panorama of global security environment”, the most prestigious project of the Central European foreign policy and security community and one of the most important publications in Europe in this field, and the “Summer School for Young Professionals“, annual training program for young professionals from V4 countries, Eastern Europe, Balkan countries and South Caucasus, both represent projects organized within broad international partnerships. In both cases, the purpose of the partnership is to ensure the proportional representation of experts or participants from several countries to make both projects broadly based. With regard to the Panoramapublication, the partnership is again strongest among fellow think tanks from our neighboring countries; however, we have the ambition to establish even broader partnerships in order to make Panorama more global.

Involving foreign experts in order to increase the quality of outcomes in specific areas

With new emerging security threats, CENAA recently launched new research projects aimed at issues of extremism, terrorism and cyber security in the regional framework. With all these topics being relatively new and unexplored in the Slovak Republic and at the same time given the lack of experts with professional specialization on these topics, we decided to use external involvement in the form of contractual cooperation with foreign experts. For instance, project called “Extremism as a security threat in Central Europe” was launched in 2012 in close partnership with Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, and its related think tank the Center for Security and Strategic Studies, as well as the Bertelsmann Stiftung, a research institute from Germany, both providing experts on issues of extremism and radicalism as professional supervisors.

Security Sector Reform as a Part of the University Education of Young Afghan Professionals – Slovak Experience – Transition Project in Afghanistan

The transition project in Afghanistan can be described as one of our most important and valuable experiences. Its main aim was to establish a Security Studies program at the University in Kabul, to create space and conditions for the education in this field at selected Afghan universities, and to provide Afghanistan with the Slovak experience from transition process, Security Sector Reform, civil-military relations and building up of civil society. The project was ambitious and shows how different institutional and cultural environments can be challenging and problematic. As an outcome of the institutional framework in the country and the state of the local NGO sector, the project lacked of a reliable partner, which influenced also the quality of the outcomes and the project overall.

Conclusions and lessons 

Successful examples – benefits from cooperation:

  • Knowledge and experience sharing if the specific expertise is missing or limited;
  • Ensuring of higher quality of outcomes and specialization when the points of view of other countries are required, which is necessary and inevitable in the case of security and foreign studies;
  • Close cooperation with different institutions can provide us with new ideas and perspectives;
  • Cooperation and partnerships are often required in order to fulfill the funding criteria, although there is always the danger of rather technical and pro forma partnership rather than real and mutually beneficial ones;
  • Broad cooperation can lead think tanks to contacts with new organizations, ensuring the constant development and inspiration for the organization and its members; and
  • Nature of think tanks – according to our experience, nongovernmental think tanks tend to be more open and flexible in cooperation and agreement on the partnership frameworks; however there is undeniable advantage of having governmental think tank in the team since it also means easier contact on executives and government members.

Bad examples, challenges and failures:

  • Competition rather than cooperation due to limited resources (which is true especially when considering relations among think tanks within Slovak Republic);
  • Different cultural and institutional environment, e.g. in countries with insufficient tradition of nongovernmental sector;
  • Nature of collaborative think tank –even though governmental think tanks can usually provide better access to government members, it is mainly the technical aspect and complicated approval process which can cause complications;
  • Individual failures – in newly established cooperation with previously unknown think tanks it is sometimes impossible to estimate the quality of expertize as well as reliability of its representatives; and
  • Lack of responsibility for the project, or self-identification with the project’s success – this is very common barrier if the cooperation is established only to fulfill the grant criteria; insufficient inclusion of partner organizations into the project from its very beginning (i.e. preparing of the project proposal) can result in the lack of interest to perform their tasks responsibly and well.

Preconditions of successful cooperation:

  • Personal contacts among representatives, which helps to maintain the mutual trust among organizations;
  • Long-term partnerships prove to be more reliable ant therefore also more sustainable;
  • Similar institutional factors, conditions, cultural similarities as well as policy issues organizations have to deal with, seem to be very important;
  • Similar operational framework; and
  • Necessary commitment to the common project, joint effort in the all process of elaborating of project proposal and submitting of the proposal.