Thinking out loud on paper about collaboration among think tanks

11 June 2014
SERIES Articles and Opinions

We are a small team working at the Brazilian Center of International Relations (CEBRI), a fact that is often mentioned when we engage in collaborative endeavours. Since I started working here, in December 2011, I heard this sentence many times. I guess it is used to express that we are glad to have other people and institutions dedicated to achieving similar goals. But it also means that, when taking part in collaborations, we really need to share the workload with our partners.

Why collaborate?

As my Director likes to say, “one of the reasons CEBRI accomplishes so much is because we involve different partners in our endeavours and join forces with interested organisations”. I agree with him; in many cases, the saying “together we are stronger” is true. I have the impression that policy institutions generally support this idea, as I have noted that collaborations tend to arise when one or all parts realise the desired outcome is not likely to be achieved without a partnership. Also, involving different people and making the enterprise a bit more plural will most likely represent gains to the project. In the article “When Internal Collaboration Is Bad for Your Company”, Hansen considers the possibility of an institution promoting collaboration for collaboration’s sake. However, I do not think I ever experienced this attitude.

Sorting out collaborative experiences

There are many ways to approach the different sorts of collaborative arrangements in which CEBRI has been involved.

Examining my own experience, one differentiation that stands out relates to the type of partner we engage with, rather than the terms of engagement per se. For instance, one common way to undertake collaborative projects with think tanks is to work together with “sister institutions”; that is, Brazilian organisations with a similar approach to International Relations topics, personal bonds between their staff and even Board members in common. Although there are not many think tanks in Brazil working on issues that converge with CEBRI’s agenda, this kind of partnership happens frequently.

The benefits of this type of engagement include: shared perceptions of the local reality; honest talks about eventual problems; empathy among the employees of different institutions. The downside of such arrangements usually refers to a veiled competition regarding which institution got more credit for the shared work (e.g.: acknowledgment from key actors, media coverage, etc.).

The other type of organisations CEBRI often works with is foreign think tanks. It happens a lot that foreign think tanks request a meeting with the heads of CEBRI, to talk about issues in Brazil and discuss possibilities for shared activities. Sometimes, the think tank will come to us with an idea of a project and be open to our feedback. Other times, they will come to us looking for a local partner to implement a well-defined activity. These are typically well-established institutions from developed countries, who can afford carrying out international initiatives. As a small organisation that is eager to engage with the world, we are always open to these proposals, which usually derive from past collaborations and or personal connections.

Generally, our team is very keen to work with international partners, especially when it involves bringing one or more foreign experts to Brazil. As the International Relations community in the country is quite small, it is often refreshing to get in contact with different perspectives. Our experience is that Brazilian scholars, experts and practitioners – as well as the public in general – enjoy the opportunity to meet and debate with an international expert. These exchanges certainly improve the quality of our domestic debates and they also increase CEBRI’s prestige among the specialised community.

Nevertheless, tensions between CEBRI and the international institution tend to arise when we understand that the partner is not willing to consider our input regarding the content or format of the given activity. My impression is that sometimes foreign institutions are looking for a local partner who can help them with contacts and the logistical arrangements, but do not really see the local organisation as a valid interlocutor on academic or policy issues. Most of the times, we find a way to change this and include our views on the project through dialogue and negotiations.

Coming from a developing country, I see power asymmetries in this “division of labour” and I tend feel uncomfortable in such situations. I believe this feeling is representative of a North/South mentality which runs deep in Brazilians. I do not think this dichotomy is productive at all, not in collaborations among policy institutes or in world politics.

Note on the depth of the collaboration

These two types of collaboration –that is, with sister institutions and with foreign think tanks – can be framed in a long or short-term perspective. It can involve knowledge sharing, like when a partner provides expertise on a given topic, by means of printed material or an expert talk. Different people might add their experiences together, contributing with separate tasks but also undertaking shared activities; intertwining the concepts of cooperation and collaboration as outlined by Blau in “E-collaboration within, between, and without institutions: Towards better functioning of online groups through networks”.

Some conclusions

From the experiences summarised above, I identified some aspects that tend to make partnerships successful, for instance:

  • Long-term frameworks;
  • Flexibility regarding the means to achieve the established goals;
  • Openness to dialogue;
  • Horizontal relations;
  • Understanding of different realities;
  • Full commitment from all sides;
  • Well-established responsibilities regarding financial issues;
  • Availability to answer e-mails, talk over the phone or meet in person when necessary;
  • Shared ownership of the project;
  • Willingness to acknowledge the part played by the partner;
  • Preparedness to deal with eventual conflicts and problems.

There are issues that can jeopardise the success of partnerships, such as:

  • Clash of views on how to approach a given topic or how to get things done;
  • Clash of institutional and personal egos;
  • Difficulties of power-sharing;
  • Difficulties in understanding different institutional/national/political realities;
  • Lack of willingness to share knowledge and resources;
  • Exaggerating to problems and inflaming conflicts.

In my opinion, collaborations can be beneficial because:

  • Involving different people and making the enterprise more plural will most likely led to higher quality of results;
  • By joining forces with different think tanks, a small institution can cover a bigger variety of issues and reach a broader public;
  • Working with think tanks of different flavours it is possible to learn a lot and gain insight into a different fields;
  • Joint projects can help you develop professional or even personal relations with interesting people ;
  • They can increase the institution’s prestige;
  • They can be a learning process, in which you find new ways to deal with ordinary processes (e.g.: fundraising, communication, organisation, etc.).

There are costs involved in collaborations; mainly:

  • It can be harmful for an organisation to concentrate most of its efforts in a shared project and leave its own activities aside, especially in the case of small institutions;
  • If the collaboration does not go well, it might damage the institution’s reputation.