What are the On Think Tanks Exchange’s partners looking for?

23 October 2013
SERIES Articles and Opinions

It is 24hs before the deadline to apply to participate in the think tank exchange hosted by onthinktanks.org and developed in collaboration with the Think Tank Fund (TTF) and the Think Tank Initiative (TTI). The last two also underwrite the entire undertaking (more donors are welcome to join).

The way how TTF and I arrived to this point could be my pitch to motivate more think tankers to apply for this exciting opportunity. So apply now here! Or read the text below and consider applying!

To be honest and humble, exchanges between think tanks and researchers is nothing new. TTI and TTF are not the first nor will be the last to do global exchanges. To stand out from the crowd of donors and international organizations that make similar attempts, it means not only doing it, but doing it innovatively. TTF story started in autumn 2011. At that time we looked at the state of the field:

Excerpt from TTF 2012/2013 strategy: “Globalization processes have significantly altered the face of applied social science and policy-relevant research. While the developed “western” world still holds the leadership in this area, other regions and/or continents are increasingly becoming laboratories not only for policy experimentation but also for policy innovation. For example, the last 20 years of democratic and market transition in Central and Eastern Europe have been marked by a plethora of various experiences of policy design and implementation, some of which are in the process of significantly departing from their originating models. Several countries in South East Asia have been lauded as the world’s economic growth champions. Selected Latin American countries have championed local participatory decision making and effective schemes of social protection.

The response of the research communities to these realities has been very centralized and only dialectic in nature. International behemoths such as the United Nations agencies and the World Bank have responded by creating their own global epistemic communities. The Global Development Network, the latest addition to the UN family of organizations, perhaps is the best illustration of this still omnipresent “centralized approach.” Activities of such organizations usually bring regions such as Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe to one table only as part of global activities/studies focusing on the comparative aspects. While there is nothing bad in looking for common solutions (dialectic approach), these platforms have dedicated very little time for direct and bilateral exchange and exchanges that are dialogic in nature ( no conclusion, no common solution, but healthy even if diverging discussion). In addition to these ‘centralized’ efforts at global level, the rest of the efforts are almost exclusively connected with transfer of know-how from a donor country to a recipient country. Notwithstanding these “centralized” or “aid-inspired” exchanges/transfers of know-how, we believe that there is a particular niche for facilitating and fostering direct bilateral exchange between peers based in the OSI traditional region and the new regions of interest to Open Society Foundations”

Fast forward two years later and TTF has already learned a lot from the five exchanges it supported in the pilot stage. The Center for Intercultural Encounters and Dialogues (CEDI) / Universidad de la Tierra (Unitierra) from Oaxaca, Mexico and The Peace Institute from Slovenia jointly explored the impact of the crisis on the workers and labor relations, as well as a direct insight into work class people’s responses to the crisis. At the onset, I was extremely skeptical at this project. Slovenia and Mexico: Is it possible for two countries and contexts to be more different than these two? We returned the proposal for further elaboration two times and asked for myriad of clarifications. Each time the new version made a more compelling case for the suggested work that the previous time. And we took the risk and did not regret it J. The different context actually turned out to be the key strength of this exchange. Exposed to the difference, Slovenians were amazed to encounter an organization tightly embedded into social network and social transformation as well as responsive to the pressing socioeconomic problems. Mexicans were surprised that in middle of Europe there are many workers employed in non-standard conditions (precariat). Each party took different takeaway home, but was enriched by thinking anew at the problems the labor faces in their own context.

In a different exchange, demosEUROPA – Centre for European Strategy from Poland and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) explored how their two countries could go global in the age of uncertainty. More specifically, surrounded by political and/or economic giants, they explored how their countries can punch above weight within the new world order. At the end fthe rich encounter that consisted of seminars, presentations and visits to Warsaw, Singapore and Brussels the two organizations also became ‘intellectually’ very fond of each other.

Scientific Vortex Group, Colombia and the Risk Monitor, Bulgariatogether tried to understand the structure of Transnational Criminal Networks operating in the U.S./ /Mexico Border and The Southeastern Border of The European Union. Bulgarians learned applied a new method in network analysis while the Colombian researchers were surprised by the gravity of organized crime in an EU member-state. The excellent reports and the book coming out of this exchange will be published by the end of this year.

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and Centro de Estudios Enzo Faletto – Universidad de Santiago de Chile (USACH) were interestedto study the responses to the democratic deficit in Europe and Latin America. The time was very opportune to analyze the protest movements in both countries. This work is still going on and will be concluded at a conference next week in Santiago. I can go on…

We also learned a thing or two on how to run and how not to run exchanges. The response to our first call was overwhelming. We received 63 concept notes out of which 12 were developed into full funding proposals and we supported five. First, due to time constraints we as donors prove to be a very poor hub and matchmakers of new partnerships for the interested organizations. Second, notwithstanding the valuable learning, bilateral exchanges can be limiting and mono dimensional. We were on the lookout how to make the collaboration between think tanks multifaceted and more effective.

Our response was to partner with a trusted collaborator and kindred spirit (TTI) and to create a hub. It is now on you, the think tanks to ‘vote’ with your interest and express interest to participate at these exchanges. Those of you who believe that one can learn from ‘thy neighbor’ or have other reason for lack of interest let us know why you are not tempted to take part.  Both responses will help us learn.