Think Tanks and Democratic Transitions

12 February 2016

Presentation (follow the link below) by Enrique Mendizabal at the Maghreb Economic Forum (MEF). The 1st MEF Open Discussion (MEFOD) provided an opportunity to raise questions about the definition and nature of think tanks, the relationship between democracy, and their role in democratic transitions.

A summary of the  Open Discussion:

Enrique sought to answer the following four questions:

  1. Are they a cause?
  2. Could they undermine it?
  3. Are they a consequence?
  4. Can they exist in its absence?

With the following 4 cases:

  • The cases of the US, Germany and Britain
  • The case of Aid
  • The case of Chile
  • The case of China

His main conclusions, which suggest that the relationship between think tanks and democracy is, at best, uncertain, are:

  1. Not all democracies are the same -so not all will lead to the formation of the same number or type of think tanks
  2. Think tanks can undermine democracy – it will depend on the principles of their funders and the of their leaders and staff.
  3. Think tanks can emerge in the most anti-democratic of environments (even in opposition)
  4. Think tanks can drive and contribute to democratic transitions –both with ideas and with the practice of democratic principles
  5. Single Party States can be sponsors of think tanks
  6. Single Party States can also close them down at any time

He recommends that for think tanks to contribute positively to democratic transitions (to be “good” think tanks) they should:

  • Undertake quality research and analysis
  • Where democratic institutions are weak (e.g. the media, parties, parliament, the civil service, academia) do not take advantage of this and instead seek to strengthen them –play the long game
  • Seek to inform policy openly, not privately
  • Bring the public along with you, do not leave it behind
  • Be transparent (about your funding, your methods, you values)
  • Cherish a good debate –especially those where you will learn a thing or two