Think tank exchanges – 24 hours remain for you to show interest!

It is 24h before the deadline to apply to participate in the think tank exchange hosted by 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:

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Imagine a 365 days shutdown of donor supported capacity building to think tanks

Note: This post originally was published on Politics&Ideas – a Think Net


A month ago Vanesa from Politics&Ideas / CIPPEC asked me to write a couple of reflections on capacity building in response to her excellent and inspirational report. My immediate reflex was to imagine a world without training and mentoring of junior and senior researchers, fellows and think tanks directors. Not forever, but imagine a year without those. This reaction simultaneously surprised and thrilled me. Perhaps the rebel in me was silently protesting that most of conclusions / lessons learned on capacity building are either more of it, better of it, or different type of it. What if we have none of it? :)

At the verge of feeling guilty for this ‘sinful’ thought and by no means an advocate for abolishing capacity building from the donor menu, I will try to imagine below a world without a single capacity building activity for think tanks in the next 365 days[2]. What would the think tanks find wanting? What would donors who support these activities miss? What would the world of policy research altogether lack? Would there be any benefit from the imposed void?

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The appeal and seduction of empathy and sympathy in capacity building

Note: This blog post originally appeared at Politics & Ideas Blog

Capacity building of think tanks is about advancing knowledge, gaining skills, and acquiring competencies. As such, it sounds very technical and mechanical. However, in a world where even economists cannot avoid a new type of behaviorism and have to forgo the orthodoxy of ‘rational choice theory’, shouldn’t we explore some other factors shaping capacity building? Far from plunging into a discussion on ‘heart vs. mind’ in capacity building, I offer my thoughts on empathy and sympathy in those settings. Of course, I stick to the field of think tanks and policy-relevant research as the subject matter I am most familiar with.

Why bother with empathy and sympathy? First, the trainee and the trainer as the recipient and the provider of capacity building respectively are often shaped more by the feeling of each other than the substance of the transaction. Second, because they progressively guide some of the choices for providers. For example, isn’t South-South cooperation based on the premise that peers would be better at understanding each other? In other words, aren’t they banking on their empathy? Finally, haven’t we arrived at a juncture when even under the best of circumstances there are limits to sympathy and empathy for providers from developed countries toward recipients in the developing world? These are at least three reasons not to discard sympathy and empathy within training and other capacity building contexts in a passing thought.

Quick and simplified definitions: While empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, they denote different emotions. Empathy is the capacity to understand another’s perspective (cognitive empathy) and to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental state (emotional empathy). On the other hand, sympathy does not require the sharing of the same emotional state. It is simply the feeling of compassion or concern for another one and the desire to see them better off.

How do empathy and sympathy play out in capacity building of think tanks? First, the choice of providers is shifting from international to local domain. The complaint that ‘Westerners[1]’ fail to understand the specific context of a think tank in question is as old as efforts to enhance the capacity of think tanks. One tenet of this complaint is that Western experts have a lot of sympathy over the problems southerners or easterners face, but fail to empathize with those. To rectify this shortcoming, we have recently seen an increasing demand by think tanks in the ‘global south’ to learn from their peers. Sometimes, I find that supporters of capacity building expect that a trainer coming from a similar context will automatically employ their empathy with the trainees to ‘warm their hearts’ as a necessary step before ‘helping improve their minds.’

Second, general emotional capacity is seen as important as possession of technical skills. Understanding the context is on par with the ability to research a certain issue. Moreover, amidst a myriad of failed technical interventions transposed from different settings, empathy with the context is seen as a key for suggesting relevant policy recommendations. And though ‘Westerners’ or Western educated trainers/mentors still have a competitive advantage in the methodology of social sciences research over the rest, this advantage has been increasingly seen as insufficient.

Third, efforts grounded in empathy are said to create a general ‘we feel for each other’ sentiment without having any clear empirical data to prove how they are better than efforts that do not involve empathy (i.e. dry technical undertakings). At least, I have not read a compelling study. Could be my ignorance :) !

Though I am very much in favor of South-South and peer-to-peer learning* and trainers from developing countries, I believe a couple of cautionary messages are in order when it comes to empathy as a fundamental assumption behind these undertakings. For example, a mature recipient will be able to adapt technical training to a specific context. Also, not all ‘Westerners’ come from rich settings. Many experts have been working in social contexts and poverty settings similar to those in developing countries. Then, one shall not take for granted that people from similar settings can empathize better with each other since this is not always the key determinant of success. In sum, my bottom line is: pay duly attention to empathy in capacity building, but do not take it for granted or overvalue it!

*Disclosure: The Think Tank Fund that I lead has been supporting peer-to-peer exchanges between think tanks in developing countries in the last 18 months. Furthermore, it will team up with the Think Tank Initiative to create a hub for such exchanges that will facilitate more learning and capacity building of this type in the next two years. [1] Under ‘Westernerns’ I denote experts coming from resource rich countries. One definition could be all those coming from be OECD member states, i.e. countries with high GDP per capita.

From core and institutional support to organizational development grants: re-post from

Note: I wrote this post as contribution to the series of posts developed for the Indonesian Knowledge Sector Initiative posted at The editing and the links were provided by Enrique Mendizabal at

For a long time, core and institutional support has been considered as the holy grail of grant making by grantees and donors alike. These days, donors that provide this type of support to think tanks are far and apart. In this think piece I present, briefly, the main components of core and institutional support to think tanks focusing on the elements that can make this type of support an effective capacity building tool. Then the piece examines different ways to provide more targeted support and thus help think tanks build their capacity faster and better.

Core and Institutional support –what is it (usually)?

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core and institutional grants I have seen can be broken down into three ‘constituent’ components:

  1. Sustainability component,
  2. Development component, and
  3. Seed funding – incubator of new ideas.

The first component, sustainability, refers to funds that partially underwrite the grantees’ payroll, administrative, technical and other core expenses. In other words this is general budget support that helps the think tanks to operate.

The development component refers to the funds spent on developing the capacity of employees and improvements in the centres’ research infrastructure/methodological enhancement. In addition to issue-related competences, diligent donors will also include support for building/improving think tanks’ communication capacity, management practices, and governance.

The third component, seed funding, refers to the portion of the grant that is directly spent on policy research. Sometimes this serves as match-funding to projects where other donors require think tanks to make their own contribution. Most of the time, however, it is used for drafting analytical products or carrying out activities that others are not ready to support, but that the organization feels very strongly about. These are usually ideas that are yet not attractive to other donors or that the grantee prefers to pilot carefully or design further before scaling it up and applying to project-based donors.

Clearly delineating these three components within a single organization is impossible. For example, a donor may provide 50% of a senior researcher’s salary. Half of this amount could compensate the researcher’s time spent on incubating an idea while the other half could be a sustainability contribution to keep that person full-time (and usually will not be properly accounted for).

Or consider a portion of director’s salary that think tanks routinely charge against the core and institutional support grant. In a hypothetical example one could assume that a core grant covers 20% of her/his time dedicated to management (sustainability component) and 10-20% for developing new ideas (seed/incubator component). Therefore, this distinction is more important as a tracking devise only. It helps both sides to identify and trace the purpose and usage of the support awarded.

Core and Institutional support -What determines their success?
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Capacity building for think tanks


Recently I have been asked to briefly describe my ideal concept for capacity building to think tanks. Many donors have entered this difficult territory, many reaching only a limited success. Think Tank Fund that I lead has neither been involved in a full-fledged capacity building program for think tanks / policy research, nor does it plan to do it in near future. Yet, the thought of thinking and designing an overall capacity building program is intellectually stimulating and operationally challenging, so I dare to lay bare some of the foundations that such undertaking I believe should be built on.

Shortly, below I describe the underpinning rationale for such a capacity building effort (could be carried out at a national or regional level), the modes of intervention (instruments), the levels of complexity this effort should address / be ran at, and finally I provide a non-exhaustive list of topical areas most capacity building activities for think tanks could include. The first part is most developed, the three other hopefully will serve as food for thought for successive blog posts.

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The peculiar use of training activities as vehicles for policy research uptake in Serbia

[This blog post originally appeared @ as  part of an ongoing study on communicating complex ideas. This post has been written by Goran Buldioski, Director of the Think Tank Fund, and Sonja Stojanovic, Director of the Belgrade Centre for Security Studies.Our irst post can be found here: Civilian control of the state security sector (with special focus on military)]

Capacity building can be both an opportunity for building a network and a vehicle for validating research results. Can it also be designed to help a long-term influence? In this blog we share some of the preliminary findings of our exploration into how the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) used trainings for the latter.

Capacity building is the very first thing to come to mind when someone from a think tank mentions training activities. Many think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe as well as around the world have prospered thanks to their excellent training programmes. Cohorts of researchers, civil servants, decision makers, journalists, NGO professionals and many others have honed in their analytical skills, sharpened their understanding of the policy processes or improved their policy expertise on a given subject  thanks to various programmes organised by think tanks.

The second thing to come to mind is the building of networks of contacts. To any given think tank, the trainees become an ever-increasing network of contacts: entry points to various public and private institutions, avenues to increase their publicity, potential partners and allies, future consumers of the analysis offered by the think tanks, and a budding constituency as a whole. BCSP has turned these contacts into a powerful tool for communication. Their mailing list has increased due to their training activities leading BCSP to expand their distribution channels.

However, using training activities as a key vehicle for research uptake is surprisingly not as common as might be expected. To be fair, many think tanks expose their trainees to the analysis they have produced in the past, and use their reports and projects as case studies throughout the training to explain an idea or illustrate a point. Yet, most  of these activities are aimed at capacity building and are not consciously designed and structured as a means for research uptake.

The practice of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP) of using training courses as a key (central) tool for communication of policy research is therefore worth noting. BCSP has consciously designed a series of training courses addressing the democratic control of the armed forces as the best vehicle to secure the uptake of their research finding by the military elite. The seminars came in different formats: from half a day awareness raising discussions at the military barracks to a year-long accredited MA course in International Security organised in partnership with the Faculty of Political Science. Some seminars were organised only for military officials and civilians employed in the Ministry of Defence, although the majority targeted a more diverse groups composed of young politicians, representatives of civil society, media, and different government agencies.

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Re-post: Communicating Complex Ideas

This blog is part of an ongoing study on communicating complex ideas edited by Enrique Mendizabal and originally appeared on his blog. This post has been written in cooperation with the team includes other members of the Belgrade Centre for Security Studies.]

There are no easy policy changes. Yet, some are more difficult to influence than others. The civil oversight of the military is one of the essential tenets of democracy and perhaps one of the most complex issues in setting up democratic governance anywhere. The Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) has been engaged in the civil oversight of the Serbian security sector since it was founded 15 years ago with unmatched success by any other local or regional independent organisation. The research that a small team of BCSP and I will conduct this summer will:

  • Look into the research uptake in an ever changing political context; explore how the policy context has changed alongside BSCP communication attempts;
  • Reflect on the changes BCSP made in their communication approach throughout the last six years; specifically how they have used their educational activities to increase the traction of their advice in the decision-making circles;
  • Explore the reasons that led them to hire a full-time communication specialist, and how this has changed the communication of research findings; and
  • Collect lessons learned for BCSP and other researchers on how to improve the research uptake on such a sensitive policy issue.

Context and related research questions

In the early 2000s, not so long ago, the civil oversight over the military and other state security agencies was a topic off limits to NGOs and other independent actors outside the administration and the political elite in Serbia (and in the Balkans in general). In the last 12 years, with a lot of help of international organisations, the international community and local think tanks such as BCSP, the topic has reached the public domain. While there are a number of policy options available to countries reeling out of an armed conflict or moving away from an authoritarian rule, each of those are easier designed than implemented. To start with, the very idea of civilian control over the military is mostly contested than embraced by the local powerful, military, and political elites. Under such circumstance,s further exacerbated by fierce power struggles between outgoing and incoming elites, independent actors such as think tanks have to tread very carefully. The chapter will look in the way the researchers have pushed the idea of civilian control into the public domain and the interest, resistance, support and concerns they have faced in this process.

BCSP, throughout their engagement, touched upon some of the most politically (and ideologically) sensitive questions in Serbia: e.g. its role in the many regional conflicts in the past 20 years and potential accession into NATO. On the other hand, it has also dealt with more technical issues related to the design and implementation of reforms in the security sector (by-laws, ‘small reform initiatives’) that have improved its performance. We will look at how researchers have reconciled these two in communicating the center’s research findings.

Capturing the specificity of BCSP approaches

In the Serbian context, the image of academic quality of research may take priority to the clarity of the message. BCSP aspiration to earn respect by the academic community has affected the type of analytical products they have drafted as well as the choice of audience and the manner(s) of interaction. Looking at the dialogue between the academic research and BCSP work with practitioners in the field would be our particular interest. Additionally, external evaluators have emphasised the role of educational work in reaching out to different audiences to not only place BCSP research findings on their radars, but also as a better way of communicating complex ideas. We will explore the contribution of education activities to research uptake.

Human factor

We will also look at who has been tasked with the research uptake and how these responsibilities have shifted from being solely on the shoulders of BCSP researchers to now being shared by a specialist staff (full-time communication expert) and the researchers. Exploring and comparing the practices of securing research uptake under these two regimes should yield some more valuable lessons to be learned.

The methodology

The design comprises of two key research methods. First, we will carry out qualitative and quantitative analysis of BCSP research products, events and educational activities. In doing so, we will create a single timeline with three dimensions: BCSP research products, events and educational activities. This timeline will be then juxtaposed with the timeline of key events in the sector. While finding correlation between BCSP approaches and the changes is the sector is not our immediate goal, we will try to identify trends and patterns of research uptake as well as approaches by BSCP researchers. Second, we will conduct some 25-30 in-depth semi-structured interviews with two key audiences: a) researchers and other BCSP insiders, and b) policy makers. With the former we will aim to deepen our understanding of the BCSP approaches, while from the latter we would aim to extract the impact and the real research uptake achieved by BCSP.

We look forward to enriching ourselves and the field in this process. Please comment here

Donor-Think Tank Dialogue

Earlier today, I talked at a donor – think tank panel, part of the Exchange organized by the Think Tank Initiative in Cape Town, South Africa. The panel was organized in a form of a talk show and focused on determining success for think tanks. While I tried to voice as many ‘sound bites’ as possible in front of 150 think tankers from 50 think tanks from Africa, Latin America and Asia, my preparatory notes could be of greater use. For all those interested in think tanks, they enlist several examples that constitute success by think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe, then explores the relationship between donors and think tanks and muses on the links between global and local agendas for think tanks.

Moderator: Peter Evans: Department for International Development (DFID)


Goran Buldioski: Think Tank Fund of the Open Society Foundations
Stefan Dercon : Department for International Development (DFID)
Louis Kasekende: Bank of Uganda
Jean Mensa: Institute of Economic Affairs – Ghana (IEA-Ghana)
Shekhar Shah: National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER)

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Take One – Balkan Peer Exchange Enhancing Analysis and Research-Based Advocacy in an Era of Open Data

I have been absent from these pages for a long time now :-(. The preparation of the Balkan Peer Exchange for think tanks and advocacy organizations in Belgrade that starts on Tuesday next week has been one of the main reasons for my silence. Now, i could proudly say that with more than 70 participants, 10 different donors, 10 speakers from other regions, the exchange is ready to ‘rock’n’roll’ :-).

As a taster I provide you some of the questions we will ask to Ivan Krastev in his key-note address.

The current economic crisis has exposed the deep gaps in the political governance of the European Union and the surrounding countries that belong to the continent. The general population has lost trust in the liberal elites to govern their countries and the European Union. This has prompted an upsurge in populist politics and a rise in extremist parties, and has undermined expertise-based politics (despite some expert governments such as in Italy). Under such circumstances, it is not only the political and policy arenas that are changed, but the entire perception about the role of think tanks and civil society organizations. In the Western Balkans, the value of these organizations has already been questioned for quite some time. In a time when the EU accession agenda is waning and economic stagnation will certainly linger for a while, few societies have a vision on how to move forward. Talking to Ivan Krastev, we hope to learn more about where think tanks and advocacy organizations are positioned in their societies, what they are doing and what they should be doing?

Q1: Europe has changed and is changing as we speak. What are the key changes in ‘old Europe’ that have affected governance ( both political and economic) within EU and beyond its borders?


Q2: How this change has affected / will affect the think tanks / analysts in the EU?


Q3: And, how the changes affect Western Balkans? Where do they place policy analysis and think tanks and NGOs as one of the key ‘independent’ aspirants to influence the policy processes?


Q4: What is the biggest opportunity ( every crisis brings opportunities J) and what is the biggest threat for civil society (specifically advocacy organizations and think tanks) in the Western Balkans?

All of you not there follow the web-streaming on the specially dedicated Facebook page.

More questions, tweet them here:!/BalkanPeerXc or simply comment below

Tomorrow, more about the other debates to follow at the event

Balkan Peer Exchange Enhancing Analysis and Research-Based Advocacy in an Era of Open Data


Happy New Year to you all!

I use this opportunity to announce an event that Think Tank Fund  will co-organize in belgrade February

Think Tank Fund together with the Human Rights Governance Grants Program and Foundation for Open Society Serbia from the Open Society Foundations, European Fund for the Balkans, Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund and the National Endowment for Democracy is organizing:

Balkan Peer Exchange

Enhancing Analysis and Research-Based Advocacy in an Era of Open Data

February 21-23, 2012

Belgrade, Serbia


This event aspires to bring a representative group of think tanks and advocacy organizations as well as donors to address these issues and open new avenues for future cooperation. Its organizers do not have any pre-conceived ideas to float and impose at the event. It is not our goal to spearhead establishment of any networks, regional platforms or anything similar. Likewise, while we expect participants to suggest new ideas and forge new partnerships throughout the event, the organizers do not consider the event as a direct laboratory for designing new projects that they would later underwrite.


The overall objective of the Peer Exchange is to provide a space for representatives of 50 think tanks and advocacy organizations (with established track records in policy relevant research) and a dozen of donors active in the region and offer them a space for peer-to-peer exchange of practices, positive and negative lessons learned and brainstorming on new innovative ideas.

Specific objectives:

–            Sharing opinions / analysis on relevant topics such as EU integration, governmental transparency and accountability, economic policy, social and integration policies

–            Exchanging relevant experiences and good practices on topics specifically linked to these types of organizations (access to information, fiscal transparency and abuse of state resources, political system and transparency of government decisions, quality standards for policy-relevant research)

–            Presenting and promoting good practices of policy research designs / monitoring and advocacy

–            Providing participants with general awareness, knowledge of basic tools and language to formulate and communicate their ideas on how to use data / analysis for effective communication and impactful advocacy to be able to search and identify tools and partners for their implementation.


We hope you will find this event interesting and useful to your organization and apply to participate. Also, feel free to further post this information on your web-site or share it with all of your contacts you would find interested in participating at this event.


Detailed information on the event and on-line application form is  available here

The deadline for applications is 12 pm on January 16, 2012. The event will take place in Belgrade, Serbia in February 21-23, 2012.


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