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)?

Most 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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