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)
These are non-exhaustive thoughts, so please do not take them holistically.
1. I am going to start us off by asking you to do the impossible – define success. Can you share a real life example from a developing country context of what Think Tank success looks like – perhaps the most significant success that your organisation has had or that you have seen in the last year or two. Please describe it in a way that could convince someone who was at least undecided about the value of TTs, or even outright skeptical.
(Disclaimer: I listed these to illustrate a point. I know so many more examples of successes that I could think off but could not mention in the 3 minutes long slots for talking J
Example 1: Center for Research and Policy Making in Macedonia. A think tank exploited window of opportunity when a government changes and pushes Ministry to decrease the fee on the privately-managed compulsory pensions from 8,5% to 2,5 % and makes is simple for people to understand. Previously the exuberantly high fee was basically due to a capture of the expert committee determining the fees by the industry. When: 2006-7.
Key points to highlight: This is about comprehensive coverage of a subject and then intervening with the government and changing a policy in an opportune moment. Direct benefit to large part of population!
Example 2: Belgrade Center for Security Policy (formerly CCMR) – Serbia. A security think tanks pushed the issue of civil oversight of the military in post-dictatorship for more than 10 years. The issue from being a non-starter for the military evolves into a commonly acceptable practice regulated by number of laws. It is a, painstakingly long process throughout which the think tank changes employs different strategies, outputs (all sorts of papers and formats), events and education (the latter perhaps being the key ingredient to soften the military brass). When: 2001-ongoing.
Key point: Continuous engagement, keeping the subject in the public domain, tectonically moving the discourse in positive direction – ensuring a key tenet of democracy is achieved in a post-war and post-dictatorial society. LOCAL OWNERSHIP!
Example 3: Economic Research Center-Azerbaijan. They have calculated an alternative inflation rate (to the official incorrect rate) in oil-rich economy exposing all the symptoms of Dutch disease. State deliberately keeps it unrealistically low – the think tank calculation not only that is used by all international indices and institutions, but also the government officials for budget planning purposes. There is no policy implication. When 2008-10.
Key point: Policy is not changed and government does not have the slightest intention to revert from its ‘cooked figures’, but the analysis and the product of the think tank increases the public knowledge.
Example 4: Bulgarian think tanks (some ten of those with over 150 researchers) – served as ‘a reception squad’ to the hordes of international consultants that flock the country assisting it to advance its Euro-Atlantic integration (EU and NATO accession). It is the think tankers first, and only the gov’t civil servants later that ensure that only the quality advice from the externals stays ( and believe me there is a lot of – excuse my choice of words’ – useless garbage that is propelled by international consultants. The TTs are interlocutors, translators and adaptors in a key transition period for the country. When: 1998-2004.
Key point: Adapters and translators of external knowledge / practice. LOCAL OWNERSHIP.
To sum up: Success could come in different forms: the most obvious is putting issues on the agenda, defining the problems and suggestion / advocating/ succeeding to push for a certain policy. But there are many more other types of successes. One has to determine the context and define what would be feasible and desirable changes – not all of it will be policy.
Then in CEE, in most of places, there is a lack of competition for provision of policy research:
- universities are predominantly diploma mills – no research centers,
- political parties are predominantly populist, incompetent or both so no or very few partisan think tanks
- consultancies – are hunting the next available donor. Produce a lot of good technical research but often fail to see the forest and focus on the individual trees. Plus no ownership – one day they will defend the tree, next day will help to cut it – depending for what they are paid on the particular day.
- state research institutes – same as the buildings they are housed – dilapidated, falling apart into irrelevance.
- civil society – well versed in identifying the problems. But able only to produce long wish list , often irritating the government with the lack of sense for political feasibility and available resources to mitigate or solve the identified problems.
All – predominantly based on opinions and not on evidence and innovative research
Great opportunity for TTs to flourish.
Disclaimer: On some subjects there is a lot of production supported or done by internationals directly, but that is very selective and rarely embraced locally ( no local ownership).
2. My second question tries to get to the heart of the Think Tank- Donor relationship – what are the key features of a successful relationship? Can you share a specific example (either as a Think Tank or donor) where this relationship and the kind of support provided has been particularly successful (or indeed unsuccessful) – and why? Is this a replicable model (and are there any lessons to draw) for other TTs and donors – particularly given the ambition of TTI with a large number of TTs spread across 3 continents ?
I call this a road to maturity – for both: the donor and the grantee. What does it mean to mature in this context: For the donor to look at its instruments of support and determine the following elements:
- The technical levers (often done, usually at the level of outputs – such as quality control of policy research)
- The level of trust towards the grantee an instrument possesses (e.g. core and institutional grants have a greater level of trust than project grants. Simply, it is to say, we (TTF) in Budapest cannot know the key subjects/policy problems in the various countries better than the local experts do. TTs should house thinkers and analysts that should know it better. It does not mean we are not smart, but it means that we value local knowledge more and expect greater local ownership
- The level of responsibility on part of the grantee ( project funding is easier, less demanding – more automatic, because there are project goals at hand – concrete substance matter
- For TTF grantees: To be think tanks producing publicly available and enticing analysis and not be only consultants.
So, it is first about the founding principles, and then about the technicalities that build on those foundations. Finally, one would measure some of the common elements (for all TTs), but should be flexible in registering the unintended consequences and unexpected gains/developments. Eventually building and running a think tank is something like handling a complex problem – one could almost apply the same approach to any other policy issue: study the problem, determine the alternatives, decide on the best solution ( here, it is the TT that decides, not the politician / civil servant/ decision maker J)
Let me illustrate a failure in this relationship:
Think tank side:
- When an applicant / grantee ask the donor: Why types of projects do you support? What shall I do?
- When TT hide their total annual budget as if these was the Iranian nuclear bomb
- When TT dodge the question about the governance structure of their organization, and they continue to run it as if it was their mother’s law &consultancy firm
- When a donor thinks it can fix the problem
- When a donor micromanages the grant (intervening in every single item / aspect)
- When it designs linear support (e.g. we started to offer ‘progressive grants’ – and soon we would like to develop a scheme of vouchers / bonuses; integrate innovative elements in the core funding (such as our data visualization – data for advocacy pilot projects)
3. I now want to focus on who defines success – and whether we can measure it. To what extent do you think that donors should set levels of expectations about think tank success? Should “success” be predetermined and if so, by whom? And how effectively can success be measured, particularly in a programme like TTI that supports so many TTs? (and for donor representatives – what are the constraints that you have to work within?)
Two markets: one for funding (with us the donors) and the second one for policy advice (with decision makers). At the moment, at least in CEE there is still very little overlap.
Supply and Demand – What comes first: chicken and the egg problem. Think Tank Fund has resolved itself to focus on supply. We think that there should be the good analysis available first and then once demand comes there will be what to offer. Of course this is a tad populist approach, perhaps oversimplifying the matter, but we also have to admit ourselves that we cannot do both: supply and demand. If nothing else, we are short of funds to do both J!
Key constraint: Donor has to live with asymmetric information. This is what we have to accept. Regardless how many questions we ask, we will not know more about the organization that it knows about itself. As a volume of information. If we are good, we could ask smart questions, and we could know about the key features – and those are evergreen: quality of analytical products, existence and quality of communication strategy, constituency, organizational structure and governance and couple of more issues. But if we are really smart, we would do not measure but sense one thing: check the ability of the think tank to identify the problems in its environment, detect their mode of operation and then contextualize the possible successes (e.g. it is hard to expect from a think tank major policy impact in authoritarian societies – simply the politics systematically does not allow for it. If they arrive, they could be bonus, but one should expect knowledge production, building diverse stakeholder base – not only with the ruling elites, etc.). This is the art of knowing the impact rather than measuring. Of course measuring has to be part of the art J!
4. To what extent should “thinking global, acting local” be a priority for think tanks in developing countries, and what conditions – and support – are necessary for them to do this? Does the drive to contribute to both national and international dialogues come from TTs themselves (or is it sometimes driven by donor expectations…)?
- Certainly we would expect local think tanks to keep abreast of the global developments (at least in their area of expertise). But this is expensive sport: How many of local think tanks can afford subscription to Lexus Nexus / EBSCO / EIU / IHS Jane’s Quarterly and what not)
- In Europe, TTs adopted ‘boomerang’ strategy influencing their local decision makers via Brussels. This was was a very popular and used tool in the process of accessions to the European Union. It is almost dead now – due to new political circumstances L.
- In times of crisis, even the global think tanks (those based on the world’s capital cities) have troubles to influence the stressed and busy decision makers. It is not because ideas are not needed. Many innovative ideas are needed, but the decision makers resort to the trusted and tested crowd. Under such circumstances local think tanks could have two strategies: to serve as providers of ‘exotic cases’ or team up with the global think tanks and feed them in hope that the issues important to them will be mentioned / addressed by the ‘big boys’.
- One has to differentiate between think tanks engaged in development (ODI for example) and those engaged on domestic issues (DEMOS, to use the UK as an example) – in my opinion the cooperation with the former is essential. But it is from the latter, i.e. those focus on domestic issues that offer the biggest opportunities for learning.