Not all think tanks are created equal

Enrique Mendizabal
Enrique Mendizabal
14 October 2008
Comment
In “Will the internet kill think tanks” (Comment is Free, 20 August 2008), Richard Reeves argues that “think tanks exist to bring fresh ideas to bear in policymaking and politics”. This, for sure, is what most of their mission statements say. But, as John Young highlighted in ODI’s recent annual report, think tanks exist for other reasons too. A look at think tanks in the rest of the world might shed some light into this eclectic family of organisations.

Introducing fresh ideas into policy-making and politics could be seen as their underlying purpose. But there are other less noble, yet perfectly valid, purposes too.  In Colombia, modern think tanks developed out of partisan newspapers created by political party leaders or leadership contenders, in the early 1900s. The papers brought together the intellectuals and policy-makers of the time and helped shape the ideological direction of the political parties they supported. Faced with increasing complexity, political parties or factions required more professional support and the ability to move from ideology to policy. Think tanks, or policy research institutions, began to replace the publications. These ego-think tanks (created for the sole purpose of boosting their founder’s political status) are common across the developing world.

Elsewhere in Latin America, the emergence and the purpose of think tanks are closely linked to the context in which they first appeared and later developed. A recent study by Sergio Toro and Matías Cociña (not yet published), of the Coporación de Estudios para Latinoamérica (CIEPLAN), for the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), suggests that, in Chile, think tanks that were created during the regime of General Pinochet constituted a space for opposition to the dictatorship. Many disappeared or were significantly weakened with the return to democracy in the 1990s and their staff joined the government coalition. During this period, new think tanks associated to the former regime and aligned with right-wing political leaders and interests were set up. More recently, since 2000, new non-partisan think tanks have appeared with new organisational practices (e.g. networks) and in response to the narrow focus of the post-Pinochet policy debate.

In the current financial crisis, think tanks have had much to say – whether they predicted the meltdown or not. Faced with uncertainty, policy-makers look for answers beyond their usual sources. Think tanks can be good communicators and this can help make sense of the chaos. But this opportunity comes with some risks: chasing the crisis, like chasing an event, works well when there is panic and clear deadlines to meet – but not so well when the attention shifts towards sensible long term advice and driving the policy process.

It may be that, as Michael White wrote in “Tanks for the memory” (Comment is Free, 2 May 2008), “That is the way of tanks. They emerge to address a crisis and fade as that crisis is resolved”.  And why not? If their main audiences (political parties and other policy actors) evolve (and often collapse) so should they.
Their ability to adapt to changing contexts is often linked to their links to partisan politics. ODI’s model of partisan independence offers a degree of flexibility that other organisations may not draw from. This relationship can be easily traced to the organisation’s origins.

In Eastern Europe, think tanks were largely set up to encourage the fall of communism and the rise of a new ideology. As a result of the economic and political changes of the late 1980s and 1990s, and encouraged by western institutions and funders, think tanks were formed by the policy analysts that emerged from former academies of science, state institutions or from pro-democratic groups. Paradoxically, in the current democratic environment, funders have begun to retreat. And it is questionable whether the organisations they helped create have been able to adapt to the new context.

In Africa, many think tanks have been set up directly by donors; others have been developed out of large and long term donor funded programmes; and others have emerged around charismatic and influential political personalities. These are all labelled think tanks – and fulfil think tank-type roles.

Refreshing the policy process is one of the roles carried out by think tanks. Other roles include providing a political platform for current or future leaders, legitimising national or donor policies, providing a safe space of debate or a sounding board for ideas, funding mechanisms for political parties or political enterprises and even a training ground for future political leaders.

As a consequence, their relationship with political parties and their leaders is equally diverse. As some of these roles coincide with those of parties in the more developed political systems, it is possible for both to cooperate and constitute formal and long term alliances or relationships (with think tanks playing a more technical than political role): hence the association of most think tanks with party politics in the UK. In less developed systems, on the other hand, it appears that think tanks (and other civil society organisations) tend to compete with parties in the formal and informal political arena – partly as a consequence of donor involvement and the unpopularity of political parties. Paradoxically, think tanks might be safer from the negative spoils of politics in the less developed than the most developed context.

Hence the context in which a think tank operates also affects its development. In Chile and Colombia they have often struggled to find a niche, given the dual role of government and opposition of stable coalition governments. In Colombia, as in much of Africa, where political parties have been highly hierarchical, so have been their think tanks. In Bolivia, since Evo Morales’ election and the rejection of all past political institutions, traditional think tanks have lost the little space they had to operate and have retreated to the world of consultancies. More dramatic could be the situation in Ethiopia where new legislation could potentially cripple the capacity of think tanks to engage effectively in policy processes. In all these cases, the think tanks that survive will be the ones that developed ad-hoc funding and engagement strategies; the ones that changed.

In Africa, where project funding has been abundant, think tanks have emerged in all shapes and forms. In Ghana, South Africa and Uganda, our ongoing research on the subject suggests that the term think tank describes a wide range of organisations including independent research centres, research centres within universities, as well as issue-based organisations. With an increased interest among donors in supporting think tanks in Africa, the number of think tanks in the region is set to increase.

The reality is that think tanks do not just emerge for different reasons and to fulfil different roles; they also emerge in all shapes and forms. The concept (as many have said already) is, at its best, vague. It is important that we look beyond the formal definition and consider their actual diversity and remember that, just like their context, they must evolve and adapt; and (why not?), fold.  

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Enrique Mendizabal