This paper maps the broad contours of thinking space in the different countries of South Asia, in which each unique matrix has shaped the trajectories of think tanks, although the commonalities of their post-colonial histories account for many of the common threads.
Analysis suggests that, in the post-independent era of state-led growth, much of the space has been structured by government to garner policy advice and data, with international institutions such as the UN and its sister agencies, the Bretton Woods institutions, private foundations and other donor agencies also playing a major role.
For these reasons, think tanks’ functioning is largely constrained and episodic as far as policy inputs are concerned, although the nature of the regime and also the relative autonomy of the state from international agencies have also affected their space, especially in terms of the structuring of the research agenda.
Since their basket of funding is diverse, think tanks claim functional autonomy from both governments and international agencies, but their dependence on donors –whether government or private – belies this and is an important constraining factor. Most people interviewed for this study underlined that, to become functionally independent, a think tank would need to be able to muster arobust endowment/corpus fund.
Given the near-complete absence of critical research in most countries, think tanks as knowledge producers are failing to fulfil their most important obligation, that of producing a range of policy options (as opposed to legitimising or supporting existing policies or approaches to addressing particular policy problems). So far, policy research undertaken by think tanks in South Asia has focused exclusively on policy-relevant research within strict disciplinary boundaries, with economics dominating as a discipline. Reorienting research to focus on ‘irrelevant’ topics in a multidisciplinary framework might fulfil the long-term knowledge needs of society and may also be crucial to exploring new horizons of research and laying the groundwork for true thinking space in South Asia.
Further intensive field-based research would be useful into the unexplored life histories of think tanks and the genealogy of their evolution; their interface with various levels of the policy-making process, especially in terms of framing the agenda in different issue areas; and the role of individual leaders, personalities and strategies which both individually and collectively contribute to shaping institutional success stories, as well as collective failures.