Local thinktanks are natural allies in ‘Doing Development Differently’ so why not support them better?

October 3, 2017 7 By Duncan Green

Just been reading a rather good paper by Guy Lodge and Will Paxton making the case for supporting  thinktanks in Africa thinktanksdeveloping countries. They’ve been doing just that for several years, building on their experience in the UK at IPPR and No. 10 Downing Street respectively, hence the paper. They both now work at Kivu International.

The starting point is that thinktanks are natural allies in the effort to ‘Do Development Differently’: ‘Think tanks are often better placed to influence policy than traditional civil society organisations (CSOs), while their research tends to be more politically informed than academic research. Yet CSOs and academic institutions tend to be more prominent on donor radars.’

Navigating the unpredictable rapids of complexity means you want lots of agile rafts, as well as (or instead of) supertankers like DFID (or Oxfam) or less attuned northern thinktanks. Good local thinktanks could be a better fit, not least because:

‘Unlike outsiders they don’t need elaborate theories of change or Political Economy Analysis (PEAs) to understand how the internal power dynamics operate in their country. They have the local knowledge to understand how decisions are made, what formal and informal processes matter and how the patronage networks which may exist thinktanks in Argentinawill help or hinder the prospects of achieving change. This kind of politically savvy thinking is – or is potentially – second nature to them. Indeed, often think tanks will have people who have worked in government and who understand the realities of policy making and politics.’

The authors identify five distinct ways in which think tanks seek to exert influence:

‘1. Direct policy influence: where a think tank advocates for the implementation of a specific proposal which is subsequently adopted by government.

  1. Indirect policy influence: where a think tank proposal shifts policy, but only as part of a messy and complicated process where a range of different interests all shape a change in policy direction.
  2. Influence the broader climate of ideas: this is often where they can have most impact, where they reframe a policy debate around new ideas.
  3. Informing public debate on key issues: through their communication and dissemination work they can play an important role informing public debate.
  4. Hold governments accountable: for example, by monitoring policy implementation or providing evidence to show policies are not achieving results.’

Local thinktanks use their local savvy to match these different ways of working to their political environments: if you are in Rwanda, you follow an insider track; if you’re in more democratic, noisy Zambia, you do more in public.

The paper is basically a pitch to donors, who, the authors argue, are putting too little money in, and in the wrong ways. Since thinktanks need a functioning government to engage with, the most promising countries are low/middle income but stable (i.e. not fragile/conflict states). They need money (relying on domestic funding too often comes with big political strings attached), but also a change in attitude.

‘Think tanks [often] have – or aspire to have – strong academic cultures. Here a familiar problem is placing a India thinktankspremium on academic rigour (often encouraged by donor funding) over carrying out policy-oriented and politically savvy research. This often leads them to use inappropriate methods which don’t fit with skill-sets and the timelines needed to influence policymakers. Indeed, a desire to demonstrate academic credibility can mean that think tanks inadvertently neglect to use their local knowledge and political insights, in favour of carrying out academic research.’

That rings true – there’s maybe a bit of isomorphic mimicry going on here, with thinktanks jumping through lots of methodological hoops (think RCTs) that don’t play to their strengths.

The authors argue for ‘seeding’ the policy ecosystem by core funding lots of new thinktanks, including the more experimental/innovative variety (higher risk, from a donor point of view, but potentially more influential). They identify three emerging roles for such experimentation:

‘• Political insights: explicitly developing the expertise and knowledge of local political context, for example through carrying out ‘political and power’ assessments on any given issue, and for instance developing an expertise in polling.

  • Elite convening: developing a function which not only facilitates debate and discussion between key interest groups but which looks to identify collective interests and coordinate actions across these different stakeholders to help bring about policy change. This would also entail think tanks building partnerships with specific and potentially powerful interests, such as the church, which carry more weight than themselves.
  • Campaigns and alliances: essentially this would mean engaging in more bottom-up approaches to policy influence, whereby think tanks leveraged the power of citizens and communities to press the case for reform.’

All seems very sensible – I’d be interested in hearing from donors/thinktanks about whether this makes sense/what’s missing, and from those (looking at you IDRC) who’ve already been doing this for years.