Why think tanks? - RSA

Why think tanks?


  • Picture of Andrew Hurst
    Andrew Hurst
  • Global

This is a guest blog written by Andrew Hurst, Program Leader with the Think Tank Initiative, which discusses how think tanks can contribute to positive social change.

The RSA's mission is “to enrich society through ideas and action”. This mission is based on the belief that all humans have “creative capacities that, when understood and supported, can be mobilised to deliver a 21st century enlightenment”. Much of RSA’s work is focused logically on building networks and opportunities for people to collaborate. With RSA Global, the venerable society is turning its attention to challenges beyond the UK’s borders. This is a great and noble goal, and the RSA is to be commended for pursuing it.

The Think Tank Initiative (TTI) has a similar story, if newer in origin. The brainchild of the Hewlett Foundation, and hosted by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), TTI was created with the belief that it could go a long way towards meeting the challenges faced by developing countries if it supported organizations that have proven adept at contributing to positive change through policy-focused research. TTI has for the last eight years worked to strengthen the ability of independent policy research institutions, or think tanks, to generate and analyze credible local data, enhance public policy debates and promote more objective, evidence-based decision-making that makes real, sustained improvements in people’s lives.

Given the similar philosophies and trajectories of RSA Global and TTI, it made sense to collaborate on a study that examined the question of how think tanks contribute to positive social change, and to explore what innovations could help think tanks to make this contribution successfully.


Why Think Tanks?

IDRC has for over 40 years helped support researchers in developing countries. While many low- and middle-income countries have much better pools of highly educated experts today than four decades ago, these pools often remain limited and the institutional context for knowledge generation is sometimes weak. At the same time, public policy institutions such as government bureaucracies and public universities are often rigid and slow to change. As a result, they have been unable to produce the kinds of knowledge needed to help address the complex and pressing public policy challenges these countries face, such as climate change, inequality or rapid urbanization.

There are many ways to support and mobilize creative capacity in these contexts. Large think tanks like Brookings or multinational consulting firms like McKinsey have chosen to mobilize creative capacity through a “franchise” or “branch plant” approach, creating national affiliates led by and populated with in-country staff. There are clear benefits to this approach, including instant brand recognition and access to impressive global networks. However, there are drawbacks as well. Local think tanks have more “skin in the game” than foreign affiliates or non-profit arms of global businesses, whose presence reflects international ambition, or global business strategy that may shift or change over time. Being locally embedded and with a deep knowledge of their context, think tanks are able to produce relevant and timely evidence-informed policy options, and help monitor and assess policy implementation. These think tanks also offer a credible way, even if only in symbolic terms, to reflect back out and into regional or global conversations the perspectives of their fellow citizens and societies in a manner that is not complicated by multinational relationships.

Arguably, the advantages of national think tanks, which stem from a legitimacy that outside experts or global affiliates lack, affords them a unique position to push for and catalyze change. This legitimacy allows these think tanks to broker conversations across a range of national and sub-national actors – from government to unions, from community associations to international donors - facilitating public policy consultation and deepening citizen engagement. As such, think tanks provide excellent examples of how creative people in the global South have self-organized to facilitate collaboration around research and policy engagement and increase their influence and impact on public policy through collective action.

Of course, think tanks themselves must continually innovate to realize their potential, and international support for them can undermine their local legitimacy by arousing government suspicions of “foreign influence”. However, at TTI we believe that, if done right, investing in local policy research organizations offers the best approach to mobilizing creative capacity for the long run.


The Road Ahead

Looking ahead, a key challenge will remain how to galvanize interest and support from different funders and partners of local think tanks. Policy actors must continue to be made aware of the value that think tanks bring. At the same time, think tanks require resources, and a supportive institutional environment to help realize their catalytic potential.  As the RSA Global Discussion paper argues well, and based on TTI’s own evidence, supporting and working with local think tanks makes sense if we are collectively to realize the benefits of a 21st century enlightenment. Given the RSA’s storied past and innovative present, it is in a great position to help, and in so doing be true to its ambitions to “empower communities to meet their challenges in their own unique way”. 


For more on the RSA Global Paper, please tune into the upcoming RSA event,  How change happens with Duncan Green, one of the world's experts on change and international development. 

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