Across the world, the numbers of think tanks have surged. They have become useful vehicles to advance the interests of a wide range of parties: from climate change deniers promoting a roll-back on green policies on one hand to international development foundations advocating for improvements in education policy.
They are not new by any accounts. The RSA is possibly the oldest think tank still in existence. In Latin America, the now defunct learned society, Sociedad Académica de Amantes del País in Peru, founded in 1790, predates all the modern US and British think tanks we associate to the label.
Part of the greater global interest in think tanks can be attributed to a shift in international development funding towards them. Long term programmes such as the Africa Capacity Development Foundation, Think Tanks Initiative, the Open Society Foundations’ Think Tank Fund, the Knowledge Sector Initiative in Indonesia and relatively smaller efforts at the national level (such as the Zambia Economic Advocacy Programme) have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into think tanks across the developing world and emerging economies. Global funders such as the Hewlett and Gates foundations, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) have raised their support for think tanks over the last decade, too.
This Aid-driven growth has also been more than matched by the Chinese experience, where a sudden explosion of think tanks can be explained by a nation-wide policy (rather vague in detail but clear in intention) for more think tanks with Chinese characteristics.
In fact, many of these new think tanks have simply relabelled themselves: many research centres and NGOs have adopted the think tank label to access new funds and to join new networks popping up around these efforts. The private sector and governments have relabelled and launched new think tanks, too. Such is the extend of the relabelling that defining the boundaries between think tanks, universities, consultancies, NGOs, the media and policy units has become an art-form.
Not only policy ideas
The development and promotion of evidence based policy recommendations are think tanks’ most popular and better known functions. Accordingly, driven by the results agenda and impact philanthropy, many funders have latched onto think tanks.
However, think tanks serve many other functions of equal or greater value for promoting good policymaking and governance; and, ultimately, good policy outcomes. By focusing on their direct impact on policy, their supporters, think tanks themselves and those who report on them, such as the media, undermine their capacity to make more sustainable contributions to their societies.
To begin with, influence is not always a good thing. Their recommendations may be informed by research based evidence but are guided and honed by values. Inevitably, they have contributed to the promotion of blunders; such as when they peddled structural adjustment policies and aid conditionality throughout the developing world.
The way they seek to influence matters as well. For instance, well-funded think tanks in a developing country can be guilty of poaching researchers from universities, further depleting their capacity to undertake longer term research and develop the country’s human capital. Well-connected think tanks can create and take advantage of spaces of influence closed to other civil society organisations and the broader public, thus encouraging decisions that are mired by groupthink and the risk of capture by private and foreign interests.
If we turn to their other functions, however, we may begin to appreciate the many positive contributions they can make towards social progress.
Think tanks are training grounds for future policymakers. Their staff have the chance to develop strong analytical skills, a good balance between academic rigour and political relevance, and the necessary competencies to develop and communicate convincing public policy arguments.
They are also well placed for creating and nurturing spaces for policy debate in which new relationships may be forged and strengthened. According to Jeffrey Puryear, in the 1980s, Chilean think tanks focused their attention on creating and facilitating spaces for deliberation between researchers and political actors from the different factions that made up the opposition to the military regime. Over time, they helped to foster better relationships between these factions, developed an ideological consensus and supported the launch of a single strategy to usher in a new democratic era.
Think tanks are increasingly paying attention to efforts to educate the public; beyond the elites. Their communications efforts can turn towards helping to inform public discussions and empower hitherto excluded parties to participate in policy debates
Finally, think tanks can offer a reliable and neutral voice. In countries where the political debate is poorly informed and where the public has little or no trust in their governments, think tanks can play a critical role.
Think tanks are not the only solution
The sustainability of think tanks depends on the relative strength of other institutions: Where do they get their researchers from if universities fail to play their part? Who will popularise their ideas if the media is unable or unwilling to inform the public debate? Who will turn their ideas into policies if parties and government lack programmatic capacity? Who will fund them if the private sector and philanthropy do not value research? And who will stand by them when the civic space closes that civil society in general is reign in?
Efforts entirely focused on propping-up think tanks have led, in the best cases, to the development of a few islands of excellence. And these islands are unsustainable: expensive, dependent on aid and isolated from the broader civil society, they are permanently at risk of sudden changes in their foreign donors’ policies.
Think tanks can also contribute to their development, of course. They may collaborate with universities with low research capacity; they can take on the task to inform and train journalists and even promote sound media policies; think tanks can seek to inform and educate as well as influence government officials, promote reforms to the policymaking process and create spaces for the government to engage with other actors; etc.
However, to deliver this promise a new generation of think tanks must emerge. These must explore business models that make them less dependable on big funders, whether public or private –there are possible benefits in network and grassroots models such as foraus, the Swiss foreign policy think tank. They will have to attract a new kind of researcher: a policy entrepreneur equally at ease in research as in communications, management and networking. New think tanks won’t be able to draw credibility from their exclusiveness and close ties to the elites but rather from their capacity to convene a wide range of stakeholders and engage, directly, with the public.
A longer version of this article can be found in On Think Tanks: https://onthinktanks.org/articles/how-can-think-tanks-be-agents-of-social-change/
For more on how think tanks can support social change have a look at the RSA Global Discussion paper entitled Innovation in Think tanks - Policy influence and change in Developing countries.