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With an innovative mix of money, support and advice an RSA - inspired project is strengthening two think tanks – in Nepal and Sri Lanka – to make life that little bit harder for big tobacco companies. Will Paxton and Guy Lodge FRSA explain.

The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) is an august institution in Colombo, Sir Lanka. Its grand modernist offices are at heart of the Sri Lankan capital, close to the centres of power. The economists of IPS, boasting degrees from top international universities and impressive technical expertise, work across core economic policy issues.  

The Nepal Development Research Institute (NDRI)’s offices lie at the end of a narrow alley in the historic quarter of Kathmandu, Patan. Just minutes away are an array of temples and stupas, many still bearing the scars of the 2015 earthquake. NDRI has teams of think tankers working on issues from climate change to economic development; with a return to a semblance of political stability in Nepal after the 2017 elections, NDRI are well positioned to contribute to the country’s future.

Two very different think tanks in two very different political cultures and contexts, facing two very different sets of institutional challenges. But in April this year both NDRI and IPS started working on the same innovative project on tobacco control, a project that the RSA has helped inspire. 

Starting a major project on tobacco in Sri Lanka and Nepal

Back in early 2017 our organisation, Kivu, wrote a paper for the RSA on the role of think tanks in developing countries. For several years we had been working with think tanks in Zambia, India, Zimbabwe and Rwanda – providing mentoring, advice and support, helping local institutions increase their policy influence – and we wanted to reflect on the lessons learned.

The RSA paper caught the eye of a respected international development thinker, Duncan Green, and was then read by the international cancer prevention team at Cancer Research UK. An initial meeting between Kivu and Cancer Research UK in November 2017 started a process, which – a year-and-half on – led to this major new programme being kicked off in Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Locally led, politically informed policy advocacy has a key role to play in persuading the Sri Lankan and Nepalese governments to make some of the difficult policy changes, such as raising tobacco taxes.

For Cancer Research UK, working with Kivu to build up the capacity of IPS and NDRI offers the opportunity to develop home-grown policy solutions which will work in the different political and economic contexts of Nepal and Sri Lanka, and to strengthen the pressure on these governments from local civil society to tackle the biggest preventable cause of cancer.  

The aim of the programme is for IPS and NDRI to establish themselves as new players in the tobacco policy debates in Sri Lanka and Nepal respectively. Neither has a track record of working in this space and success in a few years’ time would see them become go-to experts on tobacco control, producing influential, policy relevant and high-quality think tank outputs.

Acheiveing influence on tobacco control

This will not be easy. In different ways, achieving meaningful influence on tobacco control in Sri Lanka and Nepal will be a big challenge. In both countries big tobacco is a powerful force, using every trick in the book to frustrate progress.

In Sri Lanka, with lower smoking prevalence rates already, the policy challenge of getting prevalence rates below the 10% rate – or even lower – is complicated and challenging.

In Nepal the policy influencing challenge is as much political as technical: tobacco control is just not salient with senior enough policy makers. So NDRI are thinking about what locally tailored research outputs can create the platform for change.   

Recognising the scale of the challenge, Cancer Research UK – reflecting the arguments we made in the original RSA paper – have developed an approach which combines grant funding with specialist think tank capacity building.

Kivu will be working hand-in-glove with NDRI and IPS. We will be advising on and supporting the implementation of the tobacco control research and advocacy, but also – drawing on our own careers in think tanks and experience of supporting think tanks around the world – helping to build the capacity of IPS and NDRI as institutions. 

One way of thinking about this is that the tobacco control initiative will become an ‘exemplar project’, being used internally by NDRI and IPS to demonstrate aspects of excellent think tank practice. IPS are extremely strong on research, so much of the organisational development support will focus on policy influencing and communications. NDRI have tonnes of experience of data collection, but they need to strengthen their analysis skills. 

Think tanks can't change the world alone

Think tanks rarely – if ever – change the world on their own. Indeed, part of this Cancer Research UK-funded project will support IPS and NDRI to partner with other interests locally to improve their chances of making some headway on tobacco policy.

But institutions like IPS and NDRI do have important roles to play: Sri Lankan researchers working a stone’s throw from the seat of government in Colombo and Nepali researchers in the dusty lanes of Patan will ultimately know better than any outsider how change happens in their countries; they have the networks and knowledge of the local economic and political context.

When these local think tanks are teamed up with funding and expertise from Cancer Research UK and specialist support from Kivu the potential for impact is substantial.


To find out more about Kivu International, please visit our website. For more about Cancer Research UK’s work in this area see here and for further information on the new programme, please contact Will Paxton or Guy Lodge.

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