IFI governance


Think tanks: promoting local solutions, influencing global thinking

13 October 2012 | Minutes

Sponsors: International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

This session brought together representatives of three leading policy research organizations from Bangladesh, Tanzania and Ecuador, to share their experiences and analysis of the potential of think tanks to promote local solutions and influence global thinking..

Panel: Dr. Peter Taylor (Canada) – International Development Research Centre & Thinktank Initiative, Prof. Samuel Wangwe (Tanzania) – REPOA – Research on Policy Analysis, Andrea Ordonez (Ecuador) – Research Director – Grupo Faro (Lighthouse), Prof. Debapriya Bhattacharya (Bangladesh) – Fellow at Centre for Policy Dialogue.

Facilitator: Dr. Peter Taylor (IDRC).

Dr Taylor

All members of the ‘Thinktank Initiative’ – multi-donor program to strengthen and enhance – rationale is that policies work best when locally developed..

Supporters: Hewlitt Foundation, Canada’s International Development Research Centre, Gates Foundation.

A key challenge is their absence of core funding to work on long-term issues and invest in developing research.

Supporting 49 institutions in South Asia, Latin America, East and West Africa – via core funding couple with technical support across a range of issues. In addition, agenda is to learn and encourage debate and the sharing of experiences.

Prof. Debapriya Bhattacharya

First set of issues – how are development questions framed, analysed and how do we seek solutions within that? In addition, we seek validations of the solutions proposed.

In most cases over last decades, framing of development questions has been done at a global level, largely coming from the north, then sought solutions which actually reflected a validation of the questions’ original framing.

The flow of knowledge thus went from global to local. Hence multi-country studies seek to validate the original hypothesis to be tested – this is the model of the last decades.

A different way of looking at the question can be to examine a number of circumstances and then seek to aggregate them and see if any generalisations are available. Hence, the time has come to move from the former approach to the latter.

What is going on now in terms of global knowledge production?

The share of the contribution coming from Southern countries is increasing, in particular from emerging countries but also from low income countries (LICs).

This reflects a second generation of thinktanks that are now emerging. This benefitting from a new research capacity. Also, governments are more inclined to engage with thinktanks, perhaps more even than with policy advocacy NGOs. Thinktanks also benefit from better infrastructure – in particular thanks to information and communications technology, which diminishes the penalty from being away from the centre. Improvements have also occurred in terms of linkages – the Thinktank Initiative is an extreme example of that.

Why is this important now, in particular reversing the flow of knowledge? Examples of counter productive well-intentioned development interventions abound. A key example is the attempt to manage in terms of both mitigation and adaptation the impacts of climate change.

I am not suggesting that everything is fine and everything is moving in the right direction.

Two challenges remain:

      1.Thinktanks must improve their capacity to do high quality research – as acknowledged by the traditional form of peer-reviewed journals.


    2. Resources for research remains concentrated in the north, and the current structure impedes the flow of resources, and when it is accessible it comes with an agenda, e.g. failed states, food security etc  – it is very hard to get money for the South to do research on the North.

Prof. Samuel Wangwe

Think tanks are an integral part of the society they live in and serve as catalyst for ideas and actions in their local areas, nationally regionally and globally.

Three main roles exist:

      1. Generate local knowledge to contribute to national policymaking processes


      2. Develop the capacity to adapt global knowledge to local conditions


    3. Allow that knowledge to contribute to leading discussions and knowledge formation

How to set the agenda?

      1. Via networking with various stakeholders in society in order to identify local problems and challenges


    2. Understand the political and socioeconomic context

Local sources of knowledge need to be acknowledged as fundamental sources of knowledge. The emergence of the BRICS is an important opportunity to bring local knowledge and impacts to the global arena.

Lessons from the global financial crisis have shown that pursuit of unsustainable macroeconomic and financial policies, excessive financial deregulation, shortcomings in restricting and regulating moral behaviour, regulation and coordination failure. Who does the research on the impact of this on the South if not local policy thinktanks?

The post MDGs discussion shows an important example, of an agenda which we had little input into creating, but now we should be able to contribute to the post-agenda, and the earlier we organise the better.

To achieve this we need strategic alliances to carry messages across, with academia globally, with global and national think tanks, governments and regional organisations for collective bargaining

There are four main challenges for Southern think tanks.

      1. Building researchers that generate, rather than recycle, knowledge though this takes time and resources


      2. Collaboration on equal partnership with institutions in the North – going beyond traditional approach where data is generated in South and analysed in North


      3. Managing in an environment of the commissioned studies – going beyond agenda setting set by others


      Most consultants are in a hurry to meet terms of reference, rather than question them


    4. Developing appropriate incentive systems, especially to retain good researchers who are otherwise targeted by international organisations, northern universities


The importance of deeper understanding of local challenges and generating local solutions.

Second the importance of understanding and adapting global knowledge to local challenges

Finally contributing to Global knowledge, via proactive south tanks, but also collaboration among Southern think tanks, and via northern and global institutions giving the opportunity to sit on the same table and share the knowledge that we may have

Andrea Ordonez, Grupo Faro

Evidence from case studies examining twelve stories of policy influence, across South and with thinktanks working on a variety of topics. The objective was to analyse two things, the strategy used to influence policy and the context in which they operate.

Strategies for policy influence comprised analyses of what stage of the policy cycle thinktanks work, what type of evidence they provide (academic or action-oriented), and what role they play (advisers advocates, facilitators of dialogue).

Model taken sought to contextualise strategies via nature of problem and degree to which it is a structured or unstructured issue (the varying degrees of consensus as to the nature and intended goal of resolution).

What is policy influence? Usually thinktanks consider outputs – e.g. a change in law, or program/resources put in place – what the stories in this study show is that thinktanks focused on this output as well as the process behind it.

One example engaged in bringing the debate over rural policy central to the national agenda, not necessarily focusing on a specific outcome so much as seeking to affect the process by which outcomes are agreed and achieved.

How do think tanks go about this? It is different to what many considered the role of researcher to be. Our cases showed that the approach that many can take is to ‘make sense together’.

A key finding thus is that think tanks navigate in a complex setting. Sometimes this requires focusing on specific solutions, but in other cases they engage with society to explore ideas and our example show that they have the capacity to do both.