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Think Tanks Need to Rethink Accountability

  • Kim Lewis

Public policy research organizations, also known as think tanks, have emerged over the past five decades as leaders in shaping and formulating government policy. Data collected by the Washington, DC-based Results for Development Institute, R4D, shows there are more than 6,800 think tanks worldwide with most in Africa, Asia, the Americas and UK.

Economist Raymond Struyk is a senior fellow at the Results for Development Institute and the author of “Improving Think Tank Management: Practical Guidance for Think Tanks Research Advocacy NGO’s.” He says think tanks are increasing in number, and competition for top analysts could put some at risk.

In addition, he pointed out that “think tanks must reassess their processes to meet changing expectations.” In other words, internal governance is key if they want to stay on top as major drivers behind policy development.

“The book distills the lessons from a whole series of data sources. For the first time, we’ve got data on the management practices of 59 think tanks in transitional and developing countries. We did over 50 interviews with executive directors in similar places. The lessons really are important on how to operate the place,” said Struyk.

The survey emphasized East and West Africa, South and East Asia and Latin America.

Struyk found that supply is not keeping up with growing demand for competent research analysts -- an issue, he said, that affects Africa.

Recruitment and training

“Over 85% of African think tanks, according to our data, find it just really difficult to recruit capable young PHD’s as analysts. Many of these are people coming back from overseas universities to start their professional lives. Think tanks are getting out-bid on the money side of it. And I think that what we find is that the incentive package has to be well beyond money to be effective,” said Struyk.

He emphasized that while many young analysts are interested in their professional development, they are just coming out of graduate school, so there is a need for a true mentoring process.

“Think about a seasoned colleague taking them to policy meetings to understand how this work is carried out. These are young people with strong technical skills, but they’ve really never applied them in real world situations. So it’s not just interfacing with the policy world, but it’s also them figuring out … the right questions to be asking when they’re doing their research, and how …to do that research to a standard that will be publishable in international journals,” explained the author.

He said that think tanks are becoming a more important, permanent part of the policy decision making process, which Struyk said is good news for them.

“To the extent that government believes they need more research under-pinning their decisions, they’re likely to contract with think tanks to do it. So then the think tanks become less dependent on international assistance. Seventy percent of international think tanks get more than two thirds of their funding from international sources. So they’re enormously dependent on outside funding,” said Struyk.

Financial support

Given this, then the question arises, how does funding influence the analysis provided by think tanks? Struyk said while international funding provides room for neutrality, there are some issues in some countries with government agencies.

“Sometimes the perception is that if a think tank is accepting government money, it’s probably adjusting their conclusions to be consistent with [what the purchaser] wants,” he said.

For example, the author and economist provided careful analysis on Nigeria. The data showed that think tanks that worked on technical issues did not show bias.

“On the other hand those that were more likely to have interference were those focusing on questions of a political or ideological nature,” said Struyk who added, “the major gain for working with government agencies is that the think tank is working on issues important enough for the government for it to pay for it.”

This helps the think tank become a closer ally and adviser to the government.

But for this to happen a think tank must have strong internal governance, and Struyk points out that quality control is a struggle for many of them. As an example, he offered some statistics taken from 59 policy institutes – 20 of which are in Africa.

“Sixty-two percent have no written policy on reviews for documents or other products and 80% assign responsibility to the principal investigator for getting reviews for at least some of the products for which that person is responsible, which sets up something of a conflict of interest,” said Strkuyk.

He did point out two African think tanks that have strong quality control policy statements.

“One is the African Institute for Applied Economics in Nigeria. The other is the Economic Policy Research Center in Uganda. In fact, its policy statement is included in a new book we have out. All the annexes are online and on the R4D website,” he said.

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