Think tanks help to bridge the gap between research and decision making. Their work often helps not only policymakers but also the public at large to better understand and resolve the problems that most affect their country. However, even in the best of conditions, think tanks struggle to pass needed policy improvements. Obstacles that afflict think tanks in established democracies prove an even greater challenge to those working to advance government accountability in the developing world.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) recently hosted a panel to promote a new report conducted by its Network of Democracy Research Institutes (NDRI), which studied the progress of think tanks in nine emerging democracies. Members of the panel included report contributors Orazio Bellettini, the executive director of the Ecuadorian Grupo FARO and Sami Atallah, the executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS). Commentators were Sally Roshdy from the Egyptian One World Foundation and Maksim Karliuk from the Belarusian Institute for Security Studies. Christopher Walker of NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies chaired the event.
Bellettini and Atallah drew upon their experiences in their respective countries to generate overarching lessons regarding the operation of think tanks. Specifically, Bellettini described how Grupo FARO was able use its research to expose and reduce political clientelism in social programs as well as preserve the Yasuní National Park, which holds untapped oil resources. Afterwards, Atallah discussed how LCPS was able to bring about the first Lebanese municipal elections in 35 years.
“We are a think and do tank,” said Bellettini with regards to Grupo FARO. Bellettini summarized how three important components influenced the ability of think tanks to effectively introduce policy reform: Political context, linkages and networks, and sound evidence. For Grupo FARO, pure research is not enough – think tanks must weave their information into a greater narrative that “inspires new practices” for the people and consequently the government. Think tanks collect nonpartisan, secular information so that they can partner with likeminded organizations to act when the window of opportunity arises.
Likewise, Atallah shared three lessons of his own.
Echoing Bellettini, Atallah also stressed the importance of reading the political situation on the ground to take advantage of disagreements amongst the political elite. Furthermore, Atallah emphasized the need to divide up labor. The skills of a think tank researcher are different from that of an activist member, he noted, citing the vital role of LCPS’ sister organization, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), in achieving their goal. Finally, staying focused on the campaign was essential to LCPS’ success.
In a country such as Lebanon, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by the variety of democratic governance issues; however, by supplying one message to the public, a think tank can help create a more cohesive movement for a stronger impact.
Roshdy and Karliuk offered additional insight on the obstacles facing their own think tanks. In particular, Roshdy noted how differences between the Lebanese and Egyptian political climates could have contributed to the effectiveness of each think tank. Lack of funds and a qualified, committed staff have slowed down the pace at which Egyptian think tanks progress.
Karliuk, whose think tank operates in one of the most oppressive countries in the world, discussed how Belarus’ political atmosphere limited the issues that they could research as well as the incentives for organizations, private or public, to fund them. Belarusian think tanks largely research economic issues and rely on foreign monetary aid. Their policy proposals are best done informally, through connections in the government.
“The name changed [after the fall of the Soviet Union],” said Karliuk, “but not much else.”
In response to these issues, both Atallah and Bellettini advised their colleagues to look for windows of opportunity that influenced the successes of their own think tanks. Indeed, the problems that Karliuk and Roshdy encounter plague even those living within better social conditions. Nevertheless, the presence of these think tanks represents a move towards democracy, especially as they work to make information more transparent and accessible to the public.