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The global go-to think tanks: What works where?

Time (GMT +00) 17:30 18:45


James McGann – Director, Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania

Enrique Mendizabal – Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute


John Young - Director of Programmes, Research and Policy in Development Group, Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

John Young (Director of Programmes, Research and Policy in Development Group, Overseas Development Institute) welcomed everyone present, including all watching the online stream of the event, and introduced the speakers: James McGann (Director, Think Tanks and Civil Society Programme, University of Pennsylvania and author of the Think Tank Index 2008) and Enrique Mendizabal (Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute).

James McGann, as the first speaker, outlined the Global Go-To Think Tanks 2008 (see the speaker’s slides in pdf format in the right hand section). He explained that it is vital that leading think tanks around the world are identified, as there is much interest among policy-makers, media and foundations in knowing which institutions to go to for advice. The age of the internet means there is no excuse to not be able to respond to certain issues; good ideas available in a sorted and selected manner are key. The Think Tank and Civil society programme works to sustain, strengthen and build capacity of global think tanks around the world; it has the largest database with 5465 think tanks included. He identified some key aspects of his study:

  • No think tank can simply develop or conduct research without engaging with the public, policy-makers and the media; this redefines the roles of think tanks as we are used to know them. 

  • Geographical affiliation is important.

  • In order to be called a think tank, 30% of its activities need to entail research. Furthermore, these institutions are designed to serve public interest with an independent voice to translate research into a reliable, accessible and understandable way.

McGann illustrated that think tanks are a relatively new phenomenon characterised by substantial growth. Concerning the location of think tanks, most are concentrated in OECD countries.  McGann presented six categories of think tanks, but during his speech he focussed on two categories: quasi-independent (independent structurally but with a single funder) and quasi-governmental (same as above, but with the government as prime funder).

Next, McGann spoke on the regional hubs of the think tank index with a top ten ranking in each region:

Eastern, Middle, Western & Southern Africa: There are 425 organisations in 42 countries that research a wide range of social economic democratic and political issues. An increase in think thanks since the 1990s can be recognised, but overall think tanks are underdeveloped and underfunded. He said that all think tanks say they are independent, but one could question that when 100% of the funds come from government.

Middle East: This region has the most recent growth in think tanks, and most of them focus on security issues. McGann said that independent think tanks have been established but that he sees still constraints on their operation.

Asia: McGann drew attention here to the correlation he found between authoritarian regimes and closed societies with less (or no) think tanks present. Think tanks in this region are very effective at creating economic networks. McGann also mentioned here a study of think tanks in China that he recently finished. The Chinese government was surprised by his findings, expecting more think tanks in operation than McGann found, but McGann stands by.

Latin America: This region hosts 538 think tanks in the world, and is, in respect to its function and size, one of the most stable ‘think tank regions’ in the world. A lot of scholarly and policy-oriented research takes place here and there is innovation to be seen – at least in comparison to other regions, such as Africa, where cycles of growth influence the think tank environment strongly.

In his conclusions, McGann emphasised the importance of civil society for the development and consolidation of liberal democracy in developing regions. According to him, development of civil society will initiate a ‘virtuous cycle’ that will result in the consolidation of democracy. McGann ended his talk with a quick note on the Obama administration, where he said that Obama’s dual personality (centrist and technocratic in combination with idealist and progressive) is reflected in two major think tanks: the Brookings Institution and the Centre for American Progress, as most of his advisors came from these two organisations. This might make for a messy foreign policy picture to the public; nevertheless Obama might be able to direct it adequately.

Enrique Mendizabal’s spoke on think tanks in developing countries (mainly focussing on the Latin American region), especially discussing and questioning the importance of visibility (see the speaker’s slides in pdf format in the right hand section). He presented two questions that provided the basis for his talk:

  • What are think tanks in Latin America?
  • What are think tanks talking about right now, and how do they engage with their own context?

Then Mendizabal presented his main arguments relating to the idea of visibility:

  1. Visibility does not necessarily translate into substantive influence.

  2. Substantive influence is more important than visibility; and

  3. How this happens in developing countries is likely to be through ‘non-traditional’ organisational arrangements.

He highlighted the distinction between international development think tanks (like ODI and the Center for Global Development) and think tanks in developing countries (like CIPPEC in Argentina or CEPA in Sri Lanka) and their influence on policies. The rest of his presentation focussed on the latter.

The first part of the presentation dealt with ‘the think tank function’: here Mendizabal listed five functions that are seen in relation to political parties:

  1. Seek support for policies.

  2. Legitimise policies (that someone else has come up with): alliances have been built between governments and organisations that act as think tanks; Equador and Boliva were named examples.

  3. Spaces of debate: here Mendizabal mentioned Chile during Pinochet as an example, where a number of think tanks were set up as a safe space to do research as they were funded by international corporations.

  4. Financial channels for political parties or other interest groups.

  5. Expert cadres of policy-makers and politicians: for example in Peru former heads of departments within think tanks moved to government.

Then Mendizabal outlined three main reasons why there are so many organisations, and the different paths they take:

  • Unique origins, for example Sociedad Academica de Amantes del Pais: they emerged as part of the political struggle and want to inform political policies. The origins of political parties in Colombia are similar organisations that emerged in the struggle to develop the modern Colombian republic.
  • Close relations with other political actors: challenges to the leadership in political system have consequences for the think tank environment.
  • Evolution of the context affects the political evolution of think tanks, for example: during Pinochet think tanks were concerned with human rights, and issues in the left political spectrum, while after Pinochet the focus was on protecting the economic policies put in place during the Pinochet government.

Mendizabal argued that this is not exceptional to Latin America, but that we can see the same in the US. He outlined the following evolution there: American philanthropists, who were strong believers in the scientific contributions to policy, founded the first American think tanks during the early 20th century; this was followed by the development of more policy driven think tanks responding to more complex foreign policy and military strategies during the Second World War; during the Cold War, many ideologically driven and supported think tanks emerged; and most recently, new think tanks have been founded by the political players of the last three decades.

He then moved on to his second main point, namely ‘hybrids are the norm’, and how they all look different. NGOs in Bolivia act as think tanks; there are academic think tanks; internal think tanks in Colombia are widespread and in Peru there are also think networks (a result of lack of trust between politicians and policy-makers).

Mendizabal stated that visibility is a topic think tanks often discuss themselves. Think tanks ask how they can be more visible, become a reference point for donors and government. He argues that visibility can be a good thing, it can lead to more funds and lead to influence, but it can also undermine the ability to be influential.

He questioned whether there was a tragedy in the making, which is reflected in a potential trade-off between visibility and the resulting marketing oriented approach on the one hand and substantive impact on the other. For a comprehensive diagram (adapted from Andrew Rich), see Mendizabal’s slides.

Ultimately, he identified a number of challenges:

  • Funding can make demands on the strategy
  • Visibility can detract from substantive influence and even reduce credibility
  • Developing communication competences could undermine research competencies (as there are limited resources in developing countries)
  • New competitors – with whom we cannot really compete (for example protestors in Bolivia can do the same as think tanks, and think tanks hence need to be careful not to thread on policy space for the people)

Mendizabal argued that ‘who knows us matters,’ looking at Peru: McGann’s index doesn’t include a lot of well known think tanks, for example, The Instituto de Gobierno (formed by current President Alan Garcia). Thus, think tank’s visibility strategy might be counterproductive to being influential and funds need to be channelled towards long term, problem focussed research.

Mendizabal concluded with a number of non-negotiables when it comes to think tanks, including: high quality research for substantive influence, reaching policy makers, visibility, credibility and relevance to their context.


Comments and questions raised in the discussion included:

  • How do you get funding that does not cause your work to appear biased – so you are not tainted by the source of funding?

  • How does funding structure affect the objectivity of think tanks?

  • Speaker is very conscious of the problem of funding and intellectual independence and hence proposed the need to receive funding from at least 10 different funders to diversify income.

Dr McGann stated that there are three simple things to address the problem (but not eliminate the problem): the more you diversify the problem the more independent you become; visibility, funding can be seen online in the US of organisations, and think tanks need to have this degree of transparency; each institution should publish a policy with their approach to funding and how they maintain their independence. Mendizabal argued that the issue of credibility will always remain: depending on who is looking at the think tank; context might make you appear as being not independent of what your evidence is suggesting, so credibility of research methods is extremely important. McGann claimed that it is not just financial: you don’t want to be so close to the government that you are influenced by government too much. The independence of think thanks is affected by what is not funded, the nature of funding is highly specialised and donors can essentially influence what think tanks say, without there being a specific dictate. 

  • Faith groups act as think tanks, how would you evaluate this? How do you evaluate success in this respect? What ideas become important?

  • It is very easy to have blue skies thinking, which is not connected to new ideas that come forth out of new priorities. How to go to think tanks are often those who have linkages in North and South and how they develop ideas jointly.

  • There are lots of knowledge systems and some have more credibility than others and this influences funding systems, so go to for whom?

McGann stated that Mendizabal’s visibility and funding dynamic is one dimension of the challenges facing think tanks; equal and greater challenges are in the flow of information and the availability of information. You cannot shy away from having the impact of your institution and have a narrative that demonstrates the effectiveness of the institution. There is an intellectual policy food chain: you cannot have think tanks without universities, as they have to work together. Success is also dependent on the knowledge environment; leadership defines think tanks’ success. Mendizabal noted that a number of things lead to success, and the context of where the knowledge comes from is essential.


The last decade has seen an sudden growth in the number and scope of organisations that claim the title of ‘think tank’. A recent survey by James McGann identified 5,500 think tanks in more than 170 countries and his Think Tank Index 2008 published in Foreign Policy magazine in early 2009 is the first comprehensive ranking of the world’s top think tanks. The think tanks are ranked both according to location and area of specialisation, and McGann identifies five distinct roles – policymakers, partisans, phantoms, scholars and activists. As part of ODI's growing work on think tanks, research in Latin America led by Enrique Mendizabal found that the distinction between thinkers (academics) and policy-makers (politicians) has always been blurry. Findings suggest the think tank role has been played by a wide range of actors that take a variety of organisational forms in response to the diverse contexts in which they operate.

So what exactly is a think tank? How does one know if they are effective at what they do? And what is the most effective organisational form?

This event will consider these questions and will be streamed live over the web.