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Can developing country think tanks ever escape their US heritage?

Written by Ajoy Datta

Donors are pouring increasing amounts of money into supporting think tanks in the developing world, expecting them to improve policy processes in developing countries and placing strong emphasis on value for money.



The Think Tank Initiative’s (TTI) recent Annual Report highlights a continued focus on supporting a US-style model of independent think tanks. There is a persistent belief that think tanks were first founded in the US (with smaller numbers in other parts of the western world) and since the 1970s have shot up in number across the globe, mirroring their US counterparts.


But ODI has been challenging these assumptions.


As previously discussed by Enrique Mendizabal and ODI’s Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme, think tanks are by no means a novel phenomenon in Latin America, for example. In fact they have been around in various forms for a long time – through the academic societies of the 1790s and the liberal and conservative newspapers of the second half of the 19th century. And while providing policy advice is perhaps their underlying purpose, think tanks can, and have, had other purposes too – legitimising government or party policies or existing as a space for debate. Crucially (and what a lot of mainstream analyses continue to miss out) is that what think tanks do and how they behave is inherently influenced by the political context in which they operate; think tanks are political actors and need to adapt and evolve to fit their context.


Building on research from Thinking politics: think tanks and political parties in Latin America, the RAPID programme has set out to investigate the relationship between think tanks and political systems in other regions. The results of this include two new papers published by ODI. The first by Rafael Bueno, a former Senator in the Bolivian Congress and senior lecturer at the Universidad Católica Boliviana, describes how think tanks have worked closely with social movements in Bolivia to help the rise to power of Evo Morales, Latin America’s first ‘indigenous’ president. The second, written by Karthik Nachiappan, Enrique Mendizabal and myself, explores how the political context in East and Southeast Asia was crucial in influencing the origin, functions and development of think tanks in the region. These will be followed by overview papers for South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa later in the year.


Rafael was initially sceptical that think tanks – and in particular research – had a role in Bolivia’s policy-making process, due in part to the country’s political instability and its weak state institutions. However, on further investigation, he found that since the 1980s think tanks and knowledge have been intertwined with both the rise of social movements and ethnic-based politics in the country. Think tanks such as the Centre for Legal Studies and Social Research (CEJIS) and the Centre for Labour and Agrarian Development Studies (CEDLA) have produced and communicated evidence to support the demands of social movements, provided valuable training and funding, helped foster a social movement coalition and crucially mediated dialogue between them and the government. Equally, the adoption of the Washington Consensus fostered the establishment of a number of neoliberal think tanks including Fundación Milenio, FUNDEMOS, and two internal government think tanks, the Unit of Social and Economic Policy Analysis (UDAPE) and the National Program on Governance (PRONAGOB), which helped former governments to broadly legitimise the neoliberal policy agenda, as well as provide technical advice. 


While think tanks in Bolivia have emerged both to legitimise as well as oppose prevailing regimes, perhaps reflecting a higher degree of plurality, think tanks in East and Southeast Asia appear to have been part of the policy-making architecture itself and long-term national development plans.


In particular, our research has found three overlapping political trends, which informed the origins and functions of think tanks:

  1. In the 1950s and 1960s, in the context of state-building and reconstruction, nationalism was particularly pronounced and economic growth assumed paramount importance. This provided authoritarian governments with legitimacy and generated resources to defend countries against potential security threats.
  2. Most countries within the region initiated vast industrialisation projects and many bureaucracies cultivated links with the private sector, establishing government supported private entities or conglomerates, for example, Zaibatsus in Japan and Chaebols in Korea. The number of corporations and financial institutions increased, as some states selectively underwent marketisation.
  3. Finally, in almost all countries in the region, there has been at some point in time a substantial concentration of power in the hands of the ruling regime, or the leader at the helm and subsequent control of the political space.


As states targeted rapid economic growth, think tanks emerged as an arm of the bureaucracy to provide support on planning and implementing the economic reform process. The gradual marketisation of some of the state’s functions encouraged the emergence of think tanks more attuned to promoting markets – often finding homes within public-private conglomerates and then in private corporations and financial institutions. Furthermore, to help manage regional and national security issues, think tanks devoted to regional and security affairs blossomed across the region. In countries where institutions were weak and power concentrated in the hands of few powerful individuals or political parties, think tanks quickly emerged to legitimise and advance the agendas of those in power enabling political elites to solidify their control over the state.


In East Asia the literature is silent on the role of so-called ‘external agents’, while in Bolivia our research is clear. Donors and international agencies play an important role in supporting the production of relevant knowledge. For instance, neoliberal think tanks received funding from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, Andean Development Corporation (CAF) and some right-wing German political foundations such as Hanns Seidel Stiftung, while think tanks in support of indigenous social movements received funding from several European donors and development agencies. So think tanks in Bolivia produced valuable knowledge, which was subsequently picked up by social movements to help represent public demand, and were also able to channel evidence towards the production of legislation. Think tanks have thus had an influence on Bolivian politics and policy-making since 1985, but only through connections with political parties, social movements and the executive. In East and Southeast Asia, on the other hand, think tanks, what they do, and how they’ve developed, reflect the political context in which they have operated.


Without first recognising the centrality of politics in establishing and driving think tanks, donors will fail to properly conceptualise their role, provide the most appropriate support mechanisms and measure their ability in achieving pro-poor outcomes. It is therefore vital that we step back from what is an outdated, US-centric view of the function and growth of think tanks, and take a proper and considered look at the political context, which cannot be the same from one country to the next, let alone region.