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What’s the point of international development think tanks?

Written by Edward Hedger, Marta Foresti

​We should never take institutions for granted: they need constant rethinking, reviewing and, when necessary, reinventing. This seems to be a struggle in the world of overseas aid. 

Most development and humanitarian organisations are driven by ambitious and urgent objectives – like eliminating world poverty and saving people’s lives. This does not always sit comfortably with questioning their mandate or their past actions.  

As the world changes and challenges evolve, are institutions keeping up?

The question is all the more important at times of radical change in the aid industry. Amid calls for moving beyond aid and beyond charity, do we have what it takes to deliver upon new objectives?

Senior officials at DFID are asking. They have just launched a strategic review of UK partnerships with civil society organisations in the development sector.

This includes charities, NGOs and, of course, think tanks.

In this spirit – and inspired by the wonderful BBC radio programme, ‘What’s the Point of…’ – we want to ask, with a critical but friendly eye: what’s the point of think tanks in international development?

Similar yet different

Think tanks don’t have a monopoly on policy research. That’s a good thing.

Development agencies and NGOs have ever-stronger research departments. Consulting firms often take on research contracts. At the same time, universities in the UK and elsewhere are increasingly challenged to show the impact of their academic research.

All this amounts to a more diverse and vibrant ecosystem for policy research. That diversity, and the competition for robust evidence and good ideas, benefits everyone. But the fact that policy research and advice is no longer the exclusive domain of academics or think tanks does not mean that we’ve passed our sell-by date.

Independent research: a case of ‘impact by infiltration

We aim to influence policy decisions through credible evidence, research and analysis. So far so good. Nothing new there.

It’s how we translate this research into meaningful policy outcomes that matters. Good quality evidence rarely influences policy making directly – often because it doesn’t answer or solve a policy or political problem. Rather, what research does is build credible and independent expertise. This is what think tanks offer policy-makers.

As Justin Sandefur from CGD puts it, a think tank researcher is “someone who knows what they’re talking about, and is well versed in the literature, and whose credentials are beyond dispute, who can come in and provide expert advice.”

That’s different from campaigning: the spirit is similar – we all want to influence change – but the delivery method is distinct. The UK Institute for Fiscal Studies is often exemplary in doing this.

Speak out, and take risks

In our work we strive to foresee and anticipate emerging development priorities and challenges. We scan the policy horizon: What’s new? What’s unresolved? What needs attention?

Unlike much traditional academic research, this requires taking some risks and challenging existing paradigms. It can involve searching for counterintuitive ideas and, at times, controversial proposals.

And crucially, it means reaching out. Reports, briefings and scholarly articles: the written word is a comfort zone for many researchers. This simply isn’t enough. Outreach to diverse and evolving audiences is how think tanks engage with the world. This isn’t just about events: fundamentally, it’s about convening conversations and brokering relationships.

Independent brokers, trusted advisers

We have to explore new ways to bridge the gaps between the worlds of academia, bureaucracy and the private sector. We break down disciplinary silos.

This requires facilitation skills, as well as building and maintaining networks which are increasingly virtual and global.

Development think tanks are breaking new ground too. Policy research aimed at rich-country governments remains the stock in trade but, beyond that, initiatives by the Center for Global Development (CGD) and ODI provide direct assistance to developing country governments.

Think tanks are also doing more with development agencies on strategy, delivery and reform. Again, the currency here is independence, knowledge and trust. It requires different skill-sets and different ways of working – more pragmatic, more political even.

None of this guarantees that we always get it right. Sometimes we don’t. But creating a space for a more honest dialogue about what ‘development’ is, what aid can achieve and why business as usual might not be the answer is all part of our job.

Just the start of our thinking

There are challenges ahead and, like all others in international development, think tanks will need to adapt and change. 

The bigger question is: will international development continue to be ‘a thing’ in the future?

Probably not – or not exactly as we know it. Many development organisations have been arguing for stronger commitments on aid, but the future of development cooperation is about much more than just aid.

The task, ultimately, is to re-think ‘development’. That’s a worthy job for the think tank of the future.