Among the key lessons learned from international development experience to date, one in particular stands out – that public policies work best when they are designed and implemented by actors on the ground. This applies to domestic as well as regional and international policies, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
Without context-specific data and analysis, well-intentioned programmes and policies often do not respond to the lived realities of people in developing countries. Furthermore, without local actors in place to monitor implementation, the most thoughtfully designed projects may lose momentum or even collapse over the longer term.
Although grant-makers, both domestic and international, have long recognised that beneficiaries need to feel ownership if development cooperation is to be successful, they have not always invested in those national organisations that can do the ongoing research and analysis needed by policymakers and activists to effect societal improvements over time.
There are many examples of where such investments have been made, and where they have yielded long-term benefits. Europe after World War II, and in the decades that followed in places as varied as Japan, South Korea, Peru and Ethiopia, proved that investing in policy research organisations works. Even China has taken note, and since 2013 has been investing heavily in national think tanks.
Thailand is no exception. The Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) was created in 1984 with the support of a grant by the former Canadian International Development Agency. Since then, it has grown into one of the most well respected policy research organisations in the region.
The institute has helped the Thai government in innumerable ways. It can point to many cases of influence on public policy in Thailand. Its work on the liberalisation of gold bullion import and recalculation of the value-added tax base of the gold ornaments led to a thriving market of gold ornaments export. Research on public broadcasting and telecommunication led to the establishment of the Thai Public Broadcasting Service and the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission to provide balance in the media market dominated by monopolies in cable and satellite television. Other efforts included research to inform the introduction of the double indemnity law for public transport accidents, and the incorporation of a forest bond initiative in the national plan on natural resources and environment.
The TDRI has also played a useful and courageous challenge function opposing damaging policies that were not based on sound evidence.
Institutions like the TDRI were top of mind when a group of far-sighted donors came together in 2008 anxious to help other governments who were hungry for data, research and evidence as they sought to implement the Millennium Development Goals. They knew that governments needed help, and believed strongly that strengthening national policy research organisations, or think tanks, would lead to better public policy outcomes. With a focus on supporting think tanks in selected countries in East and West Africa, South Asia and Latin America, the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) was born.
Over the last 10 years, the TTI has supported 43 think tanks in 20 countries with a combination of core funding and technical support. The results, 10 years later: stronger, more effective and, ultimately, sustainable research organisations that are better equipped to provide policymakers and other development actors with the objective evidence needed to develop and implement sound public policies. TTI funding has filled the gap between weak core support available for think tanks and the ever-increasing demand for high quality research to help make policy decisions. The support has allowed participating think tanks to engage in long-term planning, establish their own research priorities, strengthen their policy engagement and communication capacity, and pursue research and engagement that is responsive to national needs and opportunities, all of which contribute to their sustainability.
The sound public policy and improved citizen engagement these organisations have helped to achieve are many. They have facilitated public understanding of electoral platforms, and participation in elections in Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru, and they have improved policies and programs on tobacco control in West Africa, fertilizer use in East Africa, and climate change and renewable energy policy at the state level in India, to name just a few.
In addition to core funding, the TTI’s efforts to develop capacity have facilitated collaborative work internationally. Most notable of these collaborations is the Southern Voice, a network of 49 think tanks that serves as an open platform to channel southern research and evidence-based policy analyses into the global dialogue on the SDGs.
From Nov 11-14 over 200 think tank representatives, policymakers, donors, researchers and like-minded stakeholders will converge in Bangkok to celebrate all that’s been achieved over nearly a decade since the launch of the TTI. At this third and final Think Tank Initiative Exchange, participants will reflect on and debate what the future will hold, and how they can best contribute to meeting the challenges that are in store.
Thailand’s experience in managing challenges – associated, for example, with trade liberalisation in the 1990s, or efforts to pursue deregulation of the telecommunication and oil industries – and the TDRI’s history in helping face them, makes Bangkok an ideal setting for these discussions.
Whatever comes out of the meeting, the need for research is as clear as it was when the TDRI was founded. Arguably, the challenges facing societies, from climate change to migration to the future of work in the face of technological change, are more complex than ever. The need for data to help understand them, and for evidence of what works to address them, will be more important than ever.
With governments and citizens, think tanks will continue to play a critical role in catalysing progress towards the SDGs. However, they too need to change with the times. They will need to build upon their research, and the credibility that comes from it, erect bridges, convene policy dialogue, and help their societies better understand the challenges they face. By seeing their role as part of a wider shared endeavour, think tanks can help identify and think through the best-possible ways their countries can face an uncertain future.
Nipon Poapongsakorn is the former president and now a distinguished fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute. Andrew Hurst is the programme leader for the Think Tank Initiative, based at Canada’s International Development Research Centre.
First Publish: Bangkok Post on Wednesday, October 24, 2018