Strengthening Nepali think tanksThey have been limited by governance, incentive and efficiency-related issues.
The Government of Nepal raised an existential question for the Policy Research Institute (PRI)—the government think tank—in its policy and programmes for the fiscal year 2023-24. The document said the National Planning Commission (NPC) would be restructured as a federal-level policy, planning and monitoring institution, removing the existing duplication vis-à-vis the PRI. The implication was that post-NPC restructuring, PRI would be obsolete.
Whether driven by political motives or by efficiency concerns, the decision will be a sad ending for a think tank that enriched Nepal’s policy ecosystem through quality discussions, publications and unique access. This case fits with the broader trend of institutional weakening of government-affiliated think tanks. Such trends have received coverage from mainstream media, primarily focusing on the inefficiencies and misuse of government resources while insufficiently engaging conversation around think tanks. This conversation is also essential as the majority of think tanks are non-governmental. But first, let us arrive at a working understanding of think tanks.
Understanding think tanks
Think tanks loosely denote public policy research institutions, engaged in generating ideas, influencing public opinion, conducting policy-oriented analysis and providing recommendations. They combine the strengths of academia and the government—focusing on research that directly informs public policies. Some think tank scholars contend institutions should be non-profit, independent and non-interest-based to qualify as think tanks. The rationale is that these factors promote objectivity and expertise in the policy research process. But these are normative qualifications that only limited organisations can fulfil. In fact, an established practice of using “think tanks” as a loose category fitting for-profit, semi-informal networks and government and political party-affiliated institutions exists.
Nepali think tanks
If we take a liberal understanding of think tanks as organisations involved in research and analysis, then pre-1990 Nepal had them in diverse forms—the government-led National Planning Commission, the government-supported Royal Nepal Academy, the private Regmi Research Centre, the group-member-based Samsodhan Mandal, the university-affiliated research and policy centres at Tribhuvan University and the non-governmental organisations Institute for Integrated Development Studies, Informal Sector Service Centre and others—that could be called think tanks. But the institutional set-up and political regime therein severely hindered them from pursuing bolder ideas, independent policy research and analysis. This meant they were likely to either focus on “technical” and “apolitical” themes or provide the ideological and philosophical bases to justify and increase the regime’s credibility.
Following the 1990 People’s Movement that restored multiparty democracy in Nepal, a door for research, writing, advocacy and creative freedom opened. The 1990s also awakened identity consciousness among the historically excluded identity groups, establishing several rights and advocacy-based organisations. This scenario started changing in the 2000s. Alongside rights-based NGOs, research and policy-focused NGOs (e.g. Nepal Economic Forums, Niti Foundation, Nepal Development Research Institute, Institution for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal, Institute for Local Government Studies, Social Science Baha, et al.) started flourishing. The decade also welcomed policy research and consulting organisations (e.g. Samriddhi Foundation) operating beyond the conventional NGO model, NGOs establishing sister for-profits organisations to bypass the bureaucratic red tapes required for non-profit and NGOs (e.g. Nepal Madhesh Foundation) centred on advancing marginal communities’ rights focusing on research and knowledge production. This trend has further strengthened in the 2020s.
The expansion of think tanks has challenged the earlier dominant idea that public policy is solely within the state domain. Presently, it is common for government agencies across federal, provincial and local levels to collaborate with think tanks for informed policy making, albeit in an ad-hoc fashion. These collaborations bolster the government technically and also help them connect with citizens. The connection is further strengthened with the growth of think tanks exclusively focusing on regional issues. Furthermore, their growth has subsequently increased non-state policy experts and simplified policy parlance by making it accessible to the general public. There has also been an increase in public scrutiny, which has made the policy process increasingly accountable. In addition, the growth of university-affiliated think tanks (for instance, those based in Kathmandu University) has also nudged academia to think about the practicalities of their ideas.
Misgovernance, et al
While think tanks have expanded Nepal’s idea and policy space, they have been limited by governance, incentives and efficiencies-related issues. The government-affiliated think tanks (including Tribhuvan University), while having a stable linkage and access with the government, have been affected by misgovernance and poor capacity, brought in by a mix of political instability and patronage politics. Take for example, a change in the government often changes the leadership of these think tanks, and the new leadership selection is based on patronage ties. On the other hand, university-based think tanks (e.g. Kathmandu University) are primarily limited by the incentive structure for faculties where contribution to think tanks and policy space for potential promotions is not considered.
Finally, non-governmental (including for-profit) think tanks face unique problems. First, they lack stable access to the government, limiting their policy influence; their linkage with the government is based on personal contact and often via donors’ support in a project setting. Often, these organisations engage in Sisyphean labour, where their policy research work is an end-in-itself. Though research dissemination events are conducted, they often target a select core group of cross-parties technocratic MPs and seminar regulars. It depends on these few MPs’ interests and influence to take the research findings forward.
There is a strong argument that think tanks conduct policy research, and the uptake depends on the intent and openness of the ruling dispensation. It is partially true, for an onus is also on the ruling dispensation. In the current case, apart from the case with university-affiliated think tanks, a committed government can remedy the misgovernance within government-affiliated think tanks and the inefficiencies of non-governmental ones. For government-affiliated think tanks, quality hiring of the top leadership and ensuring the stability of their tenures would be the obvious place to start. The government can also support forming a consortium of think tanks managed by institutions like PRI or the National Planning Commission to provide policy input on demand.
While important, a government can not solve all of the problems of think tanks, for there is an inherent conflict of interest. An “ideal” think tank promotes free thinking and independent knowledge production, inherently contradicting the prevailing yet inadequately substantiated narratives the government upholds. Think tanks should have strong linkages at the grassroots and other independent entities beyond the state apparatus to carry out the prospective roles and push for evidence and policies the government is initially uncomfortable with. Admittedly, this is challenging for budget-constrained think tanks working in a project setting based in Kathmandu; nevertheless, this cannot be overlooked. Think tanks should reimagine their engagement approach, prioritising language and interventions that resonate and connect with local stakeholders.