Strengthening think tanksIndependent analysis and critical evaluation can prove cardinal in influencing policy making
A think tank is an organisation where experts research and provide advice and ideas on specific social, political and economic problems. It also helps assist the government directly or indirectly by providing policy feedbacks to the authorities concerned. In a world facing many pressing problems from extreme poverty, inequality, climate change, armed conflict to proliferation of nuclear weapons, thinks tanks can act as an important starting point for ideas and actions.
The politicisation of think tanks
Looking at the Kathmandu based foreign policy think tanks, we may categorise the character of the think tanks into different groups. The first is university and government run think tanks. A couple of think tanks like Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies and Center for Economic Development and Administration under Tribhuvan University are well structured and institutionalised. But post the 1990s, these institutions have been poorly managed and consequently downsized.
The politicisation of think tanks has established a culture where leaders in such institutions are appointed on the basis of their loyalties to parties rather than on the basis of merit.
Even research fellows seem to be faithful cadres. As a place where knowledge is produced, think tanks must be committed to appoint only individuals who display competence and a high degree of ethical integrity as its office bearers.
The Institute of Foreign Affairs was formed under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the 1990s. Primarily it was established so that it could aid the government in foreign policy formulation. But even after 23 years of its establishment, owing to lack of political will and little regard for research centres, the think tank is yet to be institutionalised. Moreover, rendering the staffers accountable and creating a sense of belonging to the institution still remains amongst its major problems.
The second category of think tanks are working in the form of NGOs and companies. And regrettably, most of these kind of think-tanks are limited to conducting round-table discussions, organising seminar and workshops. Publishing academic journals or writing policy papers is merely there concern. It is pitiful that think tanks like the Nepal Centre for Contemporary Research, Center for Nepal and Asian Studies and Centre for Economic Development and Administration—who were well-established at some point of time are now struggling for their existence and restoring their past practices of publishing books, journals and papers. Also, these think tanks have to work as per the whims and fancies of the donor organisations. This makes the fate of their existence unpredictable too. For example, a vibrant think-tank playing key role on conflict management and resolution—Nepal Institute for Policy Studies was no longer in existence after the completion of the new constitution drafting.
True, one cannot completely claim that think tanks can change policies right away and can bring about all the expected changes because political leaders receive inputs from myriad sources. Nonetheless, independent analysis, critical evaluation and alternative perspectives can prove cardinal in influencing policy making. For example in the United States, think tanks exert greater influence as key decision makers are constantly discussing with the government.
Major political parties after 1990 have established think-tanks in the name of towering personalities of the respective parties such as BP Koirala and GP Koirala foundations of Nepali Congress, and Madan Bhandari and Tulsilal Amatya Foundations of the former CPN-UML. They use the respective foundations while a team and cadres looking after foreign policy in the party feel the need to organise events. No foundation has its own resource but collects donation from the Nepal government and other governmental and non-governmental organisations abroad to organise programme.
Most of the above mentioned think tanks worked on issues of foreign policy and diplomacy by organising national and regional programmes in collaboaration with the Chinese and Indian think tanks. Unlike in Nepal, there is a think-tank culture in China where such organisations are institutionalised with huge infrastructures like residence, library, meeting halls, and sophisticated chambers with necessary resources. Further, researchers and experts are dedicated who feel secure in their jobs.
The government of Nepal has the policy neither to promote, nor to train and groom the youths in research for making them ready to contribute to the state. Furthermore, it has no concrete plan to attract the Nepali youths who are educated, trained and groomed abroad for such jobs either. To foster a culture of research and debate so that policy makers can be well informed before making any decision, the government must take some initiatives. First, universities must be considered as a place that equips the next generation of leaders with critical thinking. Once the idea of knowledge production is internalised, this can then be extended to think tanks. Think tanks to be effective, then, must value research over convening. Like mentioned above, there is no dearth of organisations holding panel discussions. Policy papers are useful in dissiminationg ideas, so think tanks must prioritise that over holding fancy conferences in five star hotels if they are to remain true to their names.
Second, NGOs and companies and think-tanks are neither engaging with the government directly nor getting support from it. They are solely dependent on the fund of the donor countries. This should change. Third, think tanks should strive for autonomy and transparency. While institutions affiliated with the government should try to overcome hierarchies and maintain their autonomy as research institutions, privately funded think tanks should prove that they are not beholden to their benefactors. Otherwise they will lose their credibility.
So far there is only one government sponsored think tank in the country. To make it fully functional, the government must provide full support for institutional building and reform, invest in capacity building of researchers and inculcate a culture where meritocracy is valued over anything else. If these things are fulfilled, there is no reason why any think tank, be it government owned or privately funded cannot flourish. Our public discourse is ill-informed. Its high time to change that.
Adhikari is the officiating executive director at the Institute of Foreign Affairs