Day two was markedly different in format to the opening day of the Exchange. It centred firmly around group discussion, participation and peer interaction. The day provided space for the questions, which arose in day one, to be discussed in more detail and through specific research lenses. The conversations were more diverse, more detailed and allowed for consideration of contextual practice.
Alex Awiti, director of the East Africa Research Institute of the Aga Khan University in Kenya, started the day off with a keynote speech which encouraged disruptive and innovative approaches to research agenda development and outreach. He pointed out the unique position of think tanks as civic actors, occupying the space between the state and the people. He argued that we need to push against assumptions driving large developmental state agendas; without testing these assumptions, think tanks miss opportunities for new kinds of impact.
An important part of this, Alex asserted, is in acknowledging that while government is an important actor in policy, it is not the only actor in policy. He referred to church groups using research in Kenya as a representative example of the broader and more diverse pool of actors who can implement change.
He also highlighted that, in an age of alternative facts, knowledge producers need to be more creative in how they generate and curate their data. There is a need to formulate new alliances that move away from the traditional research to policy linearity. Alex stressed the significance of social media as a tool not only for communication, for dissemination of evidence, but as a resource which should be mined to inform agendas and harvest the collective knowledge of the public. In his words: “We are not the only generators of knowledge, the public has much more proximity than we do.”
With plenty to think about, we headed into the first of two Marketplace events to be held at the Exchange. Here, 43 TTI-supported think tanks and 3 IDRC-supported think tanks from Myanmar, were given an opportunity to showcase their research and outcomes. The value of the TTI program was made visible in the diverse range of stands in the room. This was an opportunity for attendees to “sell” their ideas, practices and stories. Today we shall experience the second of these Marketplaces, where there will be a space for developing collaborations or coalitions on key things that think tanks are needing to “buy”.
The parallel sessions began after this session. Those before lunch were focused on specific research areas including climate change and agriculture; energy access; urbanization and sustainable cities. These sessions provided an opportunity for attendees to drill down further into their own areas of expertise, pooling knowledge and viewing the questions raised on day one, around future collaboration, funding and navigating policy, within specific research contexts. The sessions were formatted differently, some such as the Gender equality session used a World Café structure to foster dialogue, while others provided a panel of speakers. The learning from these was carried over into the second round of parallel sessions after lunch. These were more reflexive, focusing on the structures and processes of think tanks themselves. Again, attendees were allowed time to home in on specific aspects, to develop practical and relevant solutions to the questions posed.
The learning from the sessions spilled out into social media. The hashtag, #2018TTIX, provided glimpses of what others were discussing. We heard of regional challenges and innovations such as the major problems surrounding health insurance in Uganda; how an app in the Tanzania-Peru collaboration increased community involvement in land planning; and how using popular media, such as radio, had been successful in increasing policy engagement around climate change in Nepal. We also shared ideas around organizational structure, looking at how think tanks are making progress around gender responsive budgeting in national processes; and the impact of shifting our own perceptions to see ourselves as political actors to enhance policy influence.
There were clearly some thematic areas which drew more interest than others, Session 8 on the “Think tank -based researcher of tomorrow” was particularly popular, as was Session 13- “New approaches to policy engagement”. This is perhaps indicative of the particular needs within the community. Acknowledging these shared interests will help us build common aims and inform action going forward beyond the exchange and the TTI program.
Finally, we gathered together once more to celebrate the launch of “Strengthening Policy: The role of TTI in South Asia.” Published by Sage India, this book comprises experiences from 14 think tanks supported by TTI thus providing an overarching narrative which is invaluable in assessing the impact of this kind of continued support across a body of think tanks. Bitrina Diyamett, from STIPRO, identified the book as extremely important and Ajaya Dixit, from ISET-Nepal and a co-editor, highlighted that it was a unique format and could provide a model for future publications in other regions.
By synthesising the stories of a body of regional think tanks, Bitrina Diyamett asserted, it helped answer questions on how best to support think tanks and maintain, and increase, their relevance. As Ajaya pointed out, this book launch marked a point where the wonderful journey undertaken by all members of TTI over the past ten years could be reflected on and celebrated.