“The moment is ripe for a change”.
In her keynote speech opening the third and final day of the Exchange, Andrea Ordóñez, director of Southern Voice, delivered a clear call to action. Collaborate, build networks of think tanks and strengthen the voice of research from the Global South. “This is the end of an era but not the end of the community.” Her words encapsulated the sentiment of the Exchange and its outcomes going forward.
She noted that the TTI community had shifted its focus over the course of the program, from having a largely national impact in 2012, to a regional and global impact in 2018. The community is now following more innovative and collaborative practice, as it adapts to increasingly complex and challenging contexts. Andrea referred to the need for think tanks to position themselves within the global policy arena and challenge inherited notions of northern research as universal and southern research as contextual.
To achieve this, she outlined practical steps towards effective collaboration, drawing on her own experience with the Southern Voice Network. The need to think horizontally within think tanks, to democratize decision making and, particularly, to create space for different people within one organisation to network and collaborate with other think tanks, were identified as critical enabling factors. Think tanks that are adaptive, flexible, and ‘culturally aware’ make good partners, she said.
Andrea touched upon an emergent theme of this Exchange, the need to think beyond organisational boundaries. She pointed out that collaboration can be seen as time consuming – as getting in the way of organisational research agendas – but made a strong case for inter organisational cooperation, for example, by examining strategies for shared resources, such as communication teams, enhancing team capacity and joining forces to identify common policy targets.
This practical advice supported the activities which followed, where attendees once more attended the Marketplace. This time the purpose was to identify complementarities between organisations and determine how different strengths could be pooled in collaborative efforts going forward. In the breakout room small groups formed to brainstorm ideas around future scenarios for think tanks, and in parallel sessions attendees continued to discuss strategies around gender equality, knowledge systems and effective policy engagement.
There was an evident desire to use the space provided by the Exchange as a practical starting point for new partnerships with shared objectives. These shared objectives, as highlighted by Andrea, were not limited to research. The community was thinking more broadly, looking towards changing regional, national and global policy landscapes through collective approaches.
This speaks clearly to a point raised by Sara Lucas, from the Hewlett Foundation, on day one. Speaking as a funder, Sara highlighted that for funding applications to be successful they needed to focus on more than just the sustainability of a particular organisation. They had to frame proposals around the end goals, but also, critically, they had to illustrate pathways to influence which stretched beyond a specific organisation’s research focus. That was the reasoning behind the Hewlett foundation’s funding of the TTI program itself.
Collaborations which emerge from the program could thus have multiple impacts, both on the policy landscape and on the accessibility of financial support. Emerging networks will increase financial opportunities for organisations while shared resources and innovative cross-organisational departments could reduce costs.
It was clear, from the conversations taking place across the Exchange, that this community is already working constructively and creatively. Peter Taylor, IDRC, in his closing plenary, spoke with passion on the bright future which lies ahead for the TTI think tanks. He emphasised that the end of the TTI program was just one step in a collective journey. The consortium is powerful, not only due to a wealth of skills and collective learning, but due to the humanity and passion which drives its work. As Peter noted, it is a group of individuals who believe in society, in positive change and in working together.
This driving force, coupled with collective knowledge and experience, means that there is huge potential within this community going forward. It is imperative that the TTI think tanks continue to show the value of their work with evidence, maintaining access to the vast number of success stories from across the consortium, and utilising it as evidence in future dialogues with funders, policy actors and stakeholders.
The consortium is already engaging creatively with a wide range of stakeholders, as Peter acknowledged. He remarked particularly on the adaptability of the think tanks, how they had embraced technology and social media over the past ten years, opening up channels of communication that provided an immediacy and reach that would have been unimaginable at the start of the program.
In summary, his words, and those of the donors who rose to speak after him, conveyed the spirit of the TTI program. One that hinged on working together, sharing learning and experiences. His reflections highlighted that the relationships developed over the past ten years leave this community in an incredibly strong and unique position; a broad network of people who will be able to form new alliances and develop strategies quickly due to their existing understanding and collective experiences.
Peter referred back to Andrea Ordonez’ comments from the start of the day and the need to move away from seeing the northern development agenda as universal. He emphasised that the community is already made up of global actors who are pushing boundaries and establishing a fresh symmetry of power and legitimacy.
As the TTI program winds down and those involved mark the end of an era, the energy and momentum, demonstrated during the 2018 Exchange in Bangkok, make it very hard not to believe that it is also the start of a new one.