The TTI Exchange 2018 e-forum ran from 8 -29th October 2018 as part of preparations for the TTI Exchange scheduled to take place in Bangkok on November 12-16, 2018. The E-Forum’s objectives were:
- To provide a space for participants to share initial thoughts and experiences relevant to the different topics covered by the online discussions – which will be mapped during sessions at the Exchange;
- To establish the participants’ expectations -what they hope to bring and what they hope to gain from the sessions;
- To highlight key questions and issues that will inform the dialogue and planned sessions.
The discussions were based on the think piece which sought to reflect on ‘where are we now’, and ‘where are we going,’ after ten years, as the Initiative is coming to an end.
Over thirty think tanks joined the forum with a few driving the conversations. The contributions, from across the world, reflected the diversity of the think tanks themselves as well as the different contexts in which they operate. Despite this rich diversity, recommendations that emerged from the think tanks reinforced each other, demonstrating that the challenges as well as the opportunities available to the community can best be taken advantage of by working together.
The E-forum began by calling on participants to look back at the major shifts in how decision makers interact with evidence and what they have learnt about demonstrating impact over the past ten years.
The overall trend seems to be positive even though modest. The factors that have led to this include the relationship building with policy makers, and their engagement in the planning phases. Keeping steady communication flows with government agencies has also been key, in El Salvador and Tanzania for example. This ongoing engagement with policy makers has helped them to begin perceiving think tanks as supporters of sound policy making rather than as political actors or agents. The perception of think tanks has also improved to some extent as the overall political space has become more open. This has been the case in Burkina Faso over the last couple of years, an opportunity the think tanks have taken advantage of.
The ability to demonstrate the added value that evidence creates, has been hindered by the fact that most think tanks have not mapped out their change processes or documented how they use stories of evidence, at least in Tanzania and Burkina Faso. In the case of El Salvador, one emerging lesson is that key to influence is the ability to understand what decision-makers see as important, and ensuring that the content as well as the channel of communication is adapted to those needs.
Bringing think tanks together as TTI has done, has improved the approach and operations of both individual organizations and the community as a whole. In turn, the respect and consideration given to the role and added value of think tanks has increased, leading to an emergence of more think tanks as is the case in Burkina Faso. The community’s growth has increased visibility on the think tanks’ work, helped to position them, and increased their influencing capacity on decision makers.
However, this has not significantly changed the funding landscape for think tanks in the global-south. While TTI support to southern think tanks has provided a lucky few with the financial support to strengthen their organisations, provide stability during volatile times, and in some cases enabled acceleration of growth or organizational transformation, the southern think tank community as a whole has not been the focus of many domestic and international funders.
Local (southern) researchers still find some difficulties in accessing competitive funding. The reasons for this are diverse, but one of the main ones is that many donors ‘believe that northern researchers produce research of a higher quality,’ as one contributor provocatively asserted. Several others agreed with this and even pointed out that it is not just a perception but a reality, given the significant shortage of resources -including skills building and literature – for southern researchers in comparison to norther researchers.
Coupled with the absence of support from national governments, the think tanks have had to self-motivate and continuously search for resources from donors to keep up-to-date, and produce quality research. Yet, the battle does not end there. Even when southern researchers go against several odds to produce very high quality research, the challenge of communicating it, showing the value addition from their work, as well as demonstrating the weaknesses of current funding models still remains.
Towards the end of the E-Forum, and as think tanks look to the future, they will need to find ways to become more sustainable and less dependent on donor funding. For that to happen and for it to eventually shift the perception and practice, it is important to continue to invest in the capacity of southern researchers and their access to resources, as well as to strengthen north-south research collaborations, and circular migration of researchers.
The think tanks would also gain from engaging more proactively in setting the policy agenda at the regional and international levels where goals and targets are being developed. The best way for think tanks to position themselves and remain relevant is to work with others that are already within these spaces and produce high quality and relevant research that can inform policymaking. It is important to note however, that for the most part, adequate policies are in place. The biggest challenge is that they are not being implemented.
Being present at the initial phases would allow think tanks to develop a very structured and strategic approach that can contribute to implementation, assessment and evaluation, as well as influence processes that are keeping the policies from being implemented. Thus making their added value indisputable.
As the TTI community prepares to meet in Bangkok next week, the 2018 Exchange will give think tanks the space to continue reflecting on their successes and challenges over the past ten years, work together to craft a roadmap for strengthening the bonds that have been created courtesy of this initiative and look to the future, for how to enhance policy making through sound and relevant evidence.