Sunday, 15 February 2015

Random Personal Musings of a Senior Program Officer, TTI

Random Personal Musings of a Senior Program Officer, TTI

Dr. Samar Verma
Senior Program Officer, IDRC

One of the first pieces of data that struck me early during my current role was how overwhelmingly dependent Think Tanks are on bilateral and multilateral sources of funding, and how insignificant is the funding support from their own national governments and domestic foundations. Admittedly, the data I looked at can in no way be called representative of the entire Think Tank universe in India. However, today, after over half-a-decade in my current role, I am confident that this is true in each of the South Asian countries, with India perhaps leading the list. Yet, interestingly, for the policy making community in South Asia, Think Tanks remain the most important and valued source of research and evidence for their policy making work.

Disaggregation of funding support into funding types-core institutional support vs project funding- makes the excruciating reality of Think Tank’s fragility more apparent. With unrealistically low overheads, government funding is almost wholly project funding type, rarely even meeting the economic cost of the ‘service’ often demanded of think tanks. Barring a few notable and occasional exceptions, domestic foundations have by and large stayed away from supporting think tanks except through consultancies, knowledge products from which remain concealed from public domain.

The description mentioned above applies to social science research think tanks in South Asia, much in contrast to their science and technology counterparts. The multi-donor, global Think Tank Initiative (TTI), is in part a response to the situation described above, and a bold step in providing core institutional funding and technical support to competitively selected Think Tanks in a donor climate increasingly pushing for a quick turnaround with measurable indicators of success. The funded Think Tanks, after over five years of continued support under TTI, have indeed begun to show remarkable institutional success.

Except anecdotally, the causes for precious little institutional funding support for Think Tanks by national governments and domestic foundations remain poorly understood. The paradox is more glaring in light of the legacy in India of precisely similar institutional creation and long-term, meaningful support to numerous Indian research institutions, which the country is very proud of. But none of these top institutions were built without predictable and adequate funding support over several decades, significant portions of which came from government and domestic philanthropists.

A big part of the challenge is structural in nature. The Indian legacy of institution building would need to be revived, and attitudes of national governments and philanthropy would need to be fundamentally altered beyond national boundaries. In supporting the formation of the recently formed Asian Social Science Association (ASSA), and in working with national councils supporting social science research, TTI is making a modest effort to cultivate this attitudinal shift through increased advocacy for greater and more meaningful government role in creating and sustaining knowledge institutions. Think Tanks, on their part, need to more effectively and collaboratively demonstrate the research quality excellence that they espouse, global standards of research ethics that they practise, and the relevance and pragmatism of their policy advice. New philanthropy in India, renewed commitment and, more recently, a mandate for corporate social responsibility are opening new avenues for engagement with the private corporate sector. Media revolution and new engagement tools provide a historic opportunity to seek new interested stakeholders, and to reach out and renew engagements with existing ones in innovative and more effective ways.

In all of these, leadership plays a critical role, whether on the part of Think Tanks, or the philanthropists and government. Vision, energised by entrepreneurial ability and driven by a dynamic and committed team continue to remain core elements of a successful institution building strategy. On their part, on the other hand, the governments and philanthropists need to hone their ability to identify and then systematically support such leadership in Think Tanks over a sufficient period of time. This has succeeded in the past, during much more resource- and knowledge- constrained times soon after India became independent. With greater domestic resources, better knowledge and deeper experience, there is little reason why this would not wonderfully succeed today.

Note: This is the author’s personal view

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