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Investing in evidence for sustainable development

November 7, 2018

Andrew Hurst

Program Leader

Nipon Poapongsakorn

Distinguished Fellow

Among the key lessons learned from international development to date, one in particular stands out: public policies work best when they are designed and implemented by actors on the ground. This applies to domestic as well as regional and international policies, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Without context-specific data and analysis, well-intentioned programs and policies rarely respond to the lived realities of people in developing countries. Furthermore, without local actors in place to monitor implementation, the most thoughtfully designed initiatives may lose momentum or even collapse over the longer term.

Grant-makers have long recognized that research partners need to feel ownership if development cooperation is to be successful, but some of the national organizations they’ve invested in cannot carry out the ongoing research and analysis needed by policymakers and activists to effect societal improvements over time.

In 2008, a group of donors came together who were motivated to help governments that were hungry for data, research, and evidence as they sought to implement the Millennium Development Goals. These donors knew that governments needed help, and believed strongly that strengthening national policy research organizations, or think tanks, would lead to better public policy outcomes. With a focus on supporting think tanks in selected countries in East and West Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) was born.

TTI has supported 43 think tanks in 20 countries with a combination of core funding and technical support. Ten years later, we can see the results — stronger, more effective and, ultimately, sustainable research organizations that are better equipped to provide policymakers and other development actors with the objective evidence needed to develop and implement sound public policies.

TTI funding has filled the gap between the weak core support available to think tanks and the ever-increasing demand for high-quality research to help make policy decisions. The support has allowed participating think tanks to engage in long-term planning, establish their own research priorities, strengthen their policy engagement and communication capacity, and pursue research and engagement that is responsive to national needs and opportunities. All of these efforts have helped position them as relevant players and increased the foundations of their sustainability.

The sound public policies and improved citizen engagement these organizations have contributed to are many. They have facilitated public understanding of party electoral platforms in Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru, and they have improved policies and programs on tobacco control in West Africa, fertilizer use in East Africa, and climate change and renewable energy policy at the state level in India, to name just a few of their successes.

In addition to core funding, TTI’s efforts to develop policy research capacity have facilitated collaborative work internationally. The most notable of these collaborations is Southern Voice, a network of 49 think tanks that serves as an open platform to channel Southern research and evidence-based policy analyses into the global dialogue on the SDGs.

From November 11-14, 2018, more than 250 think tank representatives, policymakers, donors, researchers, and like-minded stakeholders will converge in Bangkok to celebrate all that’s been achieved over nearly a decade since the launch of TTI. At this third and final Think Tank Initiative Exchange, participants will reflect on and debate what the future will hold, and how they can best contribute to meeting the challenges that are in store.

Bangkok is an ideal setting for these discussions because of Thailand’s experience in managing challenges associated with, for example, trade liberalization in the 1990s, or efforts to pursue deregulation of the telecommunication and oil industries. The Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), a partner in the TTI Exchange, has had a history in helping face these challenges. Created in 1984 with the support of a grant by the former Canadian International Development Agency, TDRI can point to many cases of influence on public policy in Thailand. Its research on public broadcasting and telecommunication, for example, showed that balance was needed in the media market, which was dominated by monopolies in cable and satellite television. This led to the establishment of the Thai Public Broadcasting Service and the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission.

The need for policy-relevant research is as clear as ever. Arguably, the challenges facing societies, such as climate change, migration, and the future of work in the face of technological change, are more complex than ever. The need for data to understand these issues and evidence of what works to address them will be more important than ever.

Think tanks will continue to play a critical role in catalyzing progress towards the SDGs, but they too will need to change with the times. Think tanks will need to build upon their research — and the credibility that comes from it — to bridge differences, convene policy dialogues, and help their societies improve their understanding of the challenges they face. By seeing their role as part of a wider shared endeavour, think tanks can help identify and think through the best ways their countries can face an uncertain future.

Andrew Hurst is the program leader for the Think Tank Initiative, based at IDRC. Nipon Poapongsakorn is the former president and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute.