One of the greatest advantages of democracy is that any citizen can openly engage with policy ideas. Think tanks and research institutions help augment policy debates and provide alternative viewpoints to the public and decision-makers. Yet in young and emerging democracies where civil society is limited and political instability makes policy reform almost impossible, think tanks face numerous challenges that limit their capacities to help translate their ideas into reality.
On June 3, the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), CIPE and Atlas Corps co-hosted a discussion about this topic as part of launching NED’s newest report, Democracy Think Tanks in Action: Translating Research into Policy in Young and Emerging Democracies.
Sally Roshdy and Maksim Karliuk from the CIPE-Atlas Corps Think Tank LINKS Fellowship joined two authors from the report, Orazio Bellettini from Group FARO (Ecuador) and Sami Atallah from the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, as panelists for the event.
The main take away from the discussion was that civic education, effective communication, and partnership with other civil society organizations (CSOs) are keys driving forces for think tanks to delivering policy reforms in developing democracies.
Bellettini, sharing the Group FARO’s experience fighting political clientelism in social programs, emphasized that think tanks serve as brokers between citizens and the government by providing evidence-based research as well as narratives from the public to the decision-makers. It is not enough to just provide statistics, and think tanks help develop the narrative that takes the evidence from political discussion and turns it into a policy action.
Recounting how the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) led a national advocacy movement in 1997 to call for local elections, which hadn’t taken place since 1969, Atallah underlined the importance of think tanks in nascent democracies to do their homework and produce ideas as they wait for the perfect window of opportunity to introduce them.
LCPS researched electoral reform and formed a coalition with like-minded CSOs, even though the central government in Lebanon had no appetite for reform after the civil war in 1990. But as soon as the political elites began drafting laws concerning municipalities, LCPS and its partners pushed for electoral reforms and decentralization.
Roshdy and Karliuk, on the other hand, painted a picture of the very difficult environments in which their think tanks operate. The biggest challenges faced by think tanks in Egypt, such as Roshdy’s organization the One World Foundation , are the instability of institutions in post-Mubarak Egypt, a lack of domestic financial support, and the shortage of strong researchers. With the current political instability in Egypt, Roshdy stressed that now is the time for think tanks to engage with as many different parties as possible about various policy reform ideas. Similarly, Karliuk discussed h0w think tanks in Belarus (like his organization, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies) do not thrive because of the country’s limited political freedom and challenges with securing funding from local sources.
While all of the panelists’ experiences were different, they all agreed on one point: that in order to make any policy ideas into action, being timely and well-prepared are essential. Watch the video of the event, and learn more about the obstacles and best practices of think tanks in other emerging democracies, such as Georgia and Romania, from the newly published report, Democracy Think Tanks in Action.
Maiko Nakagaki is Program Officer for Global Programs at CIPE.