Think Tank – The Thought Behind Policies

The world had always been confronting numerous, diverse challenges in the realms of international peace and security, terrorism, globalization and governance, international economics, environment, information and society, poverty alleviation, human rights, healthcare, and so on. These issues need to be addressed by bridging the gap between knowledge and policy in critical areas. This phenomenon led to the establishment of regional and international networks of policy institutes and communities known as ‘Think Tanks’. The main aim behind their establishment was to improve policymaking while simultaneously strengthening the democratic institutions and civil societies.

The word ‘Think Tank’ owes its origin to the RAND Corporation, which operated as a closed and secure environment for US strategic thinking after World War II. Prior to the WWII, think tanks had predominantly been an Anglo-American phenomenon. Since then, they have spread throughout the world and today, a total of 6826 think tanks exist in 184 countries of the world; out of them 1828 operate only in the US. Europe’s liberal democracies, the United Kingdom and Germany, host 287 and 194 of these respectively.

Foundations, political parties, corporations, business tycoons, and governments spend billions of dollars each year to support the thought process at all these think tanks. This spending, naturally, raises the questions of their efficacy which, in turn, warrants assessment. The paramount example of a perception-based assessment is the ‘Global Go To Think Tank (GGTTT)’ rankings compiled by the University of Pennsylvania’s ‘Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program’. The GGTTT rates such institutions in various categories such as Countries with the Largest Number of Think Tanks, Top Think Tanks Worldwide, Top Think Tanks by Region, etc.

Evolution of Think Tanks

History of these premier institutions reveals that most think tanks have shown a strong growth, though a lot have shrunk or faced a closure owing to financial constraints, inept leadership and, occasionally, the state orders.

Diane Stone Marie Curie, Chair & Head, Public Policy Program Central European University in a report entitled ‘Think Tanks and Policy Advice in Countries in Transition’ has mentioned at least four waves of growth of think tanks around the world: First generation in pre-WWII world; second wave in the OECD countries; the world-wide think tank boom in the late 1970s; and the transnationalisation of think tanks in the new millennium. Here we briefly analyse these waves:

First Wave

The first stage of think tank development encompasses the epoch till the World War II. This period saw a number of institutes established in Western Europe or in the United States. These first generation think tanks were created due to the need of responding to the practical problems spawned by urbanization, industrialization and economic growth in early 20th century.
Second Wave

A more extensive second wave of development hit Europe in the post-WWII period but this was largely limited to liberal democracies. In the US, the New Deal and the Great Society period were a boom time for ideational actors; the most notable being the Urban Institute. This period was marked by the proliferation of foreign policy institutes, centres for the study of security and development studies as it was the era defined by the Cold War, superpower rivalries and the emergence of Third World issues.

Third Wave

Since the 1970s, a third wave is in progress and there has been a conspicuous proliferation of think tanks across the globe. The heightened activity of think tanks is related to periods of economic and political instability or fundamental change such as the demise of the USSR and democratization in Latin America as well as parts of Asia. The rise of the so-called ‘New Right’ think tanks also illustrates how policy uncertainties provide a window of opportunity for these institutes to help execute the paradigm shift away from Keynesian policymaking to what is regarded in other parts of the world as elements of the Washington Consensus. That is, privatization, financial liberalization and deregulation.

Fourth Wave

Analysts are now predicting a fourth wave that would be qualitatively different in that it would not be marked by the spread of think tank sort of organizations. Instead, this phase will bring with it the new modes of interaction propelled by the forces of globalization and regionalization.

Nature and Scope

The think tank sector has diversified nowadays. They vary considerably in size, structure, policy ambit and political significance. Some institutes aspire to function on a ‘non-partisan’ or ‘non-ideological’ basis and claim to adopt a ‘scientific’ or technical approach to social and economic problems. Some think tanks are ‘academic’ in style, focussed on research, geared to university interests and in building the knowledge base of society. Other organizations are overtly partisan or ideologically motivated. Many institutes are routinely engaged in advocacy and the marketing of ideas whether in simplified policy relevant form or in sound bites for the media. This trend is most prevalent in Europe and North America.

Specialization is a more contemporary development with thinks tanks in the realms of environment, economic policymaking or regional scenarios. Technological advancement has also seen the rise of the ‘virtual tank’.

There is no ‘international benchmark’ for how many think tanks are necessary for a country, how large they should be or how should they cooperate amongst themselves or with other institutions. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the most of the well-known think tanks in the world tend to be the larger, mature institutes with stable sources of funding that secure a resident research staff (usually 20 or more researchers). There are at least five types of think tanks:1. Independent civil society think tanks established as non-profit organizations;

2. Policy research institutes located in or affiliated with a university;

3. Governmental-created or state-sponsored think tanks;

4. Corporate-created or business-affiliated think tanks;

5. Political party (or candidate) think tanks.

World Ranking

In rankings for the year 2013, ‘Countries with the Largest Number of Think Tanks’ category places the US at top of the list with 1828 think tanks, China and United Kingdom being second and third with 426 and 287 think tanks respectively.

Think Tanks in the Muslim World

Presently, 13% think tanks worldwide belong to Muslim world and 54 out of 57 OIC states have think tanks within a range 1 to 55. Egypt, at 19th position in the world rankings, stands first among OIC nations with 55 think thanks. Pakistan, with a total of 19 think tanks, occupies 66th position worldwide while 17th among OIC Countries.

Think Tanks in Asia

Think tanks emerged in a number of Asian countries in the post-WWII era. This includes well-known organizations such as the Japan Institute of International Affairs (established 1959) or the Singaporean Institute of International Affairs (SIIA, 1962). All Saarc countries have think tanks; from minimum one to maximum 268 by numbers. Among Saarc countries, India tops the list with 268 think tanks and it places her at the fourth position worldwide. India is trailed by Bangladesh and Pakistan with 35 and 19 institutes respectively. Saarc represents 5.30% share of thinks tanks worldwide with 362 institutes overall.

Ranking of Think Tanks 2013

According to Global Go To Think Tank (GGTTT) rankings in category Top Think Tanks Worldwide, Brookings Institution (United States) was declared the best while Chatham House (United Kingdom) and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (United States) were placed at second and third position respectively.
United Kingdom has privilege to own 17 best think tanks in the world; Germany has 12 while the US has 11 best think tanks.

Saarc Region

Among top 150 think tanks spread in 52 countries, only 8 are from Saarc region. Six out of these eight think tanks belong to India. Unfortunately, not a single one in this list is from Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan. India’s Centre for Civil Society (CCS) is ranked 50th best worldwide, whereas Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) (India) is on 102nd position; Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) stood on 105th position; The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) on 107th, Observer Research Foundation on 114th while Development Alternatives holds 140th position. The other top think tanks in South Asia are Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) at 97th place; and Sri Lanka’s Regional Centre for Strategic Studies at 127th position.

Muslim States

Data reveal that 10 out of 57 OIC Countries have 13 think tanks included in this list of top 150 think tanks. Turkey and Azerbaijan share three and two top think tanks respectively and rest of 8 OIC countries have one each.

Think Tanks

A broad brush claim is that civil society think tanks tend to be smaller than state-sponsored or corporate think tanks as they are more dependent on philanthropy and contract research. Universities-based think tanks are also often smaller, partly because they can draw upon expertise in other parts of the university. However, there are a host of legal, political and economic reasons peculiar to the history and institutional make-up of a nation as to why there is no one best model or trajectory for think tank development.

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