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Think Tanks: Definitions, Development and Diversification

1.1. Definitions.

The word ‘think tank’ stems from the RAND Corporation, which operated as a closed and secure environment for US strategic thinking after World War II. The term entered popular usage in the 1960s to describe a group of specialists who undertake intensive study of important policy issues. UNDP (2003: 6) defines think tanks as

… organizations engaged on a regular basis in research and advocacy on any matter related to public policy. They are the bridge between knowledge and power in modern democracies”
(UNDP, 2003: 6)

The idea of think tanks connecting researchers and decision makers resonates throughout the mission statements of numerous organisations. For instance, in Singapore, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Institute of Policy Studies argues that “IPS must act as a bridge – to be close to, but not part of the government”.1 Similarly, the Tokyo based NIRA which produces a world survey of think tanks2 argues that the key function of think tank is: “to bridge policy ideas and knowledge with other researchers and institutions, and sometimes with people having different backgrounds or ideologies”.

The Anglo-American tradition regards think tanks as relatively autonomous organizations with separate legal identity that engage in the analysis of policy issues independently of government, political parties and pressure groups. Elsewhere, the think tank tradition can be different (Stone & Denham, 2004). In Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taipei,China think tanks are often found inside corporations. Chinese think tanks are government-sponsored and their scholars often work in patron-client relations with political leaders. Many institutes in South East Asia are semi-independent and often have close interaction with government, or with individual political figures.

The notion that a think tank requires independence from the state in order to be 'free-thinking' is an Anglo- American norm that does not translate well into other political cultures. Increasingly, therefore, ‘think tank’ is conceived in terms of a policy research function and a set of analytic or policy advisory practices, rather than a specific legal organizational structure as a non-governmental, non-partisan or independent civil society entity.

1.2. A Century of Think Tank Development

Prior to World War Two, think tanks were predominantly an Anglo-American phenomenon. Since then they have spread throughout the world. Around a thousand operate in the USA. European liberal democracies such as the United Kingdom and Germany host at least 100 each. Most other countries have less than fifty think tanks. The world wide total lies in the vicinity of 3,000 (McGann & Weaver, 2000). Overall think tanks have seen strong growth, but others have shrunk or closed as a consequence of financial insecurity, inadequate leadership or, occasionally, closure by state authorities.

At least four waves can be discerned in the pattern of think tank growth around the world. The first generation prior to world war two; the second wave in the OECD countries; the world-wide think tank boom from the late 1970s; and the transnationalisation of think tanks in the new millennium.

The first stage of think tank development until the World War Two saw a number of institutes established in Western Europe or the United States. First generation think-tanks were responses to practical problems spawned by urbanization, industrialisation and economic growth early in the 20th century. Well known American institutes include the Brookings Institution and the Russell Sage Foundation. In the UK, they include the Fabian Society, the National Institute for Social and Economic Research (NIESR) and Chatham House.

The period after world war two saw a more extensive second wave of development throughout Europe but such growth was largely limited to liberal democracies. In the USA, the New Deal and the Great Society period were a boom-time for ideational actors; the most notable being the Urban Institute. The period was marked by the proliferation of foreign policy institutes, centres for the study of security and development studies institutes, in an era defined by the Cold War, superpower rivalries and the emergence of Third World issues.

Since the 1970s, there has been a third wave with the 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 Soviet Union and democratisation in Latin America and 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 pardigm shift away from Keynesian policy making to what is regarded in other parts of the world as elements of the Washington Consensus. That is, privatisation, financial liberalisation and deregulation.

As would be expected, western-style independent think tanks in Russia, Central and Eastern Europe appeared only after 1989. Examples include the Gdansk Institute and the Center for Social and Economic Research, both in Poland, the Market Institute in Lithuania, the Adam Smith Institute in Warsaw and the Economic Institute in Hungary. As relatively young organisations, with limited resources, these social and economic policy institutes are often over-stretched in their policy focus on the problems of transition (Quigley 1997: 86-87).

Some analysts are now arguing that there is a fourth wave. This phase is qualitatively different in that it is not marked by the spread of think tank types of organisation. Instead, this phase is characterised by new modes of interaction that are propelled by the forces of globalisation and regionalisation (see section 3).

1.3. Diversification and Specialisation

Today, the think tank industry is very diverse. Many hybrid forms of think tank have emerged. They vary considerably in size, structure, policy ambit and political significance. Some organizations at least 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. These tend to be the older mainstream institutes. In Asia they include the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI)3 or the Korea Development Institute (KDI)4. Some think tanks are 'academic' in style, focused 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 apparent in Europe and North America but neo-liberal bodies like the Atlas Foundation are sponsoring the spread of free market economic institutes into countries such as Viet Nam.5

Specialization is a more contemporary development with environmental think tanks (e.g. the Thailand Environment Institute)6, economic policy think tanks (e.g. the Malaysian Institute for Economic Research)7 or regionally focused think tanks such as the Institute for South East Asian Studies (ISEAS)8 in Singapore. Technological advancements have also seen the rise of the ‘virtual tank’. However, it is in those nations with strong civil societies and pluralistic political cultures that think tank diversification and specialisation is most apparent. Yet, the adversarial and ideological style of the American think tank industry has been fuelled by a wealthy philanthropic sector creating a ‘battle of ideas’ that some regard as negative feature of pluralism.

There is no ‘international benchmark’ for how many think tanks are necessary for a country, how large they should be or how they should cooperate amongst themselves or with other institutions such as universities. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the most 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 tank:

  1. Independent civil society think tanks established as non-profit organisations;
  2. Policy research institutes located in or affiliated with a university;
  3. Governmentally created or state sponsored think tank;
  4. Corporate created or business affiliated think tank;
  5. Political party (or candidate) think tank.

1.4. The ‘Asian’ Think Tank Story

Just as it is a conundrum to define ‘Asia’ so it is the case to seek an ‘Asian think tank tradition’. Accordingly, this analysis does not intend to uncover the ‘general’ pattern of think tank development in Asia; it would be an erroneous exercise. Nevertheless, there are notable differences in the evolutionary trajectory of think tanks in Asia from experience in North America and Europe.

Think tanks emerged in a number of Asian countries in the post-World War Two era. This includes well-known organisations such as the Japan Institute of International Affairs (established 1959) or the Singaporean Institute of International Affairs (SIIA, 1962)9. A number of institutes created in the 1960s and 1970s were modelled after the Royal Institute of International Affairs in the UK or American think tanks (Sandhu, 1991: 3). For example, SIIA, ISEAS, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)10 in Jakarta. During the 1990s, there has been a conscious effort to draw upon the American tradition of think tanks. The Ford Foundation provided core support for the establishment of TDRI in Thailand. During the 1990s, some entrepreneurs sought to export the US model and modify it to suit the Japanese cultural and institutional context (see Telgarsky & Ueno, 1996: 3-4).

The number of think tanks in Southeast Asian countries is small but growing. The population of Northeast Asian institutes is greater. In particular, with a few exceptions, the first Asian think tanks were not established until the 1960s, while the boom in Asian think tank numbers started in the 1990s. This is a later frame of development than in the West where the proliferation was experienced from the 1960s. Consequently, the degree of think tank diversity and specialisation is less pronounced.

In most Southeast Asian countries, the first generation of think tanks were elite, establishment bodies. Often they were set up directly within government, for example, LIPI in Indonesia.11 The Philippine Institute of Development Studies (PIDS) is another economic think tank established by government decree in 1977 a non-stock, nonprofit government corporation. In other words, the first generation of institutes was closely tied to the state. Their primary purpose was to provide information and act as a sounding board for government. Think tanks lacked independence from the state, to the extent that some observers claim that these bodies are 'state-directed' (Jayasuriya, 1994). Their importance to the state lies in their capacity to amplify messages that come from the top-down to the rest of society. As one observer has stated, Asian think tanks tend to be "regime enhancing" rather than "regime critical" (Yamamoto & Hubbard, 1995: 45).

1.5. Viet Nam in an International Context

In some degree, the Vietnamese situation parallels the experiences of other socialist systems. Institutes were totally state supported, firmly entrenched in the bureaucratic structure and designed to provide intellectual and analytic support to the state. Broadly speaking, the Soviet model (replicated with local variations through Central and Eastern Europe) constructed three different levels of research institute overseen by Communist Party structures. Those under the tutelage of the Academies of Science were afforded the greatest degree of intellectual autonomy. Secondly, there were institutes attached to particular ministries, albeit exercising little influence over the policy process. And third, there were institutes tied to the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) dealing with broader ideological and political questions. In all three types, ideological constraints severely restricted the spectrum of policy analysis while censorship restricted the research agenda. There was only one ‘client’ for research; the monopolistic state. Opportunities for substantive policy impact could be dependent on the political patronage of a leading political figure. On the other hand, conservative opposition to ‘innovative thinking’ could lead to the emasculation of an institute, or the political ostracism of individual instituteniki. Greatest intellectual freedom was perhaps to be found in Hungary and least so in the German Democratic Republic. Glasnost, perestroika and the novoe politicheskoe mishlenie set in play values and norms that were articulated by reformist think tanks and which contributed to the internal fracturing of the politico-ideological complex (for a full discussion see Sandle, 2004).

The collapse of the Soviet Union has had dramatic implications for the state sponsored policy research conglomerate. In stark terms, the state sector has withered. There has been a haemorrage of talented researchers into the new private sector (or alternative employment) and at the same time, massive cut-backs in funding for the state institutions in deteriorating economic conditions with a concomitant deterioration in status for researchers. There has also been ‘privatisation’ of some former state research institutions or ‘spin-off’ institutes created from the old bodies. The monopoly of expertise has given away to increased competition and fragmentation.

Western style think tanks emerged in large numbers and many have prospered. The challenges of transition to build viable economic and political systems in the wake of communism and the increased complexity of governance created real opportunities for young policy entrepreneurs in the new think tanks. There are, however, serious questions of sustainability and a culture of dependency on foreign funds, made all the more apparent when donors turned their attention to the Middle East and the war on terrorism after 9/11. Too quickly western analysts have equated the rapid development of independent think tanks with teleological assumptions of ‘transition’ towards democratic institutions, pluralism, healthy civil societies, market competition, liberalism, privatisation and consumerism. Instead, the communist legacy persists in the organisational structures, values and research ethos of old institutes alongside the transition think tanks.

By contrast, in the People’s Republic of China the Academies of Sciences have been more resilient, due largely to the continuing grip on power of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese think tanks maintain close patronclient relations with political leaders and operate within a closed policy context. Composed of ‘establishment intellectuals’ who help shape the legitimacy of political authority, Chinese think tanks:

…have no intention of challenging or replacing the regime, but want to maintain the existing structures of political authority by persuading the state to change itself and thus help the political leadership overcome its difficulties (Shai, 2004: 143).

Furthermore, the emergence of societally-based think tanks has been very limited. The continuing strong topdown political control of the party-state has precluded the development (and impact) of independent policy research.

Are there any lessons from Soviet and Chinese experience for Viet Nam? The analytical weakness of the Soviet bureaucracy as a result of practices that rewarded loyalty and obedience, conservatism and conformity forced the leadership to solicit expertise from reform minded institutes and independent experts. Rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and resultant policy problems, alongside the pressures of globalisation, might prompt Vietnamese leaders to look outside the state for policy advice should in-house policy analysis be deemed inadequate or irrelevant. However, if Chinese experience provides a guide, there is unlikely to be a flowering of Western style policy institutes or a political culture of critique developing in the next decade.

If Vietnamese political leaders were to look for lessons in the mode of operation of Southeast Asian think tanks, then it would be to cultivate an ‘arms length’ and more independent relationship with the state. The mechanisms for achieving this outcome – such as corporatisation – would entail a difficult adjustment. The alternative would be to sponsor autonomous new institutes composed of ‘establishment intellectuals’.

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