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On collaboration among think tanks: moving from desire to reality

By 20/03/2015

At the recent TTIX 2015, besides facilitating a session on written communications as a way to engage with policymakers, P&I was involved as facilitator of a parallel session on Think Tanks learning from each other.

Before the event, there was some preliminary exchange of ideas on this issue through an e-forum so that the live discussion could focus on the emerging questions and most relevant dilemmas when thinking about collaboration. Participants of this e-forum indicated that key factors to foster a successful collaboration are: shared and strategic purpose (better when there is previous conversation and agreement on the project), trust, empathy and real commitment to the other participants (help/understand the other) and to the project deliverables, shared risks and benefits, eagerness to learn, clear leadership within each institution, complementarity, and being able to stick to each one’s mission and vision.

On the other hand, they also expressed that among the most recurrent problems/obstacles faced are: use of money, lack of recognition of everyone’s contribution, power asymmetries (i.e entrenched hierarchies of knowledge) and a competing environment.

The session opened with three think tank representatives who shared their lessons around diverse collaboration experiences, Adriana Arellano from Grupo FARO, Ecuador, Subrat Das from CBGA, India, and Félix Asante, from ISSER, Ghana, presented a series of reflections on how learning and working together with other think tanks had worked. One of the most relevant points was linked to the importance of having a sincere and detailed dialogue in advance to ensure that everyone is clear about the roles and responsibilities of each member, taking into account each organisation’s capacities and possibilities (complementarity is highly valued). For this, having some previous face to face interaction, and getting to know each other better, play a key role. Some spaces and donors facilitate these dialogues and relationship building.

The challenge of balancing the costs of sustaining this type of relationships with the advantages they bring was also analysed. Many times think tanks underestimate the time, resources and energy implied in reaching consensus, finding ways to work well together when they have different working cultures, etc. In this sense, the timeframe for the collaboration should be taken into account.

Participants from the audience actively commented on their or others’ experiences. How to assess whether the other think tank/s is a good partner? Should collaboration always be fostered or do some competing contexts deter it? How can more equitable relationships be fostered within partnerships where one institution, usually from the North, manages the resources?

Questions revealed a significant gap in terms of systematised knowledge about peer learning and collaboration. We tend to call “collaboration” a very heterogeneous group of vertical and horizontal relationships and experiences, ranging from a tour to learn from another think tank, to co-organising an event, to implementing a joint research project. We probably need to be more careful when we assess these diverse experiences and see whether the above mentioned factors play the same role. In that sense, a taxonomy of types of collaborations with frequent implications for think tanks as well as internal and external factors that both facilitate or hinder them could become a step forward towards becoming more strategic. Should we always collaborate? It seems most of the panelists and attendees agreed that the answer is no. However, do we have good evidence to decide when to collaborate, how to do it and when to say no?

I believe we are not there yet. So while the spirit of welcoming collaboration, peer learning and South-South exchange increases, we also need reason to help us out to more concretely decide what type of collaboration we really need and can sustain so that it´s valuable for us and others. If we plan to move from desire to reality, let us first use what we have learned to improve how we collaborate in the near future.

This post was originally published on Politics&Ideas.