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Are think tanks promoting or distorting evidence-based policy?

By 27/04/2017

Around the world, there are growing concerns about powerful funders’ potential ability to use think tanks and other non-profit groups to manipulate democratic debates, policy formulation processes, and decision-making.

In many parts of the globe, these concerns are fairly new. Indeed, until recently, there were two distinct narratives surrounding think tanks. The first narrative, largely restricted to wealthy Anglo-Saxon countries, asked whether think tanks might be distorting democracy in the service of the powerful interest groups who funded them. While the political left focused its attention on corporate donors and their financial interests, the political right cast a suspicious eye on think tanks funded by government bodies, trade unions, or liberal billionaires. Both sides were often critical of think tanks and the role they played.

The second narrative surrounding think tanks originated from the international development community. Observing poor policies and poor policy outcomes in many countries of the Global South, institutional donors began to see think tanks – policy research institutions that were independent of malfunctioning state bureaucracies and largely insulated from domestic political pressures – as a way to promote evidence-based policymaking in support of social and economic development. In this narrative, think tanks were cast as positive actors that provided public goods to the benefit of all.

Now that think tanks have become established around the globe – I even found one working in the policy vacuum that is Mauritania – the two narratives are rapidly converging. As political systems mature and policy research institutions come of age, think tanks in Peru are being asked the same questions about the possible influence of corporate or foreign donors that think tanks in the United States have long become accustomed to.

In this context, funding from undisclosed sources is particularly problematic, as it leaves the public in the dark about the sponsors behind a given piece of research, policy prescription, or advocacy drive (for more details on this see Transparify’s research summaries on think tank transparencyfundingpolicy influence, and corporate interests). Opaqueness about funding sources undermines the credibility of all think tanks, including those with nothing to hide.

Thus, Transparify in 2013 began to advocate for greater funding transparency among think tanks. We believe that think tanks can make a strong contribution to strengthening democratic processes and improving policy outcomes. At the same time, we acknowledge concerns about powerful funders’ potential ability to use think tanks to manipulate democratic debates and policy outcomes.

By assessing and rating the extent to which a think tank discloses about its funding, Transparify offers to policy research institutions committed to intellectual independence and intellectual integrity an opportunity to signal their credibility to policymakers, the media, and citizens. After all, a think tank that discloses who pays for its research and advocacy can hardly be accused of harbouring hidden agendas.

Transparify’s rating criteria

Four years on, starting from a low baseline, financial transparency has become the norm among think tanks in numerous countries, including the United States. Policy research institutions in places as far apart as Pakistan, the Ukraine, Ecuador, Kenya, Canada, Ethiopia, and Montenegro have disclosed in detail who funds them.

Shift towards transparency among think tanks worldwide, 2013–2016

Recently, we assessed 27 think tanks in the United Kingdom and discovered that 17 of them were financially transparent, showing yet again that most respectable think tanks see no need to conceal who funds their research and advocacy. Top performers included the Institute for Development Studies and the Overseas Development Institute, two prominent international development think tanks that both earned the maximum 5-star rating. Less positively, we took a closer look at the minority of highly opaque outfits in Britain and found that several of them seemed to have something to hide.

So are think tanks promoting or distorting evidence-based policy? The short answer is that the sector as a whole, and most think tanks within it, play a positive role. Democracy benefits from the data, insights, policy advice, and debates generated by independent research institutions, and most think tanks clearly do have confidence in their intellectual independence.

By disclosing who funds them, think tanks worldwide have demonstrated that they are committed to playing by democratic rules. By walking the transparency talk, they have also set a powerful example for the wider nonprofit sector in the countries where they work, adding credibility to their calls for government institutions, political parties, and other democratic players to also open their books.