The ‘Think Tank Initiative' is an ambitious South Asia-wide effort to increase policy development capacity in the subcontinent. It is to be launched in New Delhi on October 30.

On October 30, five international donors, coordinated by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), launch in Delhi, an ambitious South Asia-wide effort to increase policy development capacity in the subcontinent, through the “Think Tank Initiative” (TTI). The donors, contributing a total pool of $110 million globally, include the Hewlett and Gates Foundations and the British and Dutch governments. The idea germinated several years ago within the Hewlett Foundation, where experience with funding of research projects left its leadership convinced investments should also be made in the core capacity of promising research institutions.

Approach to research funding

The central purpose of the initiative is to allow successful applicants to more effectively link research and policy. It seeks to better connect the best research capabilities to the most challenging development problems. We believe stronger, sustainable local think tanks should lead to smarter and more effective policymaking. The TTI hopes to promote further investments of this nature over a 10-year period.

Why would international funders want to support policy-oriented research institutions in India?

On the positive side of the ledger, a number of them are outstanding and produce work of the highest quality, often on a financial shoe-string. We received dozens of very exciting applications from tremendously accomplished institutions. Ruled out were centres focused on a single issue only (for example, agricultural research or micro-finance). What all countries need, beyond such specialised institutions, is sophisticated multi-issue research centres that can (among other strengths) relate and sometimes prioritise issues relative to each other.

On a less positive note, one of the main reasons that independent research institutions in India are so important is that the promise of India's universities remains largely unfulfilled, not just in quality of teaching and research but also in the capacity and desire to influence policy.

Even the enviable Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) are often less well equipped, and also less inclined, to influence policy through evidence-based research than their counterparts elsewhere around the globe. While several university-based teams in India, in such fields as law and economics, have played an important role in shaping national policies over the past 60-odd years, they are very much the exception. Meanwhile, many academic departments in India are probably weaker than they were 40 years ago for a variety of reasons.

Thus, in India, Think Tanks both offer capacity and counter deficits.

Policy-relevant research in India matters in three ways. First, advice on improved policy in a rapidly growing country still trailing too much grinding poverty, is important. Second, India and other economically fast-growing “emerging” nations serve as models for other developing countries who would like, in their own ways, to emulate their successes. Third, as we grapple with increasingly global problems like climate change or macroeconomic imbalances, solutions can be “sourced” from anywhere in the world. India, with its long-standing tradition of scholarship and weight in global affairs is surely an integral part of the global solution.

Nine Indian institutions (the largest number of all the countries in which TTI is active) each will receive up to $2 million. The purposes and methods of these research institutions differ widely, as described in the three cases below.

The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) is known more for political philosophy than for its interest in influencing policy directly, although it has the intellectual fire-power and increasingly the desire to do the latter, not least as a result of generational change in this very fine institution where the young build on the shoulders of giants.

The Institute of Economic Growth (IEG), early on associated with the famed Delhi School of Economics, made signal contributions over several generations to Indian macroeconomic, trade, industrial, population and rural development policies. More recently, thanks to such scholars as Bina Agarwal, the institute has produced important work on those left behind or adversely affected by economic reform and development.

Meanwhile, the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) under V.S. Arunachalam has produced remarkable work on energy technology and energy security policies.

Why foreign support?

India is notoriously deferential to the old and wise. This is a good thing, but can become a bad one when younger, challenging voices are stifled. The TTI choice favoured institutions undertaking significant change and introducing new voices into public dialogue in India. And there are so many terrific young Indians to learn from.

A debate is in full swing in India about whether foreign support is desirable or even necessary for such institutions. In my own country, Canada, private money for policy-relevant research and for universities is a recent (if rapidly growing) phenomenon. Canadians have often benefitted from foreign research funding.

It is the U.S. that has been light years ahead of all other countries in mobilising large amounts of funding for independent research. In other Western countries, government funding was seen as central for these purposes, and any parallel private, philanthropic efforts as optional add-ons.

In India, many research institutions depend on government research contracts for routine sustenance. For cross-cutting analysis and research, foreign funders, such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, provided a vital life-line in India for independent thought as early as the 1950s. Since then, Indian contributions, from the private sector, from generous individuals, and endowments from government have grown. But, for a country of its size, with growing international significance, and influence, much more is required.

In India, potential donors may be more interested in funding their alma maters in the West, in building temples or in supporting impressive activist and programming non-governmental organisations (NGO). Happily, several visionary and public-minded Indian entrepreneurs are moving to fill the gap for the country's varied Think Tanks and policy-oriented NGOs, as are several long-standing trusts. However, given the high demand, foreign research funders may continue to be useful to Indians for some years to come.

(David M. Malone, President of Canada's International Development Research Centre, is a former Canadian High Commissioner to India. His book, Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy, will be published in 2011.)

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