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FEATURE: Arming Asia’s think tanks to take on climate change


Could a new generation of think tanks be more effective than existing Asian institutions at tackling the challenges of climate change? Hina Lotia and Geoff Barnard joined the debate in India

Think tanks have a potentially crucial role to play in getting climate and development issues onto policy agendas, promoting informed debate, and holding governments and others to account. But what does it take to be an effective think tank, and how can their role be strengthened?

This was the focus for a meeting this month in New Delhi, India, where CDKN and LEAD Pakistan brought together nine Asia-based organisations and networks to explore whether joining forces might help them address climate change challenges more effectively.

A growing array of think tanks is emerging in the region, but their effectiveness is constrained by factors that range from a lack of strong policy engagement skills and the disconnect between research supply and policy demand, through to basic funding and staff retention problems.

What is a think tank?
The term think tank was first used during the Second World War to refer to rooms where strategists discussed war planning. Its current use, to portray an organisation that undertakes independent research and seeks to influence policy has been recognised since the 1950s, though think tanks take different forms and some are able to be more independent than others, depending on the country context.

The military origin of the name serves as a useful metaphor; we can view think tanks as vehicles operating on a policy battlefield. An effective think tank needs firepower in the form of credible research that’s relevant to the policy question at hand; effective targeting that delivers research findings to the right place at the right time; and the manoeuvrability to position themselves in policy debates and respond to opportunities.

Organisations aspiring to become effective think tanks need to build up a range of skill sets and capacities, and to nurture a culture that is distinct from a typical research institute, rewarding entrepreneurship and communication abilities, not just academic merit. At the Delhi meeting, we discussed how funders and capacity-building initiatives could work together to help the new generation of climate-focused think tanks take on this challenge.

An initial mapping exercise showed that although several of the organisations present were working to build climate research capacity in the region, and others were supporting think tanks, as yet there were no initiatives focusing specifically on strengthening and connecting climate-related think tanks. We agreed this would be an area worth exploring.

As the very experienced organisations around the table underlined, however, capacity building is not a straightforward task. It goes beyond running one-off training courses and hoping for the best, and raises many questions. How do you encourage researchers to move outside their comfort zones and see themselves as players in the policy process? Do you work with individuals, who tend to move around between jobs, or with institutions that stay put?

How do you provide substantive support to an organisation without creating dependency? How do you ensure ownership and avoid one-size-fits-all approaches that assume there’s a standard template for what think tanks should look like. And one of the most difficult aspects, how do you measure capacity so you know if you are having an impact?

Preparing for a long campaign
Comparing notes, it was clear that a concerted, long-term approach was needed, and that think tanks, and the organisations supporting them, had much to gain by working together. To take this agenda forward, we agreed to collaborate on hosting an Asian climate think tank forum later in the year. Organisations present at the Delhi meeting will invite some of their key think tank partners along.

The idea will be to create a space to share experiences, listen to what existing think tanks have to say about the approaches that work best when aiming to influence policy, and hear what support they would most value in strengthening their capacity. This will help to shape thinking on what the demand is for a future climate think tank support initiative and what its characteristics might be.

It may be some time before we have battalions of powerful think tanks roaming the climate policy space, armed with latest research and bristling with modern communication approaches. But the Delhi meeting may prove to be an important first step in arming Asia’s think tanks so they can become a force to be reckoned with.

Organisations joining CDKN and LEAD Pakistan at the meeting were:

Hina Lotia is CDKN’s Asia Regional Coordinator, based at LEAD Pakistan

Geoff Barnard is CDKN’s Knowledge Manager Strategy Advisor, and a Research Associate in ODI’s Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) Programme.

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