Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cry, the beloved think tank

Hurriyet Daily News recently ran a short article on the closure of ASAM. What I particularly liked about the article is that rather than talk about the political motives underlying the end of funding from its main sponsor, the article managed to relate to general problem of think tanks in Turkey, independence or rather lack of it.

Before I go on, I should explain that the idea is a think tank is relatively new for Turkey. For a country of some 60mn, there are an amazingly small number of think tanks, most of them in Ankara. Suffice it to say that the Hurriyet article manages to cover all the major think tanks I know of.

Having worked at a think tank as well as interact with other think tanks in the capital Ankara for one and a half years, I can unfortunately concur that independence is really one big issue. In my specific case, while no one from our sponsor institution ever called us to order tailored-to-needs research, our papers and policy notes were carefully edited to make sure we did not offend the policies of the sponsor. Perhaps more disturbingly, the staff of the sponsor saw us more or less as its research assistance arm. In one particularly funny instance, my counterpart at the sponsor tried to scold me for having made a trip to the Starbucks next door for getting my morning cappucino as I was not available to answer her questions on a particular project.

Of course, as the Jersey saying goes, "Money talks, BS walks"- the route to independence for think tanks goes through securing their own funding, but that ain't so easy. As the Hurriyet article notes, people just don't want to pay for knowledge. Even though the top brass of our think tank were more connected than an OTC derivative, we still had difficulty getting projects for a fee.

But as an Isparta saying goes, "In democracies, you never run out of solutions". In fact, there are alternative funding methods for think tanks. For example, a think tank founded in Argentina by a couple of friends from Boston uses (at least used to use, as I haven't been in touch with the founder for some time) donations from diversified sources to fund its activities. So in way, my words of wisdom to think tanks: "If you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror"...

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