Navigating Through Turbulence
Think tanks’ impact on policy in a rapidly changing world
By FP Analytics, the independent research division of Foreign Policy magazine
The last few years have seen rises in authoritarianism, economic protectionism, poverty, and threats to human rights and civil liberties, trends that were all further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Efforts to combat such trends take many forms, but this report is particularly concerned with the role and impact of think tanks given their capacity to understand, explain, and shape these trends. Such organizations have proliferated globally since the 1990s, but there has been limited research and a lack of consensus regarding how successful they are in counteracting these negative trends. To explore this topic, FP Analytics conducted an in-depth survey and semi-structured interviews with think tank personnel to highlight the experiences and viewpoints of the think tank staff working on the ground to advance democracy, economic openness, human rights, and poverty reduction in their home countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated several troubling global trends, including increasing authoritarianism, economic protectionism, and threats to human rights and civil liberties. It threatened to undo the significant gains in global economic and political development since the end of the Cold War. Today, 2.6 billion people—35 percent of the global population—live under regimes that are becoming more authoritarian. By contrast, just 8 percent of the world’s population live under regimes that are becoming more democratic.1 For the first time since 2001, democracies are not the majority regime type in the world.2 Accompanying these shifts in governance are troubling trends across key aspects of human development. For example, the World Bank estimates that the pandemic has pushed 115 million people into extreme poverty.3 Likewise, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has warned that disruptions to food supply chains, declines in economic activity, and diversions of resources toward emergency medical responses due to COVID-19 will delay progress toward meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that was already moving at a slower pace than necessary to meet the targets by their 2030 deadline.4
Local think tanks are among the organizations working at the forefront of these challenges. With their deep understanding of, and analytical perspectives on, the domestic power structures in their respective countries of operation, and through their research and role in informing policymakers, the media, and the public with their analyses, these organizations can play a vital role in addressing the root causes and counteracting the impacts of such concerning trends. However, to date, there have been limited research and a lack of consensus regarding how think tanks make and measure impact, how they operate, and the degrees to which they are effectively addressing these and other challenges within their countries. Understanding these challenges is key to understanding think tanks’ utility and to maximizing their effectiveness. Accordingly, FP Analytics (FPA) undertook an in-depth investigation of local think tanks, interviewing 51 senior think tank leaders from organizations around the world and surveying another 322. This analysis sheds light on the perspectives of think tank leaders and how they are working to tackle four major issues including poverty and standards of living, economic openness, governance, and declining liberal democratic norms. Several notable findings emerged:
COVID-19 Presents Challenges and New Opportunities for Local Think Tanks: Think tank leaders felt that the pandemic has had a substantial negative effect on these four key areas in addition to causing operational challenges. The pandemic has provided cover for illiberal reforms and retaliation against opposition activity by authoritarian regimes, putting think tank staff at risk. However, the pandemic has placed a renewed spotlight on the importance of civil liberties, human rights, and the organizations and individuals working to defend them.
Governance and Declining Liberal Democratic Norms Are Major Worries: While all of the four major issues were serious concerns for survey respondents, two stood out. Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported being seriously concerned about governance, and 56 percent reported serious concerns regarding declining liberal democratic norms.
Local Dynamics Require Local Expertise: Though these organizations often work globally, around two-thirds of think tank leaders surveyed perceived significant unique aspects to how the trends of democratic decline, poor governance, poverty, and economic protectionism are manifesting in their countries. These leaders contended that local organizations are among the best positioned to address these challenges, given their local knowledge of the political, social, and other dynamics influencing socio-political realities on the ground. This includes an advantage in defining and measuring impact within local contexts.
Local Think Tanks Are Seeing an Impact, Despite Challenges: The vast majority of survey respondents reported having an impact or a substantial impact addressing poverty, declining liberal democratic norms, governance, and economic openness in their countries. How think tank leaders define “impact” is varied, with some pointing to concrete policy change and others noting amplification of research and analysis across public media. In countries where governments are actively suppressing dissent, think tanks are minimizing direct engagement with policymakers and diversifying their work to include monitoring and evaluating government activities, offering skills training, building youth capacity, translating literature, and diversifying school curricula.
While local think tanks are under tremendous pressure in some locations, and face great challenges globally from the pandemic, think tank personnel report having positive impacts on governance, declining democratic norms and liberties, poverty, and economic openness. In part, this is because they have adapted to the changing political and economic climate. Some have shifted toward a focus on messaging, public relations, and training students and activists. Others have continued to produce strong research, meet with political leaders, and spread their work through mainstream media. Think tank leaders repeatedly emphasized the value of coalitions and partnerships, noting that they have learned important lessons and best practices through connecting with others with shared goals. Specific recommendations for think tanks, as well as donors and stakeholders, to build on this success include:
For Think Tanks
- Build and Join Networks of Think Tanks and Civil Society Actors with Shared Goals: Coalitions of local, regional, and global organizations can share resources and ideas, learn from each other’s successes and failures, and build a strong community working toward shared outcomes.
- Diversify Funding Sources: COVID-19 has demonstrated that think tanks cannot rely on funding from sources from which money may be diverted to emergency relief during crises. Diversifying funding sources, and finding creative fundraising methods such as subscription models, will be vital for think tanks to continue doing their work, as well as to mitigate concerns about foreign influence.
- Publicly Demonstrate Independence to Improve Credibility: Think tanks should strive for financial transparency wherever appropriate while protecting the safety of donors and staff, and they should consider additional methods for formalizing and communicating organizational practices for maintaining independence, for example, through establishing clear and transparent policies about editorial and programmatic independence from donors.
For Donors and Other Stakeholders
- Foster Relationships in Fragile States: Respondents from think tanks in fragile states were more likely to report having a greater impact than those from think tanks in more stable contexts, suggesting that stakeholders would do well to engage with think tanks in fragile states when seeking new partnerships and opportunities.
- Build Organizational Capacity: Think tanks that engaged in this study reported great need for increased organizational capacity, through improved training and education for staff, and better infrastructure, such as wireless internet.
- Tailor Work to Local Needs: Local think tanks are often well positioned to understand the needs of the local government and community and focus their work accordingly. Stakeholders and donors could benefit from acknowledging their expertise and deferring to their local knowledge when determining organizational priorities and action strategies.
- Strengthen Impact Assessments: Think tanks could secure more funding and build credibility by clearly demonstrating their impact. Stakeholders can support think tanks by partnering with data scientists and successful think tanks to offer training and practical support to those interested in improving their impact-assessment models.
COVID-19 Amplifies Global Threats to Democracy and Prosperity
Since the end of the Cold War, the world has seen improvements on numerous key indicators regarding democracy, poverty, human rights and civil liberties, and economic freedoms. The number of democracies has increased, as have civil liberties and respect for human rights around the world.5 Extreme poverty has fallen,6 with many countries making strong progress toward the first United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG): ending poverty everywhere. As evidence of this progress, the number of people living in poverty fell by more than half between 1999 and 2013, from 1.7 billion to just 767 million,7 even as the global population increased by about 1 billion in the same period.8
However, in recent years, concerning trends have threatened to undo the progress achieved since the 1990s.9 Democratic progress has lulled into backsliding and growing authoritarian populism worldwide,10 including in developed democracies such as the United States, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey, Austria, the Netherlands, and Italy.11 This decline has been matched by reductions in civil liberties and personal freedoms.12 Alarmingly, 2.6 billion people—35 percent of the global population—live in states that are becoming more authoritarian, while just 8 percent live in states that are becoming more democratic.13 For the first time since 2001, democracies are no longer the predominant type of government in the world.14 These trends were only made worse by COVID-19, which has posed significant challenges to governance, global health, and prosperity.
Debate continues over the origins of this recent resurgence in illiberalism and authoritarianism. While some experts argue that it has been a reaction to the 2008 financial crisis, others suggest that it is a cultural backlash to liberal society in post-industrial countries.15 Most likely, a confluence of factors contributes to its rise.16,17 These trends have had adverse effects on health outcomes,18 education levels,19 economic growth,20 and property rights.21 And this decline in democracy is not an aberration. Freedom House has documented declining liberal norms globally for 14 consecutive years,22 and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index has captured a similar long-term decline.24 These trends are alarming and portend falling access to education, wealth, personal and economic freedoms,25 and access to healthcare, and they will frustrate progress toward overall human development goals.
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pointed out, authoritarian regimes have capitalized on the pandemic and used it to deploy “heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalize basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations.”26 According to Human Rights Watch, at least 83 countries have seen the pandemic used as an excuse to limit fundamental rights, such as the freedoms of expression, assembly, and the press. Similarly, the Varieties of Democracy Project (V-Dem) found major violations of democratic norms around the world—including in long-established democracies.27
The pandemic has caused severe economic disruptions virtually everywhere, from shocks to supply chains and personal incomes to border closures and trade disputes.28 It has pushed 115 million additional people into extreme poverty,29 and disruptions of food supply chains, economic activity, and medical resources needed for COVID-19 response have frustrated ongoing human development efforts in numerous spheres.30 One estimate suggests that low-income countries will require an additional $200 billion in financing until at least 2025 to support their pandemic responses, including vaccination support, virus containment strategies, and financial support for workers and companies.31 This need could lead low-income countries into debt traps,32 which may create opportunities for authoritarian politics as struggling and vulnerable populations seek stability and assertive leadership.
GDP growth in 2019 was already at its lowest level in a decade due to changing business models, rising geopolitical tensions, and climate change,33 all of which impact human development. Economic recessions are linked to long-term impacts on educational achievement, private investment, entrepreneurship, and new business formation, leading to reduced economic outcomes over generations.34 Some states have pursued trade protectionism in the face of such tensions, which the World Bank warns could push a further 30.7 million people into poverty.35 Likewise, reduced economic vitality can be tied to serious health outcomes, from lowered life expectancies to less-inclusive medical care.36
The imperative of addressing all of these negative trends could not be clearer. Simply put, the trajectories of democracy, economic development, poverty, and human rights and civil liberties are closely intertwined, and they demand tailored, research-based, and locally-driven actions to address them. Think tanks around the world, as independent and agile organizations that can use a range of tools to capitalize and share their local expertise, can play an essential role in combating these trends. Democracy and progress toward critical human development goals are at stake and think tanks may be able to answer the call.
Local Think Tanks Are Formidable Actors Influencing Policy Decisions
Think tanks play a key role in addressing the root causes of these trends and counteracting their impacts both locally and globally. Accordingly, an FP Analytics global survey found that think tank leaders are particularly concerned about these four issues: the state of democracy, governance, living standards, and economic growth (Figure 1).
According to the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), these organizations, while somewhat amorphous, are “often better placed to influence policy than traditional civil society organizations (CSOs), and their research tends to be more politically informed than academic research.”37 Local think tanks often have a deep understanding of domestic power structures due to their knowledge of local decision-making, including both formal and informal processes.38 For that reason, according to the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, think tanks can, and do, act “as bridges between knowledge (academia) and power (politicians and policymakers).”39 They can inform policymakers’ decisions by offering new research and analysis; evaluating policies, programs, and their impacts; and educating policymakers, the media, and the public on relevant issues.40 These capacities make them influential actors in the policy ecosystem, taking ideas and concepts developed by academics and subject-matter experts, identifying context-specific and tailored solutions to local challenges, and adapting their analyses into locally relevant policies and reforms.
Think tanks generally differentiate themselves from politically affiliated organizations by offering analysis and insights driven by research,41 particularly relevant given the growing distrust in government institutions.42 Although some think tanks are affiliated with universities, political parties, or even governments,43 independence is a key differentiator for most, as it puts them “above the political fray” and enables them to make policy recommendations based on evidence and rigorous analysis. This independence can distinguish think tanks’ recommendations from the ideological views of politicians or the narrow interests of lobby groups.44 Establishing a reputation for independence, rigor, and trustworthiness can assist these organizations in securing public support and informing policy, with many doing so by serving as sources for journalists or by publishing articles.45
After a Post-Cold War Boom, Think Tanks Take On New Relevance
Think tanks and other forms of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are focused on the advancement of democracy and free-market economics have proliferated around the world since the 1980s, particularly since the end of the Soviet Union.46 Many of these organizations are therefore not just impacted by recent trends, such as the rise of authoritarianism and decline in economic openness, but were established specifically to analyze these trends and identify and recommend policies to counter them. Think tanks of this type, which predominantly focus on democracy, free-market economics, poverty alleviation, and good governance, are the subject of this study, as they are often the first to recognize these declining trends.
The growth and evolution of think tanks have resulted in a range of organizations operating with varying forms, goals, and activities. The University of Pennsylvania, which publishes the sector’s well-known annual ranking of think tank performance, counted 8,248 think tanks in its database in late 2019, just over half of which are located in North America and Western Europe,47 the traditional home of think tanks prior to the 1980s.48 Figure 2 shows how think tanks have been established at different times across the world. While these organizations have been common in North America for over 50 years, in Asia and lower-middle-income countries more generally, they are a relatively new phenomenon, entering the mainstream policymaking community mostly within the past five to ten years. Today, “think tank” has no single definition, as each increasingly tailors its activities to context-specific social, political, and economic challenges.
— Figure 2 —
Length of Time Think Tanks Have Played a Central Role in Local Policy Creation
Think tanks have taken myriad forms as they have spread across the world, responding to the diverse needs of their home countries and cultivating a local think tank culture that reflects those contexts. While this is a positive development, it can present challenges: for example, think tanks may be notorious challengers of power and accepted conventions, or they may assist in legitimizing regimes and governments on the national and international stages. In recent months, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India announced his intention to assign two Indian think tanks to create a new freedom and democracy index, in light of recent poor scores by Freedom House and the Varieties of Democracy Project.49 Likewise, China has established or funded think tanks around the world to produce research in support of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).50 In both cases, increasingly authoritarian governments finance sympathetic research that can change attitudes and policies toward them by taking advantage of the assumption that think tanks are independent.
Promoting Good Governance and Economic Freedom
Thriving democracies rely on a robust marketplace of ideas that acts as a constraint against nationalism and autocratic policies that limit freedoms.51,52 A strong civil society, in which a diversity of think tanks are key actors, creates competition between the power of the state and the power of society, which is vital to ensuring that a country remains free and reflective of the best interests of its population.53 Think tanks can therefore play a vital role in this marketplace of ideas and assist in the advancement of democracy, good governance, and economic growth by offering analysis and evidence-based recommendations on policy issues and exposing the public to new and compelling concepts advancing these ideals.54 Think tank leaders surveyed by FP Analytics expressed significant concerns about the states of governance, democracy, poverty, and economic growth in their countries, and thus are reversing the worrying direction of these trends.
According to the survey, declining liberal democratic norms and governance are especially troubling to think tank leaders around the world. Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents identified poor governance as a serious concern, and governance was of particular concern to those in lower-middle-income countries (where 91 percent identified governance as a serious concern) and countries defined by the Heritage Foundation as having low economic freedom.55 These include places with limited property rights, expansive government powers, and poor business and labor regulation. Fifty-six percent of survey respondents expressed significant concerns about declining democratic norms in their countries, increasing to 74 percent in countries with low economic freedom. Poverty was a serious concern for 50 percent of survey respondents, rising to over 80 percent in lower-middle-income countries and over 90 percent in countries with low economic freedom.
In response to these global concerns, think tanks are contributing to the local marketplace of ideas by publishing analysis and sharing easily digestible research that provides evidence-based policy recommendations to address local, national, and global challenges. Some organizations have made the development and dissemination of original research the cornerstone of their work,56 while others refer to themselves as “do tanks”—taking a more direct approach, advancing policies via publicity campaigns, and working directly with civilians.57
For example, FP Analytics’ survey found that think tanks in Africa and Southeast Asia are working to secure property rights for farmers and homeowners and advocating for the benefits of deregulation as a method of increasing the ease of doing business. In the Philippines, the Foundation for Economic Freedom undertook a campaign to safeguard property rights, first for residential homeowners and later for smallholder farmers. Prior to their intervention in 2010, an average of just 3,840 ownership titles were issued every year, jumping to an average of 50,853 titles per year after the passage of their policy recommendations in the form of the Residential Free Patent Act. The foundation continues to promote property rights by creating resources to guide homeowners in applying for their titles.58 In 2019, it successfully campaigned for a new law enabling agricultural landowners to buy and sell land freely, without government intervention, resulting in changes to over 2.5 million agricultural property patents.59 Securing property rights makes it easier for entrepreneurs to access credit to support their businesses and encourages increased agricultural productivity.60 For example, farmers are more likely to invest in their land when they are confident that their ownership will not be challenged. The establishment of such rights feeds into a cycle that improves living standards and promotes national economic growth.61
In another example, the Samriddhi Foundation launched the Campaign for a Livable Nepal following the conclusion of the country’s civil war, to safeguard basic democratic rights in the country’s new constitution. The campaign demanded the enshrinement of the rule of law, livable wages, and freedom of enterprise in the new constitution, with the intention of improving living standards for ordinary Nepalese people, who fully funded the campaign through small donations.62
Think tanks are also working to reduce poverty via campaigns to reduce import tariffs and lower food prices. The Centre for Indonesian Policy Studies has been campaigning to increase food security by reducing high import tariffs on foodstuffs calculated to cost Indonesians $6 billion per year in unnecessary spending. Over time, the organization has successfully campaigned for the government to reduce tariffs on a number of vital products, including garlic, onions, and crop seeds. This effort has saved Indonesians around $1.9 billion per year and has brought many out of poverty as a result, directly contributing to improved living standards for the country’s poorest residents.
In South and Central America, where many countries spent decades under the rule of authoritarian leaders, think tanks are developing policies and legislation to encourage good governance and improve the functioning of democracy after years of single-party rule. In Mexico, the think tank Mexico Evalua was instrumental in the 2014 passage of a nationwide freedom-of-information and transparency law that enables citizens to request documents and information about government operations. The National Transparency System was intended by Mexico Evalua to increase civil society and civilian involvement in government policy development and decision-making, with the philosophy that “the more voices, the richer the discussion, the better the public policy.”63 While there is still some resistance to the law at both the national and state levels, a broad coalition of think tanks, NGOs, academics, and legislators has been crucial to both its initial passage and its continued defense, as has the support of the public. This is consistent with FP Analytics’ survey, which found that more than 15 percent of think tank leaders identified building strong coalitions as the main reason for their success, with another 30 percent crediting the support of stakeholders in positions of power, such as legislators and other politicians (Figure 3).
— Figure 3 —
The Main Reason for Think Tank Policy "Successes", According to Survey Respondents
— CASE STUDY —
Policy Success: Increasing Access to Sanitary Products Through Reduced Tariffs64
Based in Sri Lanka, a country that has been destabilized in recent decades by civil war, violent non-state actors, and an increasingly authoritarian government,65 the Advocata Institute focuses on economic policy to advance reform and avoid the political fray. In 2019, the organization launched a successful project to improve women’s social welfare and bring attention to the complexities of the Sri Lankan import tax system by campaigning to reduce taxation on feminine sanitary products.
The tax system in Sri Lanka is “a cascading tax system where you tax one issue on top of the other,” according to Advocata representatives. Prior to Advocata’s campaign, sanitary pads were taxed at a rate of 101 percent, and the organization’s research found that up to 50 percent of low-income Sri Lankan women did not use manufactured sanitary pads due to this price barrier. These barriers and lack of access to feminine hygiene products negatively impact both women’s health and educational attainment. For example, cervical cancer, which can be the result of poor menstrual hygiene,66 is the second-most common cancer in the country, and schoolgirls have a high rate of absenteeism during menstruation due to social taboos and lack of access to products.
In addition to undertaking research, the Advocata Institute considers itself a “do tank” because of its interest in “getting policy reforms done.” To amplify its research, Advocata launched a national campaign via social media, aimed at challenging stigmas around menstruation and encouraging the public to lobby for tax reductions. By creating accessible infographics and videos about the harm being done to women and girls due to a lack of access to products, Advocata’s work generated public outcry and led to a substantial reduction in taxes. The government took the total tax rate down to 63 percent, including the complete removal of the 30 percent import tariff on sanitary products. According to Advocata’s chief operations officer Dhananath Fernando, this was a victory for the think tank, but it will continue campaigning for tax reform, as “it’s a constant battle that we fight.”
Measuring Impact Is Critical to Maximizing Use of Resources
Many think tanks are proactively working to counteract trends of democratic decline, decreasing living standards, economic stagnation, and poor governance around the world. However, to date, there has been limited research and a lack of consensus regarding how think tanks make and measure impact, how they operate, and the degree to which they are effectively addressing these and other challenges. Understanding the ways and the degree to which these organizations have been impactful is key to understanding their utility and how they can be most effective in advancing democracy and related reforms around the world. While the University of Pennsylvania’s rankings measure how think tanks’ impact is perceived publicly, particularly by others working in the sector, their reliance on external evaluators reduces the utility of their rankings in understanding and measuring impact. Beyond these rankings, the literature on think tank impact is limited. What little exists varies between overly general references to impact as an important concept and highly specific explanations of individual organizations’ impact-assessment methods.67
The ability to quantify the impact of think tanks’ work is necessary for their continued ability to attract partners and allies within civil society, raise funds for their activities, and justify their continued work. To date, literature on think tanks has broadly categorized impact as either direct or indirect. Indirect influence introduces ideas to the public at large, by way of publishing reports, writing articles in news media, and hosting and attending events and conferences, while direct influence targets policymakers through forming relationships and testifying at government hearings.68 Both approaches help think tanks achieve their goals, but it is often easier for them to track the progress and impact of direct influence work, including being directly quoted in legislative reports and hearings and even cited in new laws themselves. However, think tanks working toward indirect influence are designing creative and rigorous methods for impact evaluation, including through fielding regular public opinion polls, organizing focus groups, and tracking outputs such as social media engagement. Given the lack of research and data on impact, this report fills a gap in the understanding of think tanks’ relevance in the world of policymaking by surveying leaders from a broad range of organizations—including think tanks of varying sizes, age, locations, and notoriety—to better understand how their work may be having tangible effects.
Understanding the Impact of Local Think Tanks—A Unique Analysis of Think Tank Activity
This first-of-its-kind analysis highlights the experiences and perspectives of local think tank staffers who are working to advance local and national policy reform to strengthen democracy, increase economic opportunity, and reduce poverty in their countries. Through quantitative and qualitative analysis, FP Analytics assessed how think tanks around the world define and measure their impact, explored how they are maintaining transparency and independence while advancing tangible policy reforms in their countries, and identified the ongoing challenges they face.
FP Analytics used a mixed-methodology analysis, including a survey and in-depth, semi-structured interviews. The survey, sent to high-level think tank staff and leaders around the world,69 received 322 responses from 80 countries. Outreach for the survey included:
- Think tank partners of the Atlas Network, a nonprofit organization that provides support services to more than 450 independent think tanks that pursue missions related to the strengthening of liberal democracy in approximately 90 countries around the world; and
- An additional 196 non-affiliated think tanks, identified through regional rankings featured in the 2020 University of Pennsylvania Global Go To Think Tank Index report.70
Approximately 12 percent of the final sample of 322 respondents consists of responses from staff at think tanks outside those identified through the Atlas Network.
The responses were then analyzed across a range of subclassifications, including:
- Geographical location, based on UN classifications;71
- Income level of the country of operation, based on World Bank classifications;72
- Regime type of the country of operation, based on data from Polity;73
- Level of economic freedom of the country of operation, based on the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index;74 and
- Main focus of think tank activities, as declared by survey respondents.
Using this analysis, FP Analytics ran a statistical model75 to ascertain whether these factors were significantly correlated with the level of impact reported by respondents from think tanks in the survey.76 Over 50 semi-structured interviews with heads of think tanks around the globe were conducted to explore the activities of think tanks in more depth, the results of which were quantified to help identify trends. For more information on the research methodology of this report, including sample limitations, please see Appendix 1.
- Characteristics of Survey Respondents -
Think Tanks Trend Smaller and Are Primarily Located in Wealthy Democracies
The think tanks represented in the survey (Figure 4) have a broad geographic distribution but are most heavily concentrated in the Americas. A majority are in democracies,77 and almost half are in high-income countries.78 Likewise, nearly half are in countries in the highest global quartile of economic freedom—a measure of countries’ rule of law, property rights, labor rights, regulatory efficiency, economic openness, and government size.79
— Figure 4 —
Geographic Distribution of Respondents by …
— Figure 5 —
Age and Size of Think Tanks
The survey also showed that a majority of think tanks had 10 or fewer staff, with more think tanks in Europe, Asia, and Central and South America fitting this pattern than North America (Figure 5). Respondents represented a mix of older and younger think tanks, with more falling in the oldest age category (20 or more years old) in semi-democracies compared to democracies. Respondents from countries with high levels of economic freedom were also more likely to work at think tanks that have been operational for more than 16 years than were those from countries with limited economic freedom. Respondents in North America were twice as likely to come from think tanks that have been in operation for 20 or more years than were their European and Asian counterparts (and nearly twice as likely as respondents working at Central and South American think tanks), which points to think tanks being a newer phenomenon in these three regions.
— Figure 6 —
Primary Organizational Focus and Challenges
While working on a range of issues, economic openness was the primary focus of a plurality of the think tanks surveyed (Figure 6), followed closely by work on liberal democratic norms. Think tanks in North America were over four times more likely to have the primary goal of poverty reduction, compared to other regions, despite the continent’s relative prosperity, whereas twice as many think tanks in Central and South America, Europe, and Asia were focused on improving governance than in North America. However, as Figure 6 also shows, governance and declining liberal democratic norms, not economic openness, were the main challenges that survey respondents reported facing, with governance being a particularly high concern among respondents in Europe, and democratic decline a prominent concern among respondents in North America. Poverty was also a much higher concern among survey respondents from think tanks in lower-middle-income countries (in contrast to high-income countries), as was to be expected, as well as in countries with low economic freedom (vs. high-economic-freedom countries), and in Central and South America (vs. all other regions).
Obtaining Success Despite Operational Obstacles
Despite challenges and concerns over democratic decline and poor governance, local think tanks are, in many cases, effectively advancing their policies and making an impact. Around the world, think tanks are working to advance the ideas and policies they believe will lead to a more prosperous world and improve the political and social living situations of ordinary people. They are doing so in a rapidly changing global environment, where countries are struggling to attain development goals while battling democratic backsliding and economic protectionism, not to mention the global COVID-19 pandemic. FP Analytics’ survey and interviews sought to further understand the work of these think tanks, the challenges they face, and why local think tanks are best placed to effect change in their own countries.
The results are clear: local think tanks report making a positive impact on democracy, governance, living standards, and human rights and establishing themselves as key players in the policy ecosystem. They do so by publishing novel research and forming relationships with political leaders, educating the next generation of voters to empower them to make more informed choices, and enriching the marketplace of ideas within their respective countries. The interviews shed light on the myriad ways in which local think tanks report driving significant change and advancing reform.
Amid Adversity, Local Think Tanks Are Finding Creative New Ways to Advance Policies and Avoid Retaliation
In 2017, the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) noted that think tanks will need to adapt to changing policy ecosystems, which may require different creative routes to influence policy and new focus on activities that lead to indirect, rather than direct, influence.80 The RSA’s argument—that indirect influence can be just as powerful and effective as direct influence when pursued effectively and measured closely—is borne out by the results of the survey and interviews undertaken for this report. The interviews show that think tanks are diversifying their activities beyond just research and policy development. In particular, they are working to influence public opinion, with the contention that politicians are more likely to take action if their constituents are pressing for change, as failure to address the public’s concerns may undermine politicians’ power.81
As illustrated in Figure 7, around 30 percent of those interviewed reported that their organizations combined research-based work with additional programming, while an additional 40 percent did not undertake any original research or policy work at all. That latter group represents leaders almost entirely from small, recently established think tanks. Some interviewees noted that they opted to avoid direct policy influence work as a result of the political conditions under which they operate, which may make it dangerous or difficult for them to form relationships with policymakers and politicians or to be outspoken in their advocacy for unpopular ideas.82
— Figure 7 —
Think Tanks' Primary Activities
Non-research-based activities described by interviewees vary widely, depending on the needs and interests of the local community. Major themes and examples of work include:
Think tanks that are undertaking original research are doing so in ways that reflect local challenges and are accessible to relevant communities and politicians. For example, in Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan and Bosnia and Herzegovina, think tanks have worked with religious scholars to highlight the compatibility between their work and traditional Muslim values.89 Original research demonstrating the links among Muslim scholarship and democracy, economic openness, and human rights has been vital to establishing these think tanks in their communities and to overcoming any concerns that their work solely imports Western concepts that have no role in addressing local challenges. Through this approach, local think tanks are able to listen to the concerns of the communities in which they operate and to design projects and activities that account for those concerns and engage a broad coalition of allies and supporters.
— CASE STUDY —
A Culturally Relevant Approach in Muslim-Majority Countries
Local think tanks are well placed to advance policy reforms and introduce new ideas into society due to their knowledge of local context and cultural sensitivities. This is particularly important in countries where think tanks are relatively new and have struggled to overcome misconceptions and accusations that they are importing Western concepts that are incompatible with local cultures and traditions, such as in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
FP Analytics interviewed the leaders of think tanks in Muslim-majority countries, including in Afghanistan and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where organizations are translating texts into Arabic and explicitly linking concepts such as human rights, democracy, and free-market economics to traditional Muslim values and texts in order to help mainstream these concepts into society.
- The Afghanistan Economic and Legal Studies Organization (AELSO) was founded by economists and Islamic scholars to confront extremism, promote liberty and democracy, and demonstrate that such concepts are compatible with Islam. AELSO staff have faced considerable pushback from the public, and even threats to their safety by the Taliban, but they have successfully lobbied for free-market economics to be enshrined in Afghanistan’s new constitution. They credit their success to the fact that “we are working to protect humanity, we are working to promote tolerance, [and] we are working to bring positive changes to [people’s] lives . . . [but] we are not changing their religion. We are not changing their beliefs.”90
- I Believe in Science is a MENA-based think tank with a mission to “use science as a way to promote equality, whether that is gender equality or racial equality . . . because we think that knowledge is the basis for human rights.” With 250 volunteers, the organization translates scientific papers and articles into Arabic to increase access to this knowledge in the region—to date, they have translated over 20,000 articles. A key success for the organization has come from lobbying for the inclusion of evolution in some schools across the region, and they are now planning to promote LGBTQ+ rights and gender equality through an inclusive sex education curriculum.91
- Multi, a Bosnian think tank, established itself in the policy ecosystem with the publication of Islam and the Free Market, a book written by an economist and an Islamic scholar. While the book and Multi’s work have received some criticism from the country’s religious community, young Bosnians have been inspired to start their own research, podcasts, and publications on the same theme.92
Local Political Conditions and Stability Can Limit Impact
The vast majority of survey respondents perceived that their organizations were achieving impact with their work—47 percent of respondents reported being “very impactful,” and 52 percent reported being “somewhat impactful.” Relative reported success can be affected by a number of factors, particularly the political conditions and the stability of the country of operation. FP Analytics found that 60 percent of respondents in think tanks operating in semi-democracies indicated that they believed they were very impactful, compared to 41 percent in democracies, as seen in Figure 8.
— Figure 8 —
Most survey respondents reported having some impact on key policy issues
These findings are compelling, particularly in light of reports from think tank leaders operating in more closed societies, with single-party rule, tight restrictions on civil society, or far-reaching government control, where meaningfully engaging in policy dialogue can be challenging and risky. Think tank leaders in Nepal and Mexico commented that it can be hard for civil society and the public to engage in policymaking due to a lack of transparency from government and legislators.93 In countries such as Pakistan, Lithuania, and Bolivia, think tanks have been required to register as lobbyists or foreign agents due to government distrust of civil society and official efforts to limit public criticism.94 Despite these challenging conditions, FP Analytics’ survey and modeling show that think tanks can be impactful in hostile contexts.
When asked about their impact on the specific global challenges of democratic decline, poor governance, poverty, and economic protectionism, the responses were similarly positive: 55 percent of those surveyed reported believing that their think thanks were somewhat or very impactful in advancing issues of liberal democratic norms, 59 percent reported the same for advancing good governance, 54 percent reported similarly for advancing economic openness, and 47 percent reported that believing their organizations were somewhat or very impactful in reducing poverty, as seen in Figure 16. Interviewees further enumerated perceived successes in promoting democracy, increasing economic openness, improving living standards, and defending human rights.
— CASE STUDY —
Advancing Change Under Hostile Conditions
Forty percent of the think tank leaders surveyed for this report work in countries that are semi- or partially democratic places where the populations are subject to restrictions on speech, press, and even voting. Under those conditions, think tanks that are advancing democracy and human rights are often confronting those in power, which makes them vulnerable to threats and retaliation.
Interviewees described the actions they take to keep their staff safe and avoid drawing undue attention while still working to advance their research and policy goals. These strategies for progress and impact include:
- Focus on Indirect Influence: When threats from the government prevented CEDICE, a Venezuelan economic think tank, from publishing and promoting research as it had in the past, its leaders shifted its activities from direct to indirect research, began translating literature on free-market economics into Spanish, and established a monitoring project that tracks inflation and how it affects quality of life.95 Similarly, in Iraq, Ideas Beyond Borders has focused on translating literature and web resources into Arabic, Kurdish, and Farsi to educate Iraqis about ideas that had not been accessible prior to the proliferation of the internet.96
- Link Big Ideas to Personal Experiences: In working to educate Iraqis about free speech, democracy, and human rights, Ideas Beyond Borders emphasizes history and narratives that are relatable to their audience. The think tank recently released a video about Galileo, whose life mirrors those of many Iraqis who have been imprisoned for criticizing the government.
- Make Use of Networks and Communities: Under hostile conditions, networks and communities of like-minded organizations and individuals are vital to success, as knowledge, experiences, and burdens can be shared. In the face of a new law requiring NGOs to register with the Venezuelan Ministry of the Interior, which further compels them to share staff and donor lists, CEDICE’s staff have been working with a coalition of NGOs to oppose the requirements by presenting a united front.
Assessing Local Organizations’ Sense of Impact
While there is no standard definition for impact, FP Analytics used survey data and statistical modeling97 to gauge which characteristics were associated with a think tank’s perceived ability to improve liberal democratic norms, governance, poverty, and economic openness.98 The models measured which factors were independently correlated with an improvement in reported impact. Factors that had statistically significant reported impacts on advancing democratic norms, reducing poverty, strengthening governance, and liberalizing the economy are summarized below. Note that modeling results reflect the perceptions of think tank leadership and staff, making them a subjective measure of impact. For more on this limitation, and a full description of the methodology, see Appendix 1.
Advancing Liberal Democratic Norms
Respondents from think tanks whose primary self-reported activities were focused on liberal democratic norms reported having a greater impact on those outcomes than did those for which advancing liberal democratic norms was a tangential aim.
Those respondents were 14.7 percentage points more likely to report being very impactful in affecting liberal democratic norms, and 5.2 percentage points less likely to report no impact, compared to think tanks that did not focus on liberal democratic norms.
Respondents at think tanks operating in more fragile countries, as measured by the Fragile States Index (FSI),99 had a greater reported impact on advancing liberal democratic norms than did those in more stable contexts.
Respondents at think tanks in countries ranked in the lowest quartile of FSI scores—the least stable contexts—were 14 percentage points more likely to report an impact on liberal democratic norms than were those in the highest quartile—the most stable contexts.
Respondents from think tanks that are primarily focused on poverty reduction reported having a greater positive impact on poverty than did those for which it was a tangential aim.
Respondents at these organizations were 29.9 percentage points more likely to say that they have been very impactful, and 38.8 percentage points less likely to say that they have had no impact, compared to think tanks that did not focus on poverty.
The larger a think tank’s staff size, the greater the reported impact that staffers indicated it had on poverty reduction, according to survey respondents.
Respondents from think tanks with between 50 and 100 staff members were 12.9 percentage points more likely to report a high impact on poverty reduction, and 15.3 percentage points less likely to report no impact, than were those from think tanks with staffs of 10 or fewer.
- Respondents from think tanks in more fragile states reported a greater impact on poverty reduction than did those in more stable countries.
Respondents from think tanks in the lowest quartile of FSI scores—the most fragile contexts—were 7.6 percentage points more likely to report being very impactful on poverty reduction, and 10 percentage points less likely to report no impact, than were those from think tanks in the highest quartile—the most stable country contexts.
Respondents from think tanks that primarily focused on advancing good governance reported having a greater positive impact than did those from think tanks where it was not a primary aim.
Respondents were 12.3 percentage points more likely to say they had been very impactful, and 7.5 percentage points less likely to say they had had no impact, compared to respondents from think tanks that did not focus on governance.
The larger a think tank’s staff size, the greater reported impact the think tank had on influencing governance, according to survey respondents.
Respondents from think tanks with between 50 and 100 staff members were 12.9 percentage points more likely to report being very impactful in strengthening governance practices, and 7.1 percentage points less likely to report no impact, than were those from think tanks with a staff size of 10 or fewer.
Liberalizing the Economy
Respondents from think tanks primarily focused on the economy reported having a greater impact on economic outcomes than did those from think tanks for which it was a tangential aim.
Respondents were 24.4 percentage points more likely to say they had been very impactful, and 11.8 percentage points less likely to say they had had no impact, compared to respondents from think tanks that did not focus on economic openness.
The larger a think tank’s staff size, the greater the impact it reported having on advancing economic liberalization policies, according to survey respondents.
Respondents from think tanks with between 50 and 100 staff members were 17.7 percentage points more likely to report being very impactful on the economy, and 7.9 percentage points less likely to report no impact, than were those from think tanks with 10 or fewer staff members.
Overall, the modeling highlighted several key themes. As one might expect, respondents reported having a greater impact on an issue if it was the primary focus of their think tank’s work. However, FP Analytics’ survey revealed that economic openness was not as pressing an issue as governance, democratic decline, or poverty. Though over 40 percent of survey respondents worked at think tanks with a primary stated goal of improving economic openness, those particular respondents were actually most concerned about the effects of democratic decline and poor governance. Additionally, the modeling suggests the importance of institutional capacity, which can be measured by staff size. Larger staffs may enable think tanks to devote more resources to particular issues or campaigns—one common theme during interviews was the effect of limited capacity, particularly staff size, on think tanks’ ability to advance reform. Finally, respondents from think tanks operating in fragile countries, those that perform worst in the annual Fragile States Index, reported having greater impact on liberal democratic norms and poverty reduction than did those from think tanks operating in more stable contexts. Fragile states are often characterized by weak governance, providing the opportunity for non-state actors to step in to provide policy guidance and strengthen local governance.
Unique Contexts Require Local Expertise and Tailored Approaches to Policy Reform
While global in scope, trends such as democratic decline, economic stagnation, poor governance, and poor living standards manifest in unique ways from country to country, highlighting the need for organizations and stakeholders with local expertise to identify and implement solutions. Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents noted that local dynamics were contributing to issues of poor governance somewhat or significantly (Figure 9), particularly in lower-middle-income countries and countries with low economic freedom. Similarly, respondents from lower-middle-income countries and countries with low economic freedom identified somewhat or significantly unique aspects to the challenges of poverty and economic openness. Finally, respondents from countries in Asia and Central and South America reported particularly unique dynamics driving democratic decline.
Local think tanks are acknowledging the unique dimensions of these challenges by creating their own parameters to define and measure impact that reflect the local context as well as their stated goals and activities. As a result, there is a wide variation in how survey respondents and interviewees defined “impact.” (Figure 10). Thirty percent of interviewees measured outputs such as the number of reports published and downloaded, social media and website engagement, citations, and news media mentions. These outputs quantify the level of engagement the public is having with their ideas, but they cannot provide a concrete metric of their influence over personal opinions, legislative votes and other political actions, or outright policy changes, and they are not easily measured. Several interviewees made use of public opinion polls as another means to gauge impact.100 By contrast, just 16 percent of interviewees defined and measured their impact purely in terms of whether their desired policy change has taken place. Local contexts matter greatly when creating a definition for think tank impact. For instance, in countries where the ruling government is hostile to an organization’s specific ideas, or to the overall concept of an active civil society, simply surviving and cultivating a community of supporters is a success.101 In others, a well-placed and well-organized think tank may be in a position to assist in writing their policy goals into the country’s new constitution.102
— Figure 10 —
Metrics Respondents Used to Measure Impact
The broad definition of “impact” illustrates how the work and goals of think tank as a sector have shifted and expanded over time. One reason may be the length of time often required to advance policy. As seen in Figure 11, nearly half of survey respondents reported that policy successes took over five years to achieve, compared to just one-third who saw success in under a year. Smaller projects, with more conservative or creative definitions of impact, may require less time commitment and thus be prioritized, particularly due to financial constraints. This variation in the definition of “impact” creates complexity, particularly for those who seek to understand think tank success by comparing outputs from different think tanks, even if they are operating in the same country or working on influencing the same policies. However, that variation reflects the reality that policy ecosystems differ by country, and even by issue, and that different organizations taking creative approaches to the same problems can lead to innovation and success by multiple means.
— Figure 11 —
Length of Time Taken for Respondents to Achieve a Policy "Success"
Philanthropists and other stakeholders invested in think tank success may find it helpful to work with individual organizations to identify the most suitable impact definitions and metrics for their work, based on the best fit practices of similar organizations and the specific limitations or opportunities provided by the local context, in conjunction with working more closely with social scientists and evaluation experts. In this way, definitions for success can differ based on local circumstances while still being rigorous and providing a method for accountability.
— CASE STUDY —
Innovative Impact Assessment in Costa Rica
Measuring impact accurately is a key concern of the think tanks that participated in this study. Interviewees consistently noted that impact assessment is one of the most difficult aspects of their work, particularly since their organizations are often not the only actors working to advance a specific issue or policy. Luis E. Loria, founder of IDEAS Labs, provided insight into ways that think tanks can create highly specific impact metrics that take this challenge into account.103
IDEAS Labs is a Costa Rican “social, political, and regulatory innovation lab” that focuses on increasing public participation in politics and policymaking. A former academic, Loria focused on identifying the most useful and accurate metrics to measure the think tank’s impact and success, and as a result, IDEAS Labs creates new, tailored metrics for each project it undertakes. The team maps out their planned activities for the project (the outputs) and creates a clear definition of success for its work (the outcomes), before identifying the most relevant metrics to measure progress. Key to this process is identifying how IDEAS Labs can collaborate effectively with stakeholders with shared goals. Because the team views success as almost always a result of such collaboration, finding those opportunities is part of its impact assessment.
As an example, the think tank ran a publicity campaign in 2020 to reform Costa Rica’s pension scheme, which paid out thousands of dollars per month to former politicians and other powerful elites. IDEAS Labs defined success for this project as:
- Educating the public about the issue;
- Mobilizing public support to push for pension reform;
- Establishing support for the reforms in the press and among politicians; and
- Achieving partial or total reform.
In light of these goals, the think tank measured the number of signatures on its public petition (50,000, or 1 percent of the population); the engagement with its project’s Facebook page; the number of endorsements it received from public figures; the number of media mentions; event attendance; the annual savings to the public in both U.S. dollars and as a share of GDP; and whether the reform was passed. The reform passed in 2020.
Maintaining Independence from External Influence, Building Credibility with the Public, and Keeping Staff Safe
Staff at think tanks focusing on democracy-building, civil liberties and human rights, and economic openness reported facing misconceptions about their aims, funding, and leadership that undermine their efforts to establish themselves as trusted local institutions. As demonstrated in Figure 12, nearly two-thirds of survey respondents in high-income countries reported that they were mistakenly thought to be working on behalf of corporations to further their aims, while in lower-middle-income countries, the most common misconception, according to over half of survey respondents in those places, was that think tanks are false fronts for foreign governments. These concerns are not unfounded: a recent report by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) found that authoritarian governments around the world are establishing think tanks abroad, or co-opting existing ones, to publish research supporting their policy aims, as a method of increasing their credibility and support abroad.104 The NED report highlighted Chinese-backed organizations as illustrative of this type of activity. This concern was reflected in the survey responses: 58 percent of survey respondents in Asia reported having been accused of working on behalf of foreign governments, compared to just 28 percent of those in Europe, and 13 percent in the Americas.
— Figure 12 —
Misconceptions Think Tanks Face About Their Work
Instances of state-backed activity and misconceptions regarding independent think tanks present serious challenges to independent organizations and their ability to operate effectively, according to interviewees. Several think tank leaders discussed making decisions to focus entirely on poverty alleviation and the improvement of living standards, issues that they can directly work on without interacting with the government and policymakers, which in some countries are increasingly skeptical of the motivations of think tanks. Ten percent of interviewees refused almost all funding from foreign organizations and individuals in order to maintain credibility. Misconceptions may be particularly risky for think tanks operating in semi-democracies and autocracies. As the global data indicate an ongoing democratic decline, and an increasing number of think tanks are brought under restrictive or hostile regimes, it will become vital for think tanks to demonstrate their independence in order to increase local credibility and trustworthiness. Supporters and funders will need to work collaboratively with local think tank staff to identify the best means of improving trust.
In the face of mistrust and misconceptions regarding the aims and motivations of think tanks, interviewees universally agreed that safeguarding and demonstrating independence from influence is vital for think tanks to operate successfully and to grow trust among local populations. Independence is also necessary to help ensure the safety of think tank staff in countries or regions where states are moving rapidly toward authoritarianism105 or where terrorist groups have gained control of territory.106 Clearly demonstrating independence from both foreign influence and local political alliances can help secure physical safety and enable the continued operation of the organization, even if its policy goals are not popular with those opponents.107
Interviewees articulated that demonstrating independence from political influence and from funders and donors is critical. Nearly two-thirds of interviewees reported that they avoid taking funding from controversial companies and from governments, instead focusing their fundraising efforts on philanthropic foundations, which are more often regarded as politically independent.108 Twenty percent of interviewees made a point to engage in non-partisan activities and interact with parties and representatives from across their national political spectrum.109
Select local think tanks have developed creative funding models that avoid outsized donor influence. Seeking to avoid reliance on corporate funding to the greatest extent possible, think tanks are creating subscription models aimed at ordinary citizens, who can directly support the organizations and policies they believe in through a monthly or annual fee, averaging a few hundred dollars per year.110 More than one organization, including CEPOS in Denmark, limit funding contributions to no more than a certain share of their overall operational budget, thus ensuring that all voices are heard equally and making it easier for think tank leaders to reject attempts at organizational capture or outsized influence.111
— CASE STUDY —
Maintaining Organizational Independence
Maintaining and demonstrating organizational independence is an effective method of dispelling misconceptions regarding think tanks’ aims and motivations and building trust with both policymakers and the public. CEPOS, a Danish think tank dedicated to economic reform and improving living standards, provides an interesting example of how to demonstrate independence via strict public-donor guidelines:
- Donation Caps: CEPOS works to ensure that no donor provides more than 15 percent of the think tank’s total annual contributions, preventing any single donor from wielding outsized influence.112
- Limited Anonymity:All donors must be known to the CEPOS board, and the names of donors to specific think tank projects are published online as part of impact analysis, ensuring the public knows who is supporting each project.113
- No Public Money: CEPOS refuses donations from political parties and from the government to avoid being affiliated with one political party over another and maintain their independence.
- Duty to Report: If CEPOS staff believe a donor intends to challenge the think tank’s independence or attempt to influence research outputs, they report their concerns to the board, who have the power to terminate any donor relationship at will.
Despite its potential as a means of demonstrating independence to the public and any hostile actors,114 only one-fifth of interviewees worked at organizations that publish their finances in full by publishing the names of individual donors and the projects to which they are contributing. Instead, many organizations take an approach that follows local tax laws but protects donor privacy. Generally, this practice was explained as an outcome of safety concerns, for both the think tanks themselves and their funders, whether private citizens or philanthropists. As many think tanks do take money from foreign organizations, such as charitable foundations, the publication of finances can fuel and exacerbate misconceptions surrounding foreign interference, while historic court cases have acknowledged the risk to donors, including private citizens, of retaliation from those who disagree with the work to which they are contributing. In light of legitimate concerns over the safety of both staff and donors, think tank leaders can signify their organizational independence by emphasizing the local expertise of their organizations and particularly that most activity—whether designing research projects, identifying policy goals, or creating outreach programs—is led by staff on the ground. Nearly 70 percent of interviewees noted that staff take the lead in identifying organizational priorities and directing strategy, sometimes in combination with leadership and boards. Interviewees underscored the need to identify allies in civil society and the political arena by finding those who share their ultimate goals regardless of political affiliation.
In the face of misconceptions from the public regarding their motivations, working with allies from across the political spectrum and non-political, non-partisan allies can go a long way to build trust with both the public and policymakers.115 For example, Advancement of Liberty, a Spanish think tank working to promote democracy and free-market economic policies, makes a point of working with organizations with shared goals for each individual campaign and in each place it operates. Recently, it has worked closely with a left-leaning political party for a campaign in the Canary Islands and at the same time was allied with a right-leaning political party for a campaign in Madrid, demonstrating that ideological differences do not preclude shared societal goals and outcomes.116 In Spain, where the twentieth century saw a long period of fascism, followed by a swing to the left, and the twenty-first century has seen politicians divided over issues around economics and migration, Advancement of Liberty’s director sees her organization’s ability to find common ground across the political spectrum as a model for greater collaboration and less political polarization in the years ahead. Stakeholders who are invested in the success of local think tanks can encourage them to emulate this approach as a means of achieving their goals while building trust and relationships across the political and social spectrums.
Challenges and Opportunities for Expanding Reach Due to COVID-19
Think tank leaders report that the pandemic has had a substantial negative effect on democracy, governance, poverty, and economic openness, in some cases undermining years of progress. COVID-19 has had a particularly large impact on think tanks in Central and South America and Asia, where more than-three quarters of survey respondents reported a major impact on poverty (Figure 25). The pandemic also had a large impact among survey respondents in North America and in think tanks that focus primarily on liberal democratic norms, who noted the pandemic’s substantial impact on the state of democracy (Figure 26). Interviewees and survey respondents also agreed that the pandemic has raised logistical challenges that have, in some cases, been difficult to overcome.
The widespread application of stay-at-home orders, social distancing regulations, and restrictions on gatherings have prevented the use of office space and necessitated shifting operations online, a particular challenge in countries where internet infrastructure is not yet reliable117 and where those in power often use internet outages as a form of social control.118,119 Pandemic-related restrictions have been used by authoritarian regimes as a cover for illiberal reforms120 and a way to clamp down on opposition activity with relative impunity, putting think tanks promoting democracy and economic openness both directly and indirectly at risk of reprisal.121 As seen in Figure 13, over three-quarters of survey respondents based in countries with limited property rights and rule of law and heavy government involvement in the economy felt that COVID-19 restrictions had somewhat or substantially impacted their operations, compared to fewer than half of respondents in countries with secure property rights and a free-market economy. This indicates that organizations in less free countries may be subjected to harsher restrictions or find themselves targets of retribution and reprisal under the guise of pandemic restrictions.
The pandemic has also presented a direct challenge to the activities of local think tanks. Interviewees reported struggling to draw attention to the importance of issues and policies unrelated to COVID-19.122 Similarly, 28 percent of interviewees reported challenges relating to fundraising as a result of the pandemic due to the prevalence of emergency situations and their inability to fundraise in person or at events.123 This is likely to become an increasingly frequent problem for some of these organizations—the United Nations Office on Disaster Risk Reduction recorded twice as many disaster events, including pandemics and extreme weather events, from 2000 to 2019, compared to the previous 20 years, and it is predicting a further rise, necessitating increasing amounts of emergency-response funding that will divert funds from other causes.124 Emergency situations can provide a convenient way for authoritarians to secure popular support by providing relief and aid both domestically and abroad, which can undermine the arguments and effectiveness of democracy-promoting think tanks and other civil society actors.125 As a result, the pandemic may help entrench authoritarianism in many parts of the world while reducing local support for the work of democracy-building organizations.
However, the pandemic has also presented opportunities for a number of local think tanks. COVID-19-related restrictions on movement, gathering, and speech have placed a renewed spotlight on the importance of personal freedom and civil liberties, and think tanks active in these areas were able to introduce their work to a public that is now acutely aware of these issues. Interviewees were developing new metrics to measure poverty and living standards in light of the pandemic,126 expanding their work in public health policy,127 and specifically advocating for or opposing COVID-related emergency measures on the grounds of freedom,128 bringing their work to new audiences. While shifting to internet-based operations can be a challenge, it also brings the ability to reach new and wider audiences, with several interviewees noting that their event attendance has grown rapidly, now that they can reach people outside their immediate physical vicinity.129 Creating an online presence has also enabled think tanks to connect and collaborate with other civil society actors within their own countries and to form cross-border alliances with think tanks working on similar policies. Such coalition-building provides an opportunity for think tanks to share resources and best fit practices, increasing their chances of success.130
Think Tanks Will Continue to Play Critical Roles Advancing Reform
This report shows that, while local think tanks are under tremendous pressure in some locations, and face great challenges globally from the pandemic, they have managed to make positive impacts on governance, declining democratic norms and liberties, poverty, and economic openness. They have adapted to the changing political and economic climate. Some have shifted their focus to place greater emphasis on messaging, public relations, and training students and activists. Others have continued to produce strong research, meet with political leaders, and spread their work through the mainstream media. Think tank leaders repeatedly emphasized the value of coalitions and partnerships, noting that they have learned important lessons and best practices through connecting with others with shared goals. Specific recommendations for think tanks, as well as donors and stakeholders, to build on this success include:
For Think Tanks:
- Build and Join Networks of Think Tanks and Civil Society Actors with Shared Goals: Coalitions of local, regional, and global organizations can share resources and ideas, learn from each other’s successes and failures, and build a strong community working toward shared outcomes. The survey data and interviews revealed the value of think tanks being a part of these networks, for both ideas and encouragement.
- Diversify Funding Sources: COVID-19 has demonstrated that as natural disasters and other crises become increasingly common, think tanks will no longer be able to rely on funding from philanthropic foundations and international institutions, whose money will be diverted more frequently to emergency relief. Diversifying funding sources and finding creative methods, such as subscription models, will be vital to think tanks’ ability to continue doing their work and continue focusing on what they believe to be the most pressing issues. Several interviewees noted the need for more local, regional, and national support. This practice would also help dispel misconceptions about think tanks working on behalf of foreign actors or corporations.
- Publicly Demonstrate Independence to Improve Credibility: While keeping safety concerns in mind, think tanks should strive for financial transparency wherever appropriate and to the maximum extent possible, and consider additional methods for formalizing and communicating organizational practices for maintaining independence. Some interviewees noted the positive impact of having clear and transparent policies about editorial and programmatic independence from donors.
For Donors and Other Stakeholders:
- Build Relationships in Fragile States: As this report has shown, respondents from think tanks in fragile states were more likely to report having a greater impact than those from think tanks in more stable contexts. This finding suggests that stakeholders would do well to engage with think tanks in fragile states when seeking new partnerships and opportunities.
- Build Organizational Capacity: Interview and survey respondents emphasized the need to increase their organizational capacity through improved training and education for staff and better infrastructure, such as wireless internet. Donor-funded capacity-building would help remove concerns regarding donor influence over think tank output, as it remains separate from programmatic work such as research and publicity campaigns.
- Tailor Work to Local Needs: Local think tanks are best placed to understand the context of their work and the needs of the government and local community. Stakeholders in their success can support think tanks’ work while acknowledging their clear expertise and deferring to their wisdom in deciding on priorities and strategies for action.
- Strengthen Impact Assessments: Securing additional funding and building credibility with both the public and policymakers requires the ability to clearly demonstrate the aims and impact of think tank activities. As demonstrated above, identifying the most relevant metrics for impact assessment necessitates a clear understanding of local contexts, organizational goals, and knowledge of the monitoring and evaluation options available. Stakeholders can support think tanks by partnering with data scientists and successful think tanks to facilitate learning and practical support to those that are interested in improving their impact-assessment models.
In the face of democratic decline, diminishing living standards, and threats to economic prosperity and human rights, think tanks remain important actors in the policy ecosystem. They provide both advice and challenges to government and politicians and educate the public on the options available to improve lives and achieve prosperity.
FP Analytics would like to acknowledge and thank the many interviewees who shared their insights and experiences for this study.
This report was produced by FP Analytics with support from the Atlas Network. FP Analytics is the independent research division of The FP Group. The content of this report does not represent the views of the editors of Foreign Policy magazine, ForeignPolicy.com, or any other FP publication.
Illustrations by Klawe Rzeczy for FP Analytics
FP Analytics used a mixed methodology research approach for this project, consisting of a comprehensive literature review, a global survey, and one-on-one interviews.
All think tanks incorporated into this study have a broad focus on democracy-building, economics, poverty, and/or good governance.
Local Think Tank Survey
FPA fielded a survey to think tank leaders and high-level staff around the globe to learn about their work in the context of declining liberal democratic norms, governance challenges, and rising poverty. The survey questions were designed to elicit information regarding the characteristics of a diverse set of organizations, their respective areas of focus, operational strategies and challenges, and perceptions of impact. The think tanks to which the survey was sent was broad and diverse. The sample size included 322 respondents from 80 countries. Approximately 12 percent of the final sample of 322 respondents were from think tanks outside of the Atlas Network. From that sample, survey responses were analyzed across a range of subclassifications, including:
- Geographic location, based on United Nations classifications;131
- Income level of the country of operation, based on World Bank classifications;132
- Regime type of the country of operation, based on data from Polity;133
- Level of economic freedom of the country of operation, based on the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index, which measures property rights, business regulations, and general rules of law for commerce, of the respondent’s country.134
FPA conducted survey outreach in two ways:
- FPA invited over 2,600 people to participate, including leadership and staff of think tanks within and across the Atlas Network inviting participation in the survey.
- Beyond the Atlas Network, FPA identified an additional 196 think tanks to invite to participate. They were identified and prioritized by utilizing the regional rankings featured in the 2020 University of Pennsylvania’s Global Go To Think Tank Index Report.135
FPA focused on independent think tanks with no affiliation to government, political parties, or universities, and worked to create a sample with a diverse range of organizations with regard to staff size, geographical location, and mission. Responses from the two groups were combined into one sample for analysis.
Survey data is represented for the overall sample as well as differentiation in responses by region, income-level, and type of national governance structure.
Additionally, FPA ran an ordered logistic regression model with robust standard errors, using the survey data to try to ascertain whether specific factors were significantly correlated with reported outcomes. The model used survey respondents’ self-reported level of impact (with the response options “No impact,” “Somewhat of an impact,” “Substantial impact”) that they believed their think tanks’ activities had on democratic decline, poverty, economic openness, and governance as the key outcome variables.136 This method was chosen because the key outcome variables were categorical and had more than two outcomes.
There are four important limitations to note regarding survey data:
- While the think tanks in the sample reflect diverse views and geographies, responses were drawn from a convenience sample, not a random sample. Readers should therefore not assume that the results here can apply to all think tanks but rather are only reflective of this sample.
- While FPA obtained a reasonably large sample, respondent bias could impact results. However, survey data obtained still contained notable variation.
- Survey responses reflect perceptions of think tank staff regarding their operational challenges and perceived impact. The variation of organizations and their activities and the lack of a standardized means to assess impact necessitated a reliance on self-reported perceptions of impact.
- The survey was only available in English, thus limiting participation from non-English speakers.
Think Tank Leader Interviews
FPA conducted 51 semi-structured interviews with leaders of think tanks around the globe, with a particular focus on Africa and the Middle East, two regions that returned fewer survey responses in comparison to the rest of the sample, in an effort to ensure a broad geographic spread. The interviews aimed to deepen the research team’s understanding of the operational strategies, challenges, and perceived impacts of these organizations within their local contexts. Interview responses were then coded to quantify results and identify themes and variations among interviewees.
1 Maerz, S.F., Lührmann, A., Hellmeier, S., Grahn, S., & Lindberg, S.I. (2020). State of the World 2019: Autocratization surges–resistance grows. Democratization, 27(6), 909–27.
2 Economist Intelligence Unit. (2020). Democracy Index 2020: In Sickness and in health? https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2020/
3The World Bank. (2020, October 7). COVID-19 to Add as Many as 150 Million Extreme Poor by 2021. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/10/07/covid-19-to-add-as-many-as-150-million-extreme-poor-by-2021#:~:text=The%20COVID%2D19%20pandemic%20is,severity%20of%20the%20economic%20contraction
4United Nations Development Programme. COVID-19 and the SDGs. UNDP. https://feature.undp.org/covid-19-and-the-sdgs/
5Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. (2021). The Global State of Democracy Indices, Data set and Resources. https://www.idea.int/gsod-indices/dataset-resources
6World Bank. (2020). Poverty. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview
7United Nations. (2017). The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2017. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/files/report/2017/thesustainabledevelopmentgoalsreport2017.pdf
8BBC. (2011, October 26). Population seven billion: UN sets out challenges. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-15459643
9United Nations. (2020, July 7). UN report finds COVID-19 is reversing decades of progress on poverty, healthcare and education. UN News. https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/sustainable/sustainable-development-goals-report-2020.html
10Economist Intelligence Unit. (2020). Democracy Index 2020: In Sickness and in health? https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2020/
11Norris, P., Inglehart, R. (2019). Cultural Backlash. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/cultural-backlash/3C7CB32722C7BB8B19A0FC005CAFD02B
12Repucci, S. (2020). A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy. Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2020/leaderless-struggle-democracy
13Maerz, S.F., Lührmann, A., Hellmeier, S., Grahn, S., & Lindberg, S.I. (2020). State of the World 2019: Autocratization surges–resistance grows. Democratization, 27(6), 909–27.
14Economist Intelligence Unit. (2020). Democracy Index 2020: In sickness and in health? https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2020/
15Norris, P., Inglehart, R. (2019). Cultural Backlash. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/cultural-backlash/3C7CB32722C7BB8B19A0FC005CAFD02B
16Tepperman, J. (Host). (2019). How to Reverse the Global Drift Toward Authoritarianism. In And Now the Hard Part. Foreign Policy Studios. https://foreignpolicy.com/podcasts/and-now-the-hard-part/how-reverse-global-drift-toward-authoritarianism-john-allen-interview-podcast-brookings/
17Norris, P., Inglehart, R. (2019). Cultural Backlash. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/cultural-backlash/3C7CB32722C7BB8B19A0FC005CAFD02B
18Franco, A., Alvarez-Dardet, C., & Ruiz, M.T. (2004). Effect of Democracy on Health: Ecological Study. BMJ, 329 (7480), 1421–23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535957/
19Lake, D., & Baum, M. (n.d.). The Invisible Hand of Democracy: Political Control and the Provision of Public Services. https://quote.ucsd.edu/lake/files/2014/07/CPS-34-6-2001.pdf
20Acemoglu, D., Naidu, S., Restrepo, P., & Robinson, J. (2019). Democracy Does Cause Growth. Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 127, No. 1. https://doi.org/10.3386/w20004
21Prindex. (July 2020). Prindex Comparative Report. https://www.prindex.net/reports/prindex-comparative-report-july-2020/
22Repucci, S. (2020). A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy. Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2020/leaderless-struggle-democracy
23Economist Intelligence Unit. (2020). Democracy Index 2020: In Sickness and in health? Economist Intelligence Unit. (2020). Democracy Index 2020: In sickness and in health? https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2020/
24Acemoglu, D., Naidu, S., Restrepo, P., & Robinson, J. (2019). Democracy Does Cause Growth. Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 127, No. 1. https://doi.org/10.3386/w20004
25Democracy does have a positive impact on specific aspects of economic freedom, particularly government regulations and international exchange, but it does not appear to impact inflation or discriminatory taxation. Lundström, S. (2005). The Effect of Democracy on Different Categories of Economic Freedom. European Journal of Political Economy, 21(4), 967–80. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpoleco.2004.11.005
26Guterres, A. (2021, February 22). The World Faces a Pandemic of Human Rights Abuses in the Wake of COVID-19. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/feb/22/world-faces-pandemic-human-rights-abuses-covid-19-antonio-guterres
27Economist Intelligence Unit. (2020). Democracy Index 2020: In sickness and in health? https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2020/
28Shih, W.C. (2020). Global Supply Chains in a Post-Pandemic World. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/09/global-supply-chains-in-a-post-pandemic-world
29The World Bank. (2020, October 7). COVID-19 to Add as Many as 150 Million Extreme Poor by 2021. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/10/07/covid-19-to-add-as-many-as-150-million-extreme-poor-by-2021#:~:text=The%20COVID%2D19%20pandemic%20is,severity%20of%20the%20economic%20contraction
30United Nations Development Programme. COVID-19 and the SDGs. UNDP. https://feature.undp.org/covid-19-and-the-sdgs/
31International Monetary Fund. (2021, March 30). Macroeconomic Developments and Prospects in Low-Income Countries—2021. IMF. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/Policy-Papers/Issues/2021/03/30/Macroeconomic-Developments-and-Prospects-In-Low-Income-Countries-2021-50312
32International Monetary Fund. (2021, April 6). IMF Seminar: Avoiding a COVID-19 Debt Trap. https://meetings.imf.org/en/2021/Spring/Schedule/2021/04/06/imf-seminar-averting-a-covid-19-debt-trap
33IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub. (2019). OECD Economic Outlook Highlights Threats to Global Living Standards. https://sdg.iisd.org/news/oecd-economic-outlook-highlights-threats-to-global-living-standards/
34Irons. J, (2009, September 30). Economic Scarring: The long-term impacts of the recession. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/bp243/
35World Bank (2018). Global Trade Watch 2018: Trade Amid Tensions. World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/trade/publication/global-trade-watch-2018-trade-amid-tensions
36Hone, T., Mirelman, A. J., Rasella, D., Paes-Sousa, R., Barreto, M. L., Rocha, R., & Millett, C. (2019). Effect of economic recession and impact of health and social protection expenditures on adult mortality: a longitudinal analysis of 5565 Brazilian municipalities. The Lancet Global Health, 7(11), e1575–e1583. https://doi.org/10.1016/s2214-109x(19)30409-7
37Lodge, G., Paxton, W. (2017, March). Innovation in Think Tanks. The RSA. https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/rsa_innovation-in-think-tanks.pdf
38Lodge, G., Paxton, W. (2017, March). Innovation in Think Tanks. The RSA. https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/rsa_innovation-in-think-tanks.pdf
39McGann, J.C (2020). 2019 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report. University of Pennsylvania. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=think_tanks
40McGann, J.C. (2016). The Fifth Estate. Brookings Institution Press.
41McGann, J.C. (2016). The Fifth Estate. Brookings Institution Press.
42Edelman. (2021). Edelman Trust Barometer. https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2021-03/2021%20Edelman%20Trust%20Barometer.pdf
43McGann, J.C. (2016). The Fifth Estate. Brookings Institution Press.
44Pautz, H. (April 30, 2020). Think Tanks and Policymaking. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.1420
45Pautz, H. (April 30, 2020). Think Tanks and Policymaking. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.1420
46Sunn Bush, S. (2019). NGOs and Democracy. In T. Davies (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of NGOs and International Relations. Routledge.
47McGann, J.C (2020). 2019 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report. University of Pennsylvania. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=think_tanks
48Sunn Bush, S. (2019). NGOs and Democracy. In T. Davies (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of NGOs and International Relations. Routledge.
49Ganguly, S. (2021, March 19). India’s “Electoral Autocracy” Hits Back. Foreign Policy https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/19/electoral-autocracy-india-modi-democracy-rankings-freedom-house/
50Rolland, N. (2020). Commanding Ideas: Think Tanks as Platforms for Authoritarian Influence. National Endowment for Democracy. https://www.ned.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Commanding-Ideas-Think-Tanks-as-Platforms-for-Authoritarian-Influence-Rolland-Dec-2020.pdf?utm_source=forum&utm_medium=site&utm_campaign=intellectual%20inquiry
51Snyder, J., & Ballentine, K. (1996). Nationalism and the Marketplace of Ideas. International security, 21(2), 5–40.
52Snyder, J. (2000). From Voting to Violence. Democratization and Nationalist Conflict. New York: W.W. Norton.
53Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J.A. (2020). The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty. Penguin Books.
54McGann, J.C (2020). 2019 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report. University of Pennsylvania. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=think_tanks
55The Economic Freedom Index measures a country’s rules of law (property rights, government integrity, judicial effectiveness), government size (government spending, tax burden, fiscal health), regulatory efficiency (business freedom, labor freedom, monetary freedom), and the level of open markets (trade freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom). This is referenced throughout the report as “economic freedom.” The Heritage Foundation. (2021). 2021 Index of Economic Freedom. https://www.heritage.org/index/about
56Think tank leader–Europe, personal communication. May 6, 2021, Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, April 29, 2021.
57Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, May 13, 2021.
58More information regarding the Residential Free Patent Act, aimed to improve property rights in the Philippines, and its impact can be found here: Residential Free Patent Act. https://www.trust.org/contentAsset/raw-data/c557cd47-f872-46c5-b54b-34df7b9b0f67/file
59C. Chikiamco, personal communication, May 3, 2021.
60World Bank. (2020). Doing Business 2020. Washington, DC: World Bank. DOI:10.1596/978-1-4648-1440-2
61Prindex. (July 2020). Prindex Comparative Report, July 2020. https://www.prindex.net/reports/prindex-comparative-report-july-2020/
62R. Sitoula, personal communication, May 5, 2021.
63E. Jaime, personal communication, May 11, 2021.
64D. Fernando, personal communication, May 13, 2021.
65Mashal, M. (2019, April 21). For Sri Lanka, a Long History of Violence. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/21/world/asia/sri-lanka-history-civil-war.html
66Parameswaran, S. (2017, September 9). Why used sanitary pads are being collected in India. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-41147664
67For example, a 2018 article on the American Enterprise Institute’s impact-measurement strategy: Brooks, A.C. (2018, March). AEI’s President on Measuring the Impact of Ideas. Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2018/03/aeis-president-on-measuring-the-impact-of-ideas
68Shlozberg, R. (2015, December 10). How do you measure a think tank’s impact? TLDR. https://munkschool.utoronto.ca/mowatcentre/how-do-you-measure-a-think-tanks-impact/
69This analysis incorporates 322 responses from think tanks located around the world. The sample includes diverse organizations with respect to their missions, geographic location, and staff sizes. These organizations include those from within the Atlas Network as well as unaffiliated organizations. All of the think tanks involved in this study are independent organizations with a broad focus on democracy-building, economics, poverty reduction, and/or good governance, as outlined in the report. Approximately 12 percent of survey respondents were from outside the Atlas Network. All responses were combined all into a single sample for the analysis.
70McGann, J.C (2020). 2019 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report. University of Pennsylvania. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=think_tanks
71FPA included the Caribbean in Central/South America and used the United Nations’ geography data.
72Based on the World Bank income classifications, this analysis focused on lower-middle-income instead of low-income, because there were very few low-income countries in the sample.
73FPA did not use authoritarian countries for classification purposes because, similar to the income issue noted above, the sample had very few authoritarian countries in it.
74FPA used the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index for this measure and broke down all countries into quartiles, then matched countries in the sample with the quartile they were in globally.
75FPA ran an ordered logistic regression model, which was appropriate because the key outcome variable was categorical and had more than two outcomes. (Here, there were three levels of impact.)
76The other potential outcome variable, overall think tank impact, did not have enough variation to be used in the statistical model. Specifically, there were no examples of think tanks having no impact at all, and for the type of statistical model run, there should be observations at all levels of the outcome variable.
77Referencing the Polity dataset for regime type classifications. Center for Systemic Peace. (2020). Polity V Dataset. Retrieved from: https://www.systemicpeace.org/inscrdata.html
78Referencing the World Bank’s income classifications for countries. World Bank. (2020). World Bank Country and Lending Groups. https://datahelpdesk.worldbank.org/knowledgebase/articles/906519-world-bank-country-and-lending-groups
79Referencing the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index. Since this index has scores, not classifications, scores were divided into quartiles, and the countries represented in the survey were assigned the corresponding quartiles.
80Lodge, G., Paxton, W. (2017, March). Innovation in Think Tanks. The RSA. https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/rsa_innovation-in-think-tanks.pdf
81Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, May 04, 2021. Think tank leader–North America, personal communication, May 4, 2021.
82Think tank leader–Africa, personal communication, June 8, 2021.
83J. Mustapha, personal communication, June 2, 2021.
84N. Veldhuis, personal communication, May 4, 2021.
85W. von Laer, personal communication, April 28, 2021.
86A. Etchebarne, personal communication, May 3, 2021.
87R. Guijarro, personal communication, May 25, 2021. I. Fawaz, personal communication, May 14, 2021.
88R. Durana, personal communication, May 12, 2021.
89K. Ramizy, personal communication, May 20, 2021. A. Cavalic, personal communication, May 12, 2021
90K. Ramizy, personal communication, May 20, 2021.
91I. Fawaz, personal communication, May 14, 2021.
92A. Cavalic, personal communication, May 12, 2021.
93Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, May 5, 2021. Think tank leader–Central & South America, personal communication, May 11, 2021.
94Think tank leader–Central & South America, personal communication, April 23, 2021. Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, April 30, 2021. Think tank leader–Europe, personal communication, May 10, 2021.
95R. Guijarro, personal communication, May 25, 2021.
96F. al Mutar, personal communication, April 29, 2021.
97Specifically, it was an ordered logistic regression model, with robust standard errors.
98These outcomes were used in the analysis, because there was sufficient variation in the data for statistical modeling. In contrast, there was not sufficient variation to run a model with overall impact as the key outcome variable.
99Fragile States Index. https://fragilestatesindex.org/
100Think tank leader–Europe, personal communication, April 29, 2021.
101Think tank leader–Central & South America, personal communication, May 3, 2021.
102Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, May 20, 2021. Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, May 5, 2021.
103L. Loria, personal communication, May 3, 2021.
104Rolland, N. (2020). Commanding Ideas: Think Tanks as Platforms for Authoritarian Influence. National Endowment for Democracy. https://www.ned.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Commanding-Ideas-Think-Tanks-as-Platforms-for-Authoritarian-Influence-Rolland-Dec-2020.pdf?utm_source=forum&utm_medium=site&utm_campaign=intellectual%20inquiry
105Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, May 13, 2021.
106Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, May 20, 2021.
107Think tank leader–Europe, personal communication, April 29, 2021.
108Think tank leader–Africa, personal communication, June 2, 2021. Think tank leader–Africa, personal communication, June 8, 2021.
109Think tank leader–Europe, personal communication, May 19, 2021.
110Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, May 13, 2021. Think tank leader–Europe, personal communication, May 12, 2021.
111M. Agerup, personal communication, May 12, 2021.
112M. Agerup, personal communication, May 12, 2021.
113CEPOS. CEPOS Donor Principles. (Danish language site). https://cepos.dk/stoet-cepos/cepos-donorprincipper/
114Rolland, N. (2020). Commanding Ideas: Think Tanks as Platforms for Authoritarian Influence. National Endowment for Democracy. https://www.ned.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Commanding-Ideas-Think-Tanks-as-Platforms-for-Authoritarian-Influence-Rolland-Dec-2020.pdf?utm_source=forum&utm_medium=site&utm_campaign=intellectual%20inquiry
115Think tank leader–North America, personal communication, April 27, 2021.
116Think tank leader–Europe, personal communication, May 4, 2021.
117Think tank leader–Africa, personal communication, May 11, 2021.
118Bock Clark, D. (2021, March 2). Internet Access Complicates the Coup in Myanmar. The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/in-myanmar-a-digital-savvy-nation-poses-a-new-challenge-for-the-military
119Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, May 12, 2021.
120Human Rights Watch. (2021, February 11). COVID-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse. https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/11/covid-19-triggers-wave-free-speech-abuse#
121Schenkkan, N., Linzer, I. (2021). Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: Understanding Transnational Repression. Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/transnational-repression
122Think tank leader–Asia, personal communication, May 20, 2021.
123Think tank leader–Africa, personal communication, April 29, 2021.
124United Nations. (2020, October 12). ‘Staggering’ rise in climate emergencies in last 20 years, new disaster research shows. UN News. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/10/1075142
125Hamid, S. (2020, June 16). Reopening the World: How the pandemic is reinforcing authoritarianism. Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/06/16/reopening-the-world-how-the-pandemic-is-reinforcing-authoritarianism/
126Think tank leader–Europe, personal communication, May 19, 2021.
127Think tank leader–North America, personal communication, May 4, 2021.
128Think tank leader–North America, personal communication, May 13, 2021.
129Think tank leader–North America, personal communication, April 29, 2021.
130Think tank leader–Africa, personal communication, May 17, 2021.
131FPA included the Caribbean in Central & South America and relied on United Nations geography data.
132This analysis focused on lower-middle-income countries instead of low-income countries, because there were very few low-income countries in the sample.
133The sample included very few authoritarian countries. FPA used the Polity dataset for regime classification.
134Based on country performance in the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index reflected in quartiles.
135McGann, J.G. (2020). 2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report. Scholarly Commons. https://repository.upenn.edu/think_tanks/18/
136The other potential outcome variable, overall think tank impact, did not have enough variation to be used in the statistical model, as there were no examples of think tanks having no reported impact at all. For an ordered logistic regression model, there should be observations at all levels of the outcome variable.