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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Imagine a 365 days shutdown of donor supported capacity building to think tanks

A month ago Vanesa asked me to write a couple of reflections on capacity building in response to her excellent and inspirational report. My immediate reflex was to imagine a world without training and mentoring of junior and senior researchers, fellows and think tanks directors. Not forever, but imagine a year without those. This reaction simultaneously surprised and thrilled me. Perhaps the rebel in me was silently protesting that most of conclusions / lessons learned on capacity building are either more of it, better of it, or different type of it. What if we have none of it? 🙂

At the verge of feeling guilty for this ‘sinful’ thought and by no means an advocate for abolishing capacity building from the donor menu, I will try to imagine below a world without a single capacity building activity for think tanks in the next 365 days[2]. What would the think tanks find wanting? What would donors who support these activities miss? What would the world of policy research altogether lack? Would there be any benefit from the imposed void?

First, how would think tanks respond to this situation? I believe those who genuinely do not care about their development would be relieved. Without external pressures to engage in capacity development, they simply would not do anything to build more capacity. Some of them may even profit from having more time to spend on research[3]. Those who care about building competencies of their junior and senior staff would have to find alternatives to the free or heavily subsidized programs that donors usually offer. They would certainly turn to the market asking businesses, consultancies and universities to fill in the void. Through these endeavors, most would probably discover the real cost of services and training. It would be interesting to see if think tanks would reach out to low-cost alternatives such as massive online open courses (MOOCs). Who knows, they may even end up appreciating capacity building more after such forays. Some advanced think tanks could opt to service their development needs in house. Senior fellows / researchers would have to do more on-the-job training of the youngsters. In environments with a shared language beyond national borders, e.g. Latin America, former Yugoslavia or the post-Soviet space, can we expect emergence of a ‘barter exchange’ for capacity building between think tanks? Most probably, the expectations for junior researchers would increase, simply because their training and development would become more expensive. In sum, think tanks would either take no action or look for alternatives.

What would be the major effects on the work of think tanks? In 365 days, the quality of research by the affected think tanks would not decrease dramatically[4]. As I mentioned above, there are alternatives to courses paid and organized by donors and most persistent institutions would find them. While think tanks may suffer from ‘skills attrition’, it is highly unlikely that they would ‘go under’ due to lack of capacity building in a year. What think tanks may miss the most is the time and space for reflection capacity building activities usually offer.  These activities usually provide them with a respite from everyday rush to stop, look back, and gather lessons learned to help with their future work. Most of the think tanks I know in developing countries would still take some time to do this. But under the pressures of carrying out research, spearheading advocacy efforts, and fundraising it is most likely that they would cut the time for reflection.  Two clear implications would stand out: a) lack of learning from own failures and correcting them, and consequently b) diminished levels of innovation in the affected think tanks .

Another open question is how the absence of capacity building activities would affect networking of think tanks. What type of networking would think tanks be able to pursue under the circumstances when there are no joint training courses and fewer opportunities to get together? Usually, these gatherings (aiming at capacity building and supported by donors) allow researchers from different disciplines to meet. While the primary purpose of those training activities may be advancement of a particular methodology, research uptake or organizational management among other things/topics, the diversity of participants breaks through thematic silos researchers are often locked into by their disciplines or even sub-fields. The absence of these events would decrease convening opportunities for think tanks.

What would donors do? First, some would find their staff with more time available at their disposal, as so much time, especially in lower echelons of donors’ staff, is spent on logistics. The program staff would not have events to prepare, manage and report. This would effectively alter their “one-to-many” communications pattern typical of capacity building efforts into “one-to-one” approaches. On the positive side, this may bring donors closer to their grantees, thereby responding to their specific needs directly instead of lumping them together. On the negative end, individual interactions may dramatically increase transaction costs. Individual one-on-one sessions would prove even more expensive and time consuming for donors, especially those working at the regional or international level. Naturally, there would be no or very few benefits of multiplication or an added value of sharing.

Second, donors’ clout as conveners of think tanks beyond thematic gatherings would sustain a severe blow. Some may quickly discover whether this clout was built only on their money.  Not sure if this is good or bad news. Third, donors would save on travel and accommodation costs, experts’ fees, and other expenses related to capacity building. Some may find themselves with significant savings at hand. What would they use it for? Would general support to think tanks and/or targeted project support be more useful than capacity building? We would only know this only if someone actually tries to temporarily suspend capacity building. 🙂 Finally, donors could use this (hypothetical) opportunity to check out if think tanks’ quality of research and policy impact will suffer in the absence of capacity building activities they offer. In a nutshell, though the prospect of donors cutting their capacity building activities carries certain perils, it would also bring about many opportunities.

Would all the trainers and mentors starve for a year? For sure they would not. And, they would not have to tap into their retirement savings. 🙂 Surely, they would be first to offer a constructive reflection on the way capacity building is carried out and underwritten today. On the funding, the best among them would forge local partnerships with universities and professional training centers. Some think tanks would also engage them and pay directly from their own funds. Some trainers may cross Rubicon and turn to providing the commercial sector. And they may even like it – be it for increased income or more tangible outcomes. This could be an unexpected loss for the think tank sector. While best trainers would “stay in business”, it would remain an open question if they would ‘remain committed to developing capacities of think tanks’.

Instead of a conclusion. I do not believe that a world without donor support to capacity building would be a better place for think tanks. One only needs to picture the lack of multidisciplinary and complementary approaches to complex policy problems that such a field would contain. The world without capacity building also underscores for donors and trainers / mentors to be truly responsive to the needs of the think tanks they support and allow the capacity building agenda to be a joint partnership with grantees. In this text, I tried to imagine the extremes in order to understand the value of the status quo as well as the potential for reasonable and non-extreme changes. Donors and think tanks alike should reflect more critically on current efforts to build capacity. A world in which these efforts are taken for granted or organized and supported by inertia is equally bad. From obvious benefits to invisible trade-offs, capacity building needs to be re-examined.

[1] I express gratitude to Vlad Galushko and Andrej Nosko, colleagues at the Think Tank Fund – fellows thinkers who contributed to the content of this post. Of course, all the responsibility and opinions expressed in this text rests with me

[2] I chose one year as a relatively short period in capacity building. This is long enough to serve as a break / suspense of these activities, but too short of a period to completely remove this type of support from the menu.

[3] We all know that sometimes, attending events may come at high costs in time and diminishing returns. Especially, if the events lack in focus and tangible objectives for the participating think tanks.

[4] After all, it would be only a year without capacity building sanctioned by donors. J

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