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New global thinking needed
Friday, 20 January 2012 05:40

After a decade dominated by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a global and then sovereign debt crisis, and never-ending economic funk in Japan, it is most certainly time for some new global thinking.  It is thus refreshing that think tanks are exploding in number in the BRICS, as indicated in the recent report by the University of Pennsylvania.

The Global Go To Think Tanks Report 2011 provides an excellent overview and assessment of the world's think tanks.  Think tanks (or public policy research, analysis, and engagement institutions) are organizations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues in an effort to enable policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues.  Think tanks may be affiliated with political parties, governments, interest groups, or private corporations or constituted as independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Participation in think tank activities can also address the "participation gap", meaning the self-perception of individuals and private organizations that they are excluded from policymaking.  This issue has been clearly evident in the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and the struggles in the streets of Europe where global populism has emerged to challenge the establishment.

The report identifies 6545 think tanks worldwide.  The country with the largest number of think tanks is the US with 1815, followed by China (425), India (292), UK (286), Germany (194), France (176), Argentina (137), Russia (112), Japan (103), Canada (97).  On a continental basis, North America has 30% of the world's think tanks, followed by Europe with 27%, Asia with 18%, Latin America with 11%, Africa with 8% and Oceania with less than 1%.

Expert panels then rank the best think tanks with the Brookings Institution from the US judged to be the top think tank in the world in 2011.  Overall, 12 of the top 30 think tanks were American, with the following in the top 10 -- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Council on Foreign Relations, Center for Strategic and International Studies, RAND Corporation and the Peterson Institute for International Affairs.

The UK had 4 think tanks in the top 30, with Chatham House ranking 2nd overall and Amnesty International coming in at 7th.  Germany's Transparency International was 8th, Belgium's International Crisis Group was 9th, Sweden's Stockholm International Peace Research Institute was 18th, Chile's Centro de Estudio Publicos was 23rd, Poland's Center for Social and Economic Research was 25th, Kenya's African Economic Research Consortium was 26th, Brazil's Fundacion Getulio Vargas was 27th and the Chinese Acadamy of Social Sciences was 28th.

The big story in the Global Go To Think Tanks Report 2011 is the increase in the number of think tanks operating out of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) from 419 to 985 between 2008 and 2011, an increase of well over 100 per cent.

This report has been referred to as the insider's guide to the global market place of ideas, and the program purports to help bridge the gap between knowledge and policy.

We do, however, have to be very cautious in assessing the role of these think tanks.  In the US, many think tanks are merely vehicles for pushing various political agendas, and their reliance on corporate funding can also compromise their objectivity and independence.  In other countries, many think tanks are closely associated with governments, which can also inhibit their free thinking.

It is noteworthy that around the time of the release of this report, Chinese activist Li Tie was sentenced to 10 years in prison for 'anti-government thoughts', and author Salman Rushdie withdrew from India's biggest literary festival, saying he feared assassination after protests by leading Muslim clerics.  In other words, despite the large number of think tanks in China and India, freedom of thought and expression is greatly circumscribed.

One can only hope that think tanks will promote a culture of discussion and debate, and respect for different points of view, and thereby strengthen the foundations for democracy in the future, especially in China and India.



The Global Go To Think Tanks Report 2011


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