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Global thinking
Tuesday, 08 March 2011 10:33

Global pundits are quick to pronounce the decline of America, the rise of China and the disappearance of Europe and Japan.  But as Tony Blair recently said in a BBC interview, we are in the midst of a global “battle of ideas”.


Indeed, America’s great beliefs of freedom and democracy may be more powerful than ever.  Little did anyone suspect how much many of our Arab friends in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere shared these very same beliefs.  And everyone knows, especially the Chinese Communist Party, how much many Chinese people would also love to embrace freedom and democracy as well.


Who is leading the way in producing new ideas?


“Think tanks”, or public policy research institutions, are playing a key role in producing knowledge and ideas, and shaping global thinking.  The United Nations Development Program has called think tanks a "bridge between knowledge and power".    


Some think tanks can be seen as one of the main policy actors in democratic societies that assure a pluralistic, open and accountable process of policy analysis, research, decision-making and evaluation.  Other think tanks are more like special interest groups that have their own agenda.


Recent decades have witnessed a veritable explosion in think tanks.  The University of Pennsylvania’s Global “Go-To Think Tanks” report identifies some 6480 think tanks operating 169 countries.  They range from privately funded research organizations like the Brookings Institution (US) and government financed ones such as the Japan Institute of International Affairs to politically activist NGOs which also undertake research like Transparency International (Germany) and politically conservative outfits such as the Cato Institute (US). 


One challenge that all think tanks have is being independent so that they can speak “truth to power” or simply bring knowledge, evidence and expertise to bear on the policy making process.  According to the University of Pennsylvania report, the problem of independence is most acute in developing countries where the means of financial support for think tanks, as well as civil society at large, are limited.    


This is not entirely true, however.  Some think tanks in developing countries are financed by Western donors, and are able to do quite independent work.  And in Washington, vicious partisan politics often means that many think tanks are producing research to justify pre-determined political views.  In short, many of Washington's think tanks are just plain lobby groups.


The policy challenges of globalization have surely been one factor driving the creation of many think tanks.  The trend toward more open and democratic societies is another reason.  But think tanks themselves have been globalizing by developing global partnerships and networks, and creating office, branches and chapters overseas. 


Transparency International, which started in Germany, now operates through more than 70 national chapters.  The RAND Corporation (US) is also now a truly global outfit.  Its North American locations include Santa Monica, California; Arlington, Virginia; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Boston, Massachusetts.  It also has bases in Mexico, UK, Belgium, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi. 


So which regions and countries are leading the global think tank scene?


North America leads the way with 30 per cent of the world’s 6480 think tanks.  Europe comes a close second with 27 per cent, while Asia has only 18 per cent.  Latin America has 11 per cent, Africa 8 per cent, and Middle East and North Africa 5 per cent.


On a country basis, the US is a clear leader with 1816 think tanks.  The world’s number two economy, China, has the second highest number of think tanks, some 425, despite all the restrictions on freedom of expression.  In reality, researchers and intellectuals in China can partake in a very free and open policy debate provided they don’t openly criticize the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese Government.  India, the other dynamic BRIC economy comes in third with 292 think tanks.


Europe is some way behind.  The UK is number four (278 think tanks), Germany is number five (191), France is number six (176) and Italy is way behind at number eleven (90).


Japan, the world’s number three economy, and one which is in desperate need of new thinking, ranks number nine, with only 103 think tanks.


The University of Pennsylvania asembled a panel of over 250 experts from 120 countries to assess and rank these think tanks.  Some 12 of the top 25 think tanks come from the US.  The Brookings Institution is number 1, Council on Foreign Relations is number 2, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is number 3 and the RAND Corporation is number 6.  The UK rates highly too with Chatham House at number 4 and Amnesty International at number 5.  The German-based Transparency International is number 9, the Belgiam-based International Crisis Group is number 11, the Swedish-based Stockholm International Peace Research Institute is number 20, and the Hungarian-based Open Institute is number 21.


The only emerging economy think tank to make it into the top 25 is the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), which ranks number 24.  Other emerging economy think tanks to score well include Indonesia’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brazil’s Centro Brasileiro de Relacoes Internacionais, the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, South Africa’s Center for Conflict Resolution, and Poland’s Center for Social and Economic Research. 


All of these think tanks come in ahead of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, which only just sneaks in ahead of the China Institute for International Studies.


What to make of all of this?


If global thinking and the battle of ideas will really shape the future, it is way too soon to start writing off the United States.  Europe’s list of think tanks is impressive.  But many of them are UK based, when most of Europe’s policy challenges are on the continent in Euroland.  Also, a number of them, like Transparency International and the International Crisis Group, are more concerned with development issues than solving Europe’s own problems.


The strong presence of think tanks in China is a very promising trend for a country that will most certainly traverse many economic, social and political transitions in the future.  This cause gives much cause for hope.  The growing presence of think tanks in other leading emerging economies is also a very positive trend.


Japan, which is presenting raging with political instability, does not look in good shape at all, with only one leading think tank – and even this one is concerned about international affairs, not domestic affairs, which are Japan’s real problem. 




The Global "Go-To Think Tanks”: The Leading Public Policy Research Organizations in the World


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