Monday, September 28, 2015

Thinking about think tanks in the South Caucasus

[Editor's note: This is the first in a series of blog posts co-published with On Think Tanks. The views expressed within this blog series are the authors alone, and do not represent the views of CRRC-Georgia]

By: Dustin Gilbreath

Starting from similarly troubled slates at the turn of independence, the South Caucasus countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – have diverged over the last 25 years, and the region is an interesting case of divergence despite similarity. While in Azerbaijan the government is squeezing the last bit of free expression from the country, Georgia is having its problems but is by far the freest place in the region. Armenia still has space for engagement, but it is not as open as Georgia.

Perhaps unsurprising, the think tank landscape in the region mirrors the environment in each country. While Georgia enjoys a vibrant think tank sector (despite its shortcomings), Azerbaijan has shuttered many of the independent organizations in recent years which produced policy research just as it shuttered independent media outlets. In Armenia, think tankers have limited channels to reach decision makers or see policy proposals enacted, but there is room to maneuver.

Georgia clearly has the strongest sector of the three countries, and it will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. When it comes to impact, it’s clearly here and policy researchers are taken seriously. Just to provide one recent, rather specific example, the Ministry of Finance felt the need to respond to a series of roughly 300 word blog posts from a Transparency International – Georgia analyst on the miscalculation of the budget deficit (see here, here, and here for the blog posts and see here and here for the responses). While no doubt an important issue, 300 words on a blog caused a course change – the government started calculating the budget deficit the way they were supposed to again. Policy research more generally is taken seriously, and it isn’t uncommon for multiple high level officials to be at presentations and conferences. This stems in part from the relatively open institutional environment, but also from the strength of international organizations here, which amply back local organizations. In the medium term though, this backing is going to be a larger question as the county develops, particularly as it will soon be declared an upper-middle income country.

In stark contrast to Georgia, there is hardly any room for policy entrepreneurship in Azerbaijan. In addition to the widely covered imprisoning of journalists, think tanks and many of the organizations which have supported them have been shuttered in recent years. A Russian style NGO law has kept organizations which had funding from spending it. It’s gotten to the point where at least one organization considered carrying a suitcase of money across the border to keep projects going.

Armenia is something of the middle path in the region. Policy researchers are capable of impact, but the pathways to influence are fewer than in Georgia. Organizations can say what they want, but whether anyone is listening is a question. Informal ties, as in Georgia and elsewhere in the world, play an important role.


This series will be composed of the following posts:

The lay of the land: An interview with Hans Gutbrod on think tanks in the South Caucasus Interview by Dustin Gilbreath

This interview will introduce the three South Caucasus countries and the think tank landscape from an insider perspective to the On Think Tanks readership. The interview will look specifically at: 1) how think tanks have developed over time in the region; 2) the different institutional landscapes in each country and opportunities for think tanks given the institutional environment; 3) what are the challenges to be overcome and where will the think tank sector be headed in the region in the coming years.

Think tanks in Armenia: Who needs their thinking? by Yevgenya Jenny Paturyan

Think tanks are considered to be an important part of civil society: providers and keepers of expertise on important social, economic, environmental, political and other issues. Similarly to other Armenian civil society organizations, think tanks are fairly institutionalized, but detached from the public. One might argue that it is not a problem. Their main clients are decision-makers: in the case of Armenia it should be the Armenian government and international development organizations. Both turn to think tanks from time to time, but the outputs produced are for internal consumption, making it very hard for think tanks to a) establish themselves in the public eye and b) to improve their quality, as there is no equivalent of peer-review. As a result, Armenian think tanks remain virtually unknown to the public, including to important segments of the public such as journalists, students, scholars, and others who would clearly benefit from think tank generated, systematized and stored information. They also suffer from the general public’s attitude which is projected onto the entire civil society sector: “the grant eaters - harmless at best, sellouts pursuing someone’s hidden agenda at the worst.”

The role of Azerbaijani think-tanks in public policy discourse by Zaur Shiriyev

The establishment of local think-tanks in Azerbaijan was a phenomenon that began in the mid-2000s. In the decade after independence in 1991, Western-oriented or international NGOs had been effectively the only source of policy analysis in Azerbaijan. However, unlike Western-funded NGOs or national chapters of Western NGOs, local Azerbaijani think-tanks had different goals and modes of operation. In particular, the functions of government-funded or supported think-tanks were essentially limited to promoting the party line and strengthening the government’s international image. This piece will analyze the current role of think-tanks in public discussion in Azerbaijan, including an assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.

Do Think Tanks in Georgia Lobby for Foreign Powers? by Till Bruckner

There is a growing literature on some donors' use of think tanks as lobbying tools, and the arguably blurred line between think tanks and lobbyists. However, this discussion is largely confined to think tanks in wealthy countries. Using examples from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, this blog will argue that think tanks frequently function as lobbying tools in less developed countries as well.

Being a specialized think tank in Georgia by World Experience for Georgia 

In the final post of the series, World Experience for Georgia will share the experience of being a specialized think tank, focused on energy, in Georgia.

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