Monday, October 26, 2015

Common challenges, common solutions

[Editor's note: This is the sixth 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

So far, in this series think tankers working in the South Caucasus have reflected on the issues challenging their countries’ think tank sector. In many ways, some fundamental problems lie at the heart of the specific problems, and I think they can more or less be summed up as problems with language and audience; quality of research; funding; and transparency. This post takes a look at one of these challenges – language and audience – and considers some things that might nudge the region’s think tanks forward.

Language and audience

Language, and specifically the demand for English outputs from donors, limits the size of the audience of research in the region. Zaur Shiriyev has described how the use of English in Azerbaijan in the 90s (and presumably to this day to a large extent) limited the public’s access to research, and Jenny Patruyan reflected on English-centric nature of think tank websites in Armenia. Definitely, different phenomenon, but language is still the underlying problem, and both authors’ issue with language comes from the fact that only an elite or foreign audience can access the research. Notably, funding was cited as one of the reasons for the English language outputs, and donors might help address this problem by requiring publications in both languages (and of course, should also fund translation and/or editing if they do).

When it comes to audience, I don’t think any of the contributors to this series have bemoaned think tanks’ efforts to reach elites so much as highlighted that organizations should consider broadening the reach of their research rather than targeting elites alone. To me at least, expanding to a broader audience seems like a good idea, maybe not for all organizations, but for many. To do this, first everything has to be in an accessible language, but just as importantly it should be in a form that someone will actually consume – only the most dedicated reader will take the time to go through a 50 page policy paper.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t need policy papers anymore, but rather that think tanks here should try to pair their longer, more demanding of the reader outputs with simpler and more accessible ones. Infographics and even products think tanks wouldn’t normally consider producing like games should be options that are on the table. Some progress has been made on the digestibility front, and Jumpstart Georgia’s work provides strong examples for other organizations in the region.

Something that would not only help with the language/audience problem, but also probably contribute to developing quality would be the development of something resembling Think Tank Review. Although the original was spurred on by the need to get policy makers to actually read reports, the organization, in practice, also spreads, archives, and reviews think tank work. For the South Caucasus, there would need to be translation into local languages (and potentially Russian) on top of TTR’s usual work, but language aside, it could improve quality by letting researchers know their work could be reviewed. As internet access is prevalent throughout the region, and most 18-55 year olds here know how to use the internet, something like TTR could bridge the elite to general public gap. Notably, a regional site would help this divided region stay better informed about the goings on of their neighbors, and could serve as a platform for discussing the larger issues facing the South Caucasus as a region rather than as individual countries. Moreover, policy success could be shared and reflected upon.

Of course, these are just a few ideas, which might make dents in the problems described so far in this series. Have other thoughts? Let’s have a conversation in the comments section below.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Do Think Tanks in Georgia Lobby for Foreign Powers?

[Editor's note: This is the fifth 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 Till Bruckner

If you work on policy issues in a transition or developing country, you probably know the standard line on think tanks by heart. Local think tanks build domestic research capacity, improve policy formulation processes and outcomes, and enrich and enhance democratic debates, thereby contributing to the emergence of more democratic, wealthy, and equitable societies. (Yes, you may copy and paste this into your next fundraising proposal if you wish).

Below, just for the heck of it, I’ll make the counterargument. Here’s the rival hypothesis:

Most local think tanks in transition or developing countries do not conduct real research. They just act as front groups for foreign lobbying campaigns. Western powers fund them to capture domestic policy formulation processes and distort democracy. Acting in concert with equally remote-controlled, faux-local NGOs and media, think tanks use foreign funds to push foreign agendas, creating a heavily tilted playing field on which the politics and policies favoured by the West always come out top, and on which real democracy can never emerge.

In September 2014, when the New York Times alleged that foreign donors were attempting to “buy influence” by bankrolling major think tanks in D.C., it caused an outcry across America. Congress rapidly reacted and soon after adopted a new rule requiring Congressional witnesses employed by think tanks to reveal any foreign funding that they and their parent organization had received. One lawmaker pushed foreign funding for non-profits onto the agenda of an upcoming review of foreign lobbying safeguards. A whole year after the event, some think tanks still seem to feel a bit shaken by the whole hullabaloo.

These revelations were enough to spark a protracted and sometimes paranoia-tinged debate on how foreign funding of think tanks might actually be foreign lobbying in disguise, and how such sinister practices threaten to distort American democracy and exert undue influence on foreign policy formulation in D.C. 

Ironically, America was at the same time conducting sustained, highly orchestrated and lavishly funded foreign lobbying campaigns via think tanks to pry the countries of Eurasia away from Russia and to build elite and popular support for a rival pro-Western path consisting of NATO membership, EU accession, and free market reforms. 

The thing is, nobody in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus or Central Asia called them lobbying campaigns. Instead, we called them “democracy promotion”. Or “civil society strengthening”. And American funding for local think tanks and local NGOs – the borders are blurred as both tend to tank far more than they think – was a key element of these lobbying attempts.

The following description of USAID’s More Transparent and Accountable Governance program in Georgia neatly illustrates how America’s foreign lobbying efforts work: pour money into think tanks, NGOs and the media – not to promote independent policy research and critical thinking, but to push pre-defined Western policy agendas:

“[T]he project will focus on strategic policy issues identified jointly by USAID and GoG partners… The project will provide support in advancing these issues through Georgia’s policy development and law-making systems and processes. In complementary fashion, support to CSOs and journalists under this project will align with the same set of strategic priorities where possible… Georgian CSOs, particularly think tanks, will receive training on similar skills under the civil society component of this project.”

While some pundits in America get paranoid about think tanks with a bit of foreign funding in their portfolios, USAID posts a comprehensive foreign lobbying strategy on its Georgian website – and nobody considers this unusual. 

Considering foreign actors’ role in Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and USAID’s apparent willingness to use foreign aid as an inducement in explicitly quid pro quo foreign lobbying deals, this is surprising; even in bigger and more resilient Germany, some people are beginning to raise the alarm about possible democratic distortions as a result of American-funded non-profits’ maneuverings

Efforts by governments abroad to boost non-profit oversight and regulation tend to be dismissed almost reflexively as ‘crackdowns’ by many Western donors and their chorus line of NGO grantees, even in the case of mature democracies such as India. These opponents of meaningful government oversight frequently forget – or choose to ignore – that even the world’s oldest democracy, the United Kingdom, places restrictions on the political activities of non-profits, including those that are entirely domestically funded. 

If a foreign government designed and funded a similar programme in the U.S., the participating NGOs and think tanks would almost certainly need to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, forcing them to document and subsequently disclose their financial dealings and interactions with officials in great detail

Non-profit regulation is a minefield in every country, balancing the imperative to preserve freedom of speech (including donor-funded speech) on the one hand, and the desire to protect democratic debating space from excessive distortions by powerful and wealthy vested interests (specifically donor interests) on the other. 

(See here for an especially good attempt to strike such a balance through dialogue.)

In Georgia, two decades of largely unregulated, nearly 100% Western-funded think tanking have had positive outcomes in terms of policy, but arguably negative outcomes in terms of politics. 

On the positive side, think tanks have largely delivered on their promise in terms of policy development: they have helped to build domestic research capacity and to improve policy formulation processes and public debates around specific policies, and they deserve a lot of credit for this.

On the negative side, I have witnessed how, over time, think tanks in Georgia have narrowed the field for democratic debate. There’s something impoverished about a political landscape in which every single think tank paper seems to be pro-Western, pro-NATO, pro-E.U., pro-market, and even pro-gay rights, with the scope of inquiry reduced on to how best and fastest to join NATO, join the EU, open markets and privatize, and safeguard minority rights. 

Meanwhile, alternative voices, choices and options have been pushed to the margins of media coverage, public debate, and eventually electoral politics, in the process politically marginalizing Georgian voters with different ideological leanings by robbing them of voice, choice and representation. NATO-or-Putin, privatization-or-communism, gays-or-gulags – only idiots and traitors would dissent.

Some observers lament America’s polarized think tank landscape with its endless dialectic clashes between Heritage, Cato, the Center for American Progress & Co., but they miss that each side in every debate should get a chance to articulate, refine and communicate its views through rival think tanks. In Georgia, there is no such democratic competition, as only one ideological side has all the think tanks, all of which financially depend on a cabal of Western donors with overlapping agendas. 

What can Georgians do to reclaim and diversify their domestic political space? One option is the German model of funding for think tanks tied to political parties with public money. Another is for think tanks to mobilize more money from domestic donors. Either way, if Georgians want to have a healthy democracy, sooner or later they will have to start paying the bills. 

Till Bruckner spent several years living in Georgia, where he witnessed the Rose Revolution while shilling for sinister foreign interests in a variety of roles, including think tank ventriloquist, NGO stooge, and journalistic parrot. He later wrote his PhD thesis on accountability in international aid in Georgia, focusing on the political economy of aid and non-profit accountability. His collection of hats currently includes freelance journalism, think tanking, and running advocacy efforts for Transparify, an initiative promoting greater think tank transparency worldwide. This article was researched and written in a private capacity. None of the views expressed here should in any way be taken to represent the views of Transparify or of any other organization.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the authors' alone and do not necessarily represent the views of CRRC.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The development of Azerbaijani think tanks and their role in public policy discourse

[Editor's note: This is the fourth 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 Zaur Shiriyev

The development of local think tanks in Azerbaijan has taken a different route to that followed by most other post-Soviet states and Eastern European countries. In the Eastern Bloc countries, research institutes modeled on Western think tanks became increasingly popular following the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, in Azerbaijan this did not happen, largely due to domestic political developments in the early 1990s.

Barriers to development

During the latter years of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani social science research institutions educated the public and raised awareness about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with neighboring Armenia as well as national history. They did so by publishing books and making media appearances, which had previously been subject to censorship and/or propaganda under the Soviet regime.

Members of academies and universities played a role in popular uprisings against the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, and held government positions immediately after independence. However, after a change in government in 1993, most of these people entered opposition politics rather than returning to academia or setting up research institutions that could promote new ideas or policy recommendations for the government.

Without a doubt, research capacity was also weak. Academics were unable to integrate Western social science methodologies into their discourses, and instead, old Marxist dogmas mixed with nationalist rhetoric prevailed. Therefore, despite their early role in public enlightenment, the research institutions did not develop.

Thus, the National Academy of Science – which encompassed over thirty scientific institutions and organizations – remained locked in Soviet tradition, whereby they served the state without any aim of playing a constructive role in stimulating or shaping public discourse.  This was the main difference between Azerbaijan and its neighbors, and from the outset weakened the role of research institutions in shaping the political agenda and public opinion.

These two factors – the lack of post-independence capacity building for old research institutions and a political environment that resisted the establishment of Western-style research organizations – were the main barriers to the development of the think tank sector during the first decade of independence. But a number of other factors also contributed.

In the early 1990s, Western funds were used to increase civil society capacity through the creation of NGOs, aimed at supporting democratic development. In pursuit of funding, NGOs called themselves “research institutions” or “think tanks” to increase their chances of securing funds. This led to the creation of increasing numbers of so-called think tanks in Azerbaijan. All that was required by foreign donors from these self-declared think tanks though was official NGO registration status. But, with a tiny number of employees and limited, grant-based funding, these NGOs struggled to fulfill their promises. The pursuit of funding also led to the “one man think tank” phenomenon, and in 2014, there were more than 3000 NGOs in Azerbaijan, and roughly 70-120 of them used ‘think tank’ or ‘research institution’ in their name.

This quasi-think tank community lacked Western-trained academics and experienced scholars, and the standard of work tended to be relatively low. Adding impetus to the problem, rapidly changing donor preferences in regard to subject matter meant that no one had a chance to develop real expertise in any one area (This also took place in Georgia, as observed by Ghia Nodia).

The factors outlined above posed significant institutional challenges, but perhaps even more important was the extent to which think tanks were prevented from participating in public discourse.
Until the end of the 1990s, media censorship limited the public appearances of researchers. Compounding matters, researchers were often working on topics that did not attract public interest. Moreover, funding often came with the stipulation that reports be produced in English, which seriously limited organizations’ audiences to a more educated and informed public.

When experts did appear in the media to discuss political issues, they tended to display partisanship, rather than presenting objective analysis. Weak analytical research skills and the absence of any real policy dialogue with the government undermined this community in the eyes of the public. Clearly, think tanks needed to cooperate and engage with political elites, but the poor relationship between the two sectors prevented this from happening. Moreover, the government did not seek the advice of research institutions, as they lacked the capacity to provide input on, for instance, the development of the economy and energy sectors. Instead, it turned to international expertise. Thus it was international experience that supported the creation of key national institutions like the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan. The government also needed to increase its influence in Western capitals, especially in the US. While policy research institutes could have played a valuable role here, the government, seeking what it saw as an easier and cheaper alternative, invested in lobbyists.


The development of the expert community’s capacity began in the mid-2000s and stemmed from government initiative and greater human capital. On the governmental side, this process was initiated due to its greater financial resources, its need for institutions to advise it, and the desire to build and integrate a pro-government research community into its overseas lobbying strategy.
In 2007, the establishment of a government funded think tank (the Center for Strategic Studies, or SAM) marked the start of this process. In the same year, Parliament approved the concept of state support to NGOs, establishing the Council on State Support to Non-Governmental Organizations under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The first NGO Support Fund, which gave small research grants to NGOs, required that grant recipients disseminate their research via media appearances. The establishment of the Science Development Foundation in 2009 increased funding opportunities for academic research. In prioritizing research activities, the government sought to improve its national and international image.

The government’s motivation’s aside, there emerged a group of people who had gained experience working at think tanks abroad, primarily in Turkey. Many of them had been educated in prestigious US and European universities. This new human capital dramatically changed things, and the new generation opened up a way to avoid working for government-funded think tanks and research institutions by establishing independent organizations.  But the early – unrealized – expectation was that this investment in human capital could lead to the establishment of a think-tank that could offer a model for others in future, as seen in Turkey. For instance, in Turkey, the 2000s saw the establishment of non-state think tanks- a key model in this regard was the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies, or ASAM (Avrasya Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezi); after that other think tanks proliferated based on that example.

In turn, this prompted foreign donors to take a more selective approach to grant allocation. They began to select institutions with the resources and capabilities needed to produce quality research. In 2008, Open Society Institute launched the “Program for Assistance to Analytical Centers”, aimed at improving the quality of political research and ensuring the sustainable development of independent political research institutions. Additionally, increased research funds from the EU within the European Neighborhood Policy framework and requirements for sector-specific research – e.g. on conflict resolution – created a more competitive environment for research institutions, leading to higher quality outputs.

All of the above enabled Azerbaijani think tanks to begin playing a larger role, which is demonstrated by the University of Pennsylvania’s Go-Think tank Report – in 2014, there were fourteen Azerbaijani think tanks listed, up from twelve in 2010.


Notwithstanding the positive developments, there is still work to be done.
First, state funded think tanks and research centers have a strong tendency to orient their work towards international audiences, limiting local impact and capacity building, for instance, by improving access to policy research and debate by establishing high-quality policy publications in the Azerbaijani language.

Second, the parameters of enriching public discourse have shifted over the past decade. If in the 1990s, local media appearances were a priority for members of the expert community in stimulating public discourse, today, the combination of a proliferation of poor quality online media outlets together with increased informal state censorship of media has meant that most experts now prefer to publish in international media.

Television remains the main source of news for the majority of the population outside the capital, but expert participation is low. Particularly troublesome is the fact that there are no high-quality analytical programs that could serve as a bridge between the think tank community and the public which would broaden the scope of discourse and debate.

Third, legislative amendments to the Law on NGOs have placed serious limits on foreign funding, and most foreign funded NGOs operating as think tanks – regardless of the quality of their work – are struggling to survive. In general, the successful development of think tanks in international practice has relied heavily on philanthropy, which is absent in Azerbaijan. Thus in the absence of a competitive environment, which is further compounded by the lack of the financial resources, there has been a monopolization of the research market by a few experienced groups.


The development of think tanks in Azerbaijan has faced serious challenges since the 1990s, when Western funding for the development of research centers lacked clear criteria and led the creation of quasi research institutions and one-man think tanks. The distinction between an NGO and think tank remains blurred. In general, think tanks played a minimal role in the shaping of public discussion during the 1990s.

The 2000s saw the creation of some higher capacity think tanks, but as before, the scope of the research was geared towards international audiences rather than the local public. As a consequence, high-quality policy journals and media outlets operating in Azerbaijani never developed. The shift to digital media led to the deterioration of research quality, pushing many professionals to publish in international journals rather than local ones, with the ultimate consequence of limiting the role of think tanks in public discourse.

Overall, the experience of Azerbaijan differs from other post-Soviet countries, especially in the former Eastern Bloc countries, not only because the latter benefited from greater Western investment in institution building, but also because in most of these countries the integration of scientific research into decision-making supported a smooth political process.

Currently, after more than two decades of experience in this field, there are a few main concerns and challenges for the development of the think-tank community that can be identified. The first is financial; without independent financial support, how can non-state think-tanks be developed? Second, given the proliferation of quasi think-tanks, what model for development can be followed, and specifically, can the establishment of research institutions in universities offer a better model for future development? Last but not least, taking into account that the integration of the non-state think-tank community into the policy making process remains impossible, what kind of steps should be taken to improve long term public outreach? One thought is establishing a common online platform for high-quality Azerbaijani language analysis. Have others? Tweet at me here.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Think Tanks in Armenia: Who Needs their Thinking?

[Editor's note: This is the third 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 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. Organizations like Chatham House and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace come to mind. In addition to ‘pure’ think tanks, there is a plethora of organizations that combine research with advocacy and action, Transparency International being a prominent example.

What does the think tank landscape look like in Armenia?

First of all, the term itself remains an alien catchword that has not taken root (and, frankly, perhaps it should not). Translated into Armenian (ուղեղաին կենտրոն) it sounds utterly ridiculous. Of the 11 Armenian think tanks mentioned by name in the Global Go Think Tanks Index Report 2014, in fact, only one describes itself as a think tank (in English, but not in Armenian). Some organizations prefer to call themselves research centers: a name that is easily translatable into Armenian. Others have broader descriptions corresponding to their general mandate (“an academic bridge between  diaspora [sic] and native Armenian scholars” or a “non-governmental organization … which aims to assist and promote the establishment of a free and democratic society in Armenia”).

Taking a closer look at those 11 organizations (supposedly the top Armenian think tanks as ranked by external reviewers) is an interesting reality check. As the 21st century saying goes: if you are not online, you don’t exist. How do these 11 names fare in a Google search? The table below summarizes the results.

Table 1. Online presence of Armenian entities mentioned by name in the Global Go Think Tanks Index Report 2014

*I did not search for a separate Armenian language web page. Instead, I simply noted if the main English web page has a link to an Armenian version

As a result of my little Googling exercise, one organization (Education and Training Unit) could not be found at all and another two are only mentioned on other organizations’ web sites but have no web sites of their own. Either they were active once upon a time, resulting in their names being listed in some databases, or they are very internet-unfriendly think tanks that prefer not to maintain their own web sites. (Let me clarify that at this point it is not my intention to engage in a discussion on how accurate the Global Go Think Tanks Rankings are, although this small experiment could be a starting point for such a debate. This was simply an empirical approach at trying to gauge the internet visibility of “top” Armenian think tanks).  Of the remaining eight organizations, two have not updated their websites since 2013. We are left with only six “finalists” that seem to be up and running. For those studying Armenian civil society this is no surprise. Many organizations in this sector are short lived or exist only on paper.

Who are the main consumers of those research centers’ outputs? Note that two of the six “finalists” (including the research center I work for) have no Armenian websites. This does not mean we do not produce Armenian language reports or policy briefs (we do), but it does tell you something about the main focus. Another interesting little experiment: of these four organizations that maintain both English and Armenian websites, if you just type in the ‘main’ website (like for our first example) it will take you to the English version in three cases; only in one case ( the first page you land on is the Armenian page. English language seems to be more important. This is no big surprise if you think where the main sources of funding are, but it does raise a question of how relevant think tanks are (and want to be) to the population of their own country.

One might argue that this is not a problem. Think tanks’ main “clients” are decision-makers. In the case of Armenia it should be the Armenian government and the international development organizations. Both turn to think tanks from time to time, but the outputs are produced for internal consumption, making it hard for the think tanks to establish themselves in the public eye, and to improve the quality of their products, as there is no equivalent of peer-review. As a result, Armenian think tanks remain virtually unknown to the public, including such important segments of the public as journalists, students, scholars, and others who would clearly benefit from think tank generated, systematized and stored information.

But is there a public interest in research and analysis produced by think tanks? Here is another little experiment: Civilnet (currently one of the leading sources of online news in Armenia) has about 30 articles in Armenian discussing research conducted by Armenian organizations or individuals: a simple search for the Armenian word հետազոտություն (research) returned 156 hits, out of which approximately every 5th was about research conducted locally. So, yes, there is some interest, and there are news outlets willing to publish think tanks’ stories. Of course researchers have to make an effort to translate their outputs into media- and public-friendly language (and of course, it wouldn’t hurt if it was also translated into Armenian).

While some Armenian think tanks are well established, there are many organizations (claiming to be think tanks) that are short-lived or active only from time to time. Their activity is mostly driven by external funding. They tailor their outputs more towards English readers. As a result, their public outreach and impact remains very low.

This short overview of the Armenian think tank landscape and their visibility online, leads to a number of questions:
1. Does Armenian public need to know more about the think tanks? Should think tanks prioritize public outreach more, or should they use their scarce resources to target donors and top decision-makers?
2. Do donors have a responsibility to share think tank outputs with the public in a language accessible to the public?
3. How can we ensure the quality of  Armenian language outputs, given that the circle of potential peer-reviewers is so small?
While these questions are beyond the scope of this post and are not likely to have simple answers, they are worth deliberating. What’s your take on these issues? Share your insights by tweeting at us here.