Tuesday, September 29, 2015

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

[Editor's note: This is the second 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.]

Interview by Dustin Gilbreath

Dustin Gilbreath: You recently recently pointed out that think tanks in the South Caucasus have come a long way in recent years, but that they still face challenges on some of the fundamentals – quality of research, policy relevance, funding, and operational acumen.  At the national rather than regional level, what are the relative strengths of and challenges before the think tank sector of each country?

Hans Gutbrod: The think tank sector is most relevant in Georgia, since Georgia is a context in which ideas are being worked out, and where there is an interest in policy solutions. Citizens have come to expect that the government delivers. So that, in principle, is a great opportunity for institutions in Georgia.

In Armenia, by contrast, policymaking is fairly closed. There are a few elite pockets of discussion, often involving the Central Bank and some other institutions, but in my view, the space for discussion is narrower. There are some bright spots, such as the Civilitas Foundation and CRRC Armenia. Both of those (and I have worked with both, to be clear) can contribute ideas, but the political system offers fewer access points.

Civilitas Foundation, interestingly, has developed into providing even more content and media, and that is a sensible approach, as it can be hard to transmit messages through traditional media that often has an insufficient institutional and financial basis for quality journalism. CRRC Armenia has been active on issues involving social protection for a long time, and has a good network and contacts in that field. Yet, overall, Armenia is punching way below its weight as a country, with only a limited effort to make it an attractive country to live, work and stay in. This limits the role of any research organization. Perhaps indicative of that situation is that even a Prime Minister whose appointment was greeted with at least some optimism, such as that of ex-Central Bank Director Tigran Sargsyan on balance delivered fairly little. When Prime Ministers can't deliver, there's not that much that think tanks can do.

In Azerbaijan, there isn't any think tank scene to speak of. The government typically has tried to solve any problem by throwing money at it, and by throwing any independent voice into jail. The results are mixed, at best. Yet, ironically, an investment in think tanks might be even more important, just for that reason. Ultimately it's possible, but unlikely, that the regime of Ilham Aliyev will last long. The most remarkable aspect about Ilham Aliyev really is how utterly incompetent his government is. They were handed huge amounts of money, and mostly blew it on themselves and a few prestige objects, instead of actually modernizing the country, its universities, and establishing alternatives to oil and gas. While the regime looks solid now, it has so little management capacity that it could unravel quite quickly in a crisis.

The key question is what alternatives will then be available. Given that there is no opposition to speak of, who can be ready to run things? You need to train people who understand the policy issues so that they can deliver results within the first six months of taking over. If you do that, a post-Aliyev government has a good chance. Conversely, if there is no viable alternative things could turn grim quickly, as Libya illustrates. I know this sounds far out right now, but it's important to hedge against downside risks, and thus policy research would be a good investment.

Coming back to Georgia, policy research organizations haven't really caught up with the new realities. The previous Saakashvili government was brimming with ideas. Some of these ideas were harebrained, but others also proved remarkably successful and even visionary. With the government hatching so many ideas, research organizations often struggled to keep up and had limited opportunities to contribute new suggestions.

This has now changed. Most people agree that the current government is much more receptive to outside input and ideas, partially because they produce fewer of their own. Yet we don't see that much input from research outfits. Many policy research organizations, have settled into a comfortable routine of criticizing the government, along with the society. That's understandable, but there is a missed opportunity of bringing in new ideas. Take one example: when the mayor of Tbilisi promised to plant 1 million trees, this would have offered an extraordinary opportunity. Research organizations could have jumped at this issue, coming up with ideas on how to plant these trees, talking about urban planning, reviving parks, greening the city, bringing in excellent ideas that worked elsewhere. Here and there this may have happened, but I haven't really seen a sophisticated paper by anyone that advanced the discussion.

So what's the biggest missing ingredient, for policy research organizations to succeed? In my view, it's curiosity. I myself have been to many events which are interesting, engaging, and where new ideas are being discussed. It's regrettable that often not a single policy researcher is there, even if the event happens close to their office. Improving ideas doesn't happen in isolation. It's a result of intense discussion. It also often requires sifting through lots of less relevant material. Of course, I understand that all these organizations have many other things to do: other projects, administration, other obligations.

Yet research outfits aspiring to be think tanks do need to ask themselves whether at the end of the day they really are passionate about policy. If you have not read Nudge, what are you doing at the table of a policy discussion? I know this is an extreme view, but I do think it needs to be brought into the discussion.

To be a good lawyer, to be a good practitioner, to be a good policy professional – for all of that you need to keep up with what's happening in the field, you need to connect with the community you work in. I wouldn't want my heart to be operated on by someone who is fumbling along, without having checked in with what's happened in the field in the last 20 years. Why should we demand less from think tanks? In the most extreme case, they're involved in open-heart surgery of entire societies.

Donors, too, should be discriminating in that regard, and hold local research organizations to a much higher bar. Asking for more transparency is just one of those aspects -not sufficient, but certainly necessary. We all need to ask more, to get better results, better policy proposals, and ultimately, better policies.

Ultimately I'm fairly optimistic that this can succeed, though think tanks may be dragged into the future rather than leading into it, and existing institutions may be sidelined. The playing field is now better for those that are agile. Ray Struyk has put forward a great book on how to manage think tanks, and this can help ambitious institutions get it right, if they take the materials seriously.

Another reason, to end on a plug for something that I put together, is that now journalists and ordinary citizens no longer need to take anything on faith. They have access to some of the best think tank research through tools such as www.findpolicy.org. So new ideas may come in, though not necessarily from formalized organizations.

The key challenge for all of us is how to accelerate a better understanding of policy. The best think tanks should be ahead of this process, not behind.

DG: In Azerbaijan, given the recent crackdown and shuttering of organizations which could provide just the training you mentioned, where are there (if there are) opportunities to invest in think tanks either from the side of donors or domestically?

HG: I think in Azerbaijan, the key is to invest in organizations that may work on the outside, that help to clarify what really is going on, that use innovative tools, that collect data that highlights how official data just isn't right. In a way this would be a research outfit that could feed into discussions via social media, a kind of research version of the original version of Radio Free Europe. I know that this is difficult, but you really need to invest into thinking precisely when times are particularly difficult. The case for such external research organizations has also been made by Emin Milli, a dissident who spent significant time in jail for daring to speak up.

DG: You noted here as you have noted elsewhere that donors need to push for higher quality research outputs from local organizations. Do you have any concrete recommendations of how to do so?

Well, there are many measures, and not so many have been tried. I would hope that donors engage substantially with this question. Here are some key measures that come to mind.

  1. Finance: there should be more core financing to start with. Many research organizations are totally projectized, and this makes it harder for them to invest into quality.
  2. Nudging: at the point of application, ask about quality assurance mechanisms. Some key questions could include what are you actually doing, with whom, how? Can you put this on to your website, to indicate your commitment to such quality assurance? That would be a good start.
  3. Checklists: use and encourage the use of checklists. For example, does a policy proposal include a budget? Or is it just a wishlist? 
  4. Comparison: encourage and finance small public reviews and comparisons. For example, does an organization make its old reports accessible, or does it lose all materials when updating a website? Unfortunately the latter still happens way too often, and is a great loss. Many organizations barely think of that, and knowing that you will be reviewed could encourage more attention on that issue.
  5. Network: create access to constructive external peer review. You could potentially encourage the formation of a network of quality review. This would be an experiment, but if it works it could have a transformative impact. 
  6. Transparency: there are many reasons for transparency, but an additional one is that having full financial information on a grantee website helps donor coordination. Donors should not just be transparent themselves, their quality can also be measured by the transparency of their grantees.  

I think there might be many more ideas, and that is why we need a debate on these issues.

DG: Any final thoughts?

HG: Yes. Ultimately, the really interesting things often are outside the disciplinary mainstream. I cannot recommend Ed Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc. highly enough. He describes how Pixar works, and how they consistently managed to turn out successful films. This book holds many lessons for creative organizations, and think tanks should be at least somewhat creative, and in the end also tell a compelling story.

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.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Online data analysis (ODA)

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Georgian public on journalists

Over the last month, a number of scandals have emerged on the Georgian media landscape. On August 7th, Rustavi 2, a national television station often associated with the previously governing United National Movement (UNM), had its assets frozen in response to Kibar Khalvashi’s claim that he was wrongfully denied his ownership rights of the station during the UNM’s governance. More recently, cancellation of two political talk shows was announced on Imedi TV, another national station, owned by Badri Patarkatsishvili’s family. Imedi later stated that it was not cancelling the talk shows. Two weeks ago, it was announced that two more political talk shows face cancellation (see here and here). Suspicions have been voiced that these cases are related to the upcoming 2016 Parliamentary elections. Considering the recent scandals, an understanding of how Georgians view journalists is important as the public’s view of them proxies the public’s trust in the media they consume. This blog post takes a look at attitudes towards journalists reported during the May 2015 Transparency International – Georgia public opinion poll, conducted by CRRC-Georgia.

On the whole, Georgians are quite ambivalent about journalists. To start, more than half of the Georgian population reports that they neither trust nor distrust journalists. This response is more or less equally characteristic for various segments of Georgian society, with roughly half of the representatives of every education level, age group, settlement type, and gender reporting so. Slight differences are present – those with at least some tertiary education, the young, and Tbilisi residents are all slightly less trusting of journalists than those who are less educated, older, and live outside the capital. Georgians report neither trusting nor distrusting journalists more often than representatives of any of the other professions or institutions asked about on the survey, including judges, police, doctors, teachers, NGOs, the President, Parliament, Prime Minister, and local government. Slightly more Georgians, though, report trusting journalists than distrusting them (25% versus 18%).

Note: The original five-point scale was recoded into a three-point scale. “Fully trust” and “Trust” were combined into the category ‘Trust’ on the chart above, while “Fully distrust” and “Distrust” were combined into ‘Distrust.’ “Neither trust nor distrust” was not recoded. Education levels were also recoded. ‘Secondary or lower’ includes individuals with only primary education, some secondary education, and completed secondary education. ‘Tertiary education’ includes those with some higher education, Bachelor’s degrees, Master’s degrees and PhDs. ‘Secondary technical’ education was not recoded.

The wide spread “neither trust nor distrust” attitude must in part stem from the perception that journalists in Georgia lack independence and are not working with the average person’s interests in mind. Half of the Georgian population believes that “Georgian journalists, as a rule, protect the political interests of the owners of media outlets,” though different people may have different attitudes to this issue. In addition, only a third of the public agrees with the statement that “Georgian journalists, as a rule, represent the interests of people like [me]”, and 32% agree with the statement that “Georgian journalists cover events superficially”. On a bright note, however, twice as many Georgians agree with the statement “Georgian journalists are highly professional” compared with those who disagree.

Note: Originally, the responses were recorded on a five-point scale where code 1 meant “Fully disagree” and code 5 meant “Fully agree“. For the chart above, codes 1 and 2 were combined into ‘Disagree’ and codes 4 and 5 were combined into ‘Agree.’ ”Neither agree nor disagree” was not recoded.

The findings suggest the journalists in Georgia need to work with the interests of ordinary people, not the owners of media outlets, in mind. If they do so, the population’s trust towards them will likely increase. To learn more about Georgians’ attitudes towards the media, have a look at the findings of the Media survey in Georgia here.

Monday, September 07, 2015

The public on the conflicts in the South Caucasus

On July 18, 2015 thousands of Georgians gathered in Tbilisi protesting Russia’s “creeping occupation” as South Ossetia based Russian troops continue to draw the border along the Administrative Border Line between Georgia and the occupied territory of  South Ossetia. The unresolved territorial conflicts over South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh are major sources of instability in the South Caucasus. These conflicts are often referred to as ticking bombs, and despite numerous common challenges, the region is claimed to be “more divided than united” mainly because of these conflicts and because of the competing interests of regional powers – Russia, Turkey and Iran. All three South Caucasian states have different political relations with these states and towards the West.

In 2013, CRRC’s Caucasus Barometer survey asked the populations of the countries of the South Caucasus about their opinions on the territorial disputes in their own and in neighbouring countries – namely, the conflicts over Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. This blog post looks at the findings.

Assuming that the population of each country was informed about the conflict in their own country, the populations of Armenia and Azerbaijan were asked if they had heard about the conflict in Abkhazia, while the population in Georgia was asked if they had heard about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Only those who reported having heard about these conflicts were asked follow-up questions. The data shows that a larger share of the Georgian population has heard about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (62%) compared to the shares of the populations of Armenia and Azerbaijan that have heard about the conflict in Abkhazia (49% and 43% respectively).

In respect to each conflict, questions about potential solutions were asked. Speaking about Armenians’ attitudes towards possible solutions of the conflict in Abkhazia, Armenians most commonly think Abkhazia should be an independent country (46%). The next most commonly held view was that Abkhazia should be a part of Russia (26%). Only 7% of Armenians would favor Abkhazia as a part of Georgia.

Note: The question was asked to the 49% of Armenians who reported having heard about the conflict in Abkhazia.

In contrast, the Azerbaijani public most commonly would favor having Abkhazia as a formal part of Georgia (77%) and 12% would support the idea of having Abkhazia as an independent country. Less than 1% would favor having it as a formal part of Russia.

Note: The question was asked to the 43% of Azerbaijanis who reported having heard about the conflict in Abkhazia.

The Georgian population is overwhelmingly in favor of having Abkhazia as a formal part of Georgia without autonomy (73%), and 33% believe it should have a high degree of autonomy within Georgia. Only 3% favors Abkhazia as an independent country.

The opinions over the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh differ across the countries as well. Given that Armenia and Azerbaijan are the two sides involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is unsurprising that the populations of these countries express radically different opinions about the possible future of this conflict. Armenians most commonly would favor having Nagorno-Karabakh as a formal part of Armenia (73%). More than half (54%) would also favor having it as an independent country, but would find it absolutely unacceptable for Nagorno-Karabakh to be a part of Azerbaijan.

The absolute majority (95%) of Azerbaijanis would favor having Nagorno-Karabakh as a formal part of Azerbaijan. Notably less – only about a third of the population – would favor the scenario of having Nagorno-Karabakh with a high degree of autonomy within Azerbaijan. Unlike Armenians, Azerbaijanis do not at all favor having Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country.

As for the Georgian public’s attitudes towards possible solutions of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, slightly less than half of Georgians who reported they have heard about this conflict either could not answer the questions about the future status of this territory, or refused to answer the questions. As for the rest, more people would favor having Nagorno-Karabakh as a formal part of Azerbaijan (26%) than of Armenia (9%).

Note: The question was asked to the 62% of Georgians who reported to have known about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This blog post looked at how public opinion on territorial conflicts in the region varies across the South Caucasian states. Overall, Georgian and Azerbaijani public opinion on the preferences about the future of Abkhazia is more similar than the public opinion in Armenia. As the opinions over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani public attitudes are sharper than the attitudes of Armenians, while Georgians largely avoid reporting their opinions, or do not have any. Yet, notably more Georgians which do have opinions about the possible solution of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh are in favor of having Nagorno-Karabakh as a formal part of Azerbaijan than of having it as a formal part of Armenia. Considering the geopolitical realities, these findings are not surprising. Georgia and Azerbaijan are in a quite similar situation, as both have lost territories, while Armenia de-facto controls Nagorno-Karabakh with Russia’s support. As Svante Cornell et al. (2005) argue in their work on South Caucasian conflicts, the conflict in Abkhazia has the same symbolic importance for Georgia as the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has for Azerbaijan, as both countries were defeated in these conflicts against a numerically much smaller enemy relying on external support, while Armenia feels less urgency to find a solution and is interested in preserving the military status quo.

To learn more about public opinion on the conflicts in the South Caucasus, take a look at CRRC’s earlier blog posts, When is a war not a war?, Nagorno-Karabakh: Prospects for difficult reconciliation (Armenia) and Engagement without recognition? and check out our Online Data Analysis platform.