Rethinking strategies for ‘northern’ think-tanks: In response to Simon Maxwell

The talk by Simon Maxwell on 29th June at the University of Sussex was duly engaging, as one would expect from an experienced and importantly, witty speaker. In his speech, Simon talked about the need for institutes like IDS/ODI etc to focus more on “moving up the value chain” by working with the UN General Assembly, the EC and the other IFIs, instead of wasting time and resources working on rather “low value” agendas like community farming systems, tribal customs and rural surveys. That, he thought, was best left to the plathora of southern NGOs and institutes, especially since the north did not have a comparative advantage in these fields.

From what I have chosen to absorb in IDS, I have always found a healthy emphasis on integration. First-world researchers and policy makers/influencers ought to have a first-hand and thorough experience in the third-world so that they themselves would have a sense of how the choices they make impact lives in the rest of the world. Indeed, this is critical specially when the decisions most such people make impact the lives of others, and not their own. Development sector professionals in the southern countries on the other hand, taking advantage of the knowledge repositories of the western world woud not only improve their own skills and work practices, but also form the right alliances towards infuencing policy in the western countries as well as in the global governments.

This is something I found shockingly missing in Simon’s speech. It is extremely significant that Simon was not talking just about influencing the UK governemnt or the Swiss or Canadian governments – he was talking about working with global systems that matter in development. And in doing so, appropriating the sole custody of the function of infuencing these global systems…where do the developing countries fit in? where do their think-tanks fit in? where do developing country professionals fit it? Simon’s apparent answer yesterday was: “let them take care of their farms and rituals and surveys…”. If this is not reinforcing the conventionally flawed stereotype of who and what is more important in the development sector, I dont know what is.

I have never worked within the UN system. But I can hazard a guess that if one is really concerned about the “G-178”, then one needs to understand what is going on in their countries and talk the language they talk. How will a western researcher succesfully influence a developing country policymaker whose language he does not speak, whose food he does not eat and whose climate he could not bear? Through a headphone that translates the UN languages into a native tribal language for the intended target? I dont think so. Through conventional tactics of arm-twisting and conditionalities? More plausible, I guess.

In short, I dont see how western institutions can assume that they will appropriate entirely, the role of influencing the global governments. The UN General Assembly is probably only the final meeting point, after regional back-room meetings have already decided their course of action, about what to say and which way to vote. Who is going to invest in being present in these back-room meetings? And with what do you influence? Where does that knowledge come from? Not just the hallowed academic and research institutes of the west, I am sure.

Being based in London or Washington is a distinct advantage. But Simon’s talk completely disregarded most of the other discussion elsewhere in the day – about the shifts in gobal power. What about offices in Beijing, New Delhi, Pretoria or Brasilia? or even in Bangkok or Nairobi? I agree with Simon about the use of the term “comparative advantage” – but how do we use our respective advantages? By following the typical economist logic of each doing only what they can do best? That flies in the face of everything I have appreciated about institutes like IDS (not suggesting IDS is a model, but seems to be trying in the right direction, and I would hope it improves) – a willingness to get your hands dirty, or at least engage on equal-terms with local partners, learning from them and with them. Instead, SImon’s talk would suggest that think tanks just need to “oil their way around the floor, oozing charm from every pore”. Unless the heady charm is accompanied by some earthy sweat, I am afraid, not much will ever change…

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