“This is a great time to be a think tank!” said trade expert Felippa Amanta of Indonesia’s Center for Indonesian Policy Studies, enthusiastically telling her audience about the important work that her team is doing to ensure that free trade continues to flourish. Despite the challenges faced by civil society organizations during the pandemic, Amanta’s enthusiasm was echoed by speakers in every panel during Day 2 of Atlas Network’s Asia Liberty Forum Online.
The afternoon’s presentations kicked off with concurrent sessions that approached crisis management in the context of fundraising—a fundamental problem for donor-dependent organizations—and crisis management in the context of extremist threats to a free and peaceful society. From her vantage point in India, Centre for Civil Society’s Bhakti Patil expressed concern about the resurgence of right-wing Hindu extremism and the polarization of Indian society. Ali Salman of Islam and Liberty Network in Malaysia posited that, while Atlas Network’s partner organizations have historically prioritized economic liberty as a strategic choice, this may be the time to consider how religious and political freedoms are part of a more holistic approach to the advancing the message of liberty.
A striking story from CIPS’ Amanta reminded attendees of the value of kindness in difficult times. One of Indonesia’s smallest religious minorities, a group of Buddhists who come from an ethnic Chinese background, raised money for critical health services to stop the spread of COVID-19. This simple act of kindness is helping Indonesians realize that compassion is not limited to a single group, and that “we’re all in this together.”
In the second session, successful fundraisers Chad Goote of Atlas Network and Dr. Parth Shah of India’s Centre for Civil Society had a strong message of support for worried leaders who are concerned that a global recession will impact their bottom lines. Goote and Shah were realistic about change, but both felt strongly that the development of lasting, meaningful relationships with donors is key to remaining relevant in a changing world.
After a short break, participants chose between sessions on free trade in Asia and a special book discussion led by Atlas Network CEO Brad Lips and President Matt Warner. The free trade panel was a spirited conversation on strategies to confront barriers to trade between policy analysts Bhuvana Anand of India’s Centre for Civil Society, Aneetha Warusavitarana of Advocata Institute in Sri Lanka, and CIPS’ Amanta. The panelists ticked off a litany of tariffs and protectionist restrictions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but remained optimistic that think tanks have a critical role to play in adding a free-market perspective that can be leveraged in creating permanent trade liberalization reform in the future.
In their webinar-style presentation, Lips and Warner were also optimistic about the role of think tanks, sharing their thoughts on the outsized role think tanks can play in achieving freedom and prosperity around the world. Drawing on the narratives from Lips’ The Freedom Movement: Its Past, Present, and Future and Warner’s Poverty & Freedom: Case Studies on Global Economic Development, both authors noted that memorable stories that illustrate shared values are key to helping new audiences understand and relate to the importance of freedom. Warner discussed the value of entrepreneurship for think tank leaders, challenging his listeners to build successful institutions that reflect their individual needs rather than mimicking the path of their more established peers.
Two major awards were announced at the end of the conference. Prashant Narang of India’s Centre for a Civil Society (CCS) has won the 2020 Asia Think Tank Shark Tank competition with his plan for “Lawyers for Liberty,” a legal aid campaign designed to empower street vendors to fight the system when their livelihoods are threatened by official harassment. CCS will receive $10,000 in seed funding for the project.
"This moment is for Dinesh, Samjad and Allah Noor," said Narang. "And for all those sidewalk vendors who had the courage to stand up against harassment and extortion. And for every unsung street vendor who now has a chance to earn his daily bread without any exploitation. Our goal is to educate and empower the vendors about their legal rights. And this award and your support will make this possible. I want to thank you for being a part of our journey and our fight for the rights and recognition of marginal entrepreneurs in India."
The 2020 Asia Liberty Award was presented to Islam and Liberty Network for their work to build the intellectual foundation for a Muslim case for liberty that is grounded in Islamic teachings and that supports the values of a free society. CEO Ali Salman accepted the award on behalf of the organization, saying that “When we hear about Islam and liberty the common perception is that they are opposites,” but that the organization’s work seeks to bridge the concepts of economic, political, and religious freedom. Thanks to their efforts, the relationship between religion and the philosophy of the free society is changing from an abstract conception into an achievable platform of ideas. Islam and Liberty Network received a cash prize of $7,000, made possible by the Templeton Religion Trust’s sponsorship as part of the Templeton Freedom Award prize program. The two runners-up, India’s Centre for Public Policy Research and Sri Lanka’s Advocata Institute, will each receive $1,500.
Final thoughts were shared by Robin Sitoula of Nepal’s Samriddhi Foundation, who pointed out that the country’s absolute lockdown in the wake of COVID-19 has awakened Nepal to the benefits of freedom. As so many of his peers in Asia shared, Sitoula agreed that the opportunity presented by this crisis illustrates the importance of our shared vision of liberty. “The new normal,” he said, “might mean a lot of opportunities and demand for our ideas.”
Asia Liberty Forum 2021 will be held in January 2021 in Manila, Philippines. To find out more about Atlas Network’s current grant opportunities for partners, visit our Grants page.