Free Societies

Local think tanks around the world sound alarm on declining democratic norms

Sound alarm

Last week, a new report on the state of think tanks around the world was released by Foreign Policy Analytics. The research in the report, titled “Navigating Through Turbulence,” was funded by Atlas Network and carried out by FP Analytics (FPA), the independent research division of Foreign Policy magazine. FPA interviewed more than 50 senior think tank leaders and surveyed over 320 leaders, exploring the evolving role of think tanks in the world of policymaking (see its executive summary below).

The “Navigating Through Turbulence” report can be accessed here.

View the FP Virtual Dialogue event: "Can local think tanks save democracy?" which served as the launch for the "Navigating Through Turbulence" report.

According to the report, nearly 70 percent of think tank leaders in democracies are concerned about local governance issues, while even more (74 percent) share those concerns in anocracies. Similarly, almost two-thirds of think tank leaders in anocracies (64 percent) worry about democratic decline. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated those concerns: In democracies, 61 percent of think tank leaders claim the pandemic has had a substantial impact on poverty, while 52 percent say the same for governance challenges. In anocracies, meanwhile, 57 percent of think tank leaders believe the pandemic has substantially impacted the state of democratic norms, while even more (60 percent) say the same for governance challenges.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the world’s think tanks have dealt with a wide range of unprecedented challenges, but they have met those challenges head-on and turned them into opportunities to make the world a better place,” said Matt Warner, president of Atlas Network. “Global think tanks with a local focus play a pivotal role in supporting the free market and improving democracy, especially in countries with closed societies. With hundreds of millions of people struggling under single-party rule, tight restrictions on civil society, and far-reaching government control, they are desperate for the success that only pro-liberty think tanks can provide.”

Global think tank leaders worry about the future most in countries that lack economic freedom. While 56 percent of think tank leaders express significant concern about declining democratic norms in their countries, 74 percent are concerned in countries with low economic freedom. Similarly, poverty is a serious concern for 50 percent of think tank leaders overall, but over 90 percent are concerned in countries with low economic freedom.

Yet the report found that, despite the pressures of COVID-19, global think tanks have adapted to the changing landscape and managed to make positive impacts in a wide range of spheres—from economic openness and poverty reduction to better governance. Atlas Network’s most effective think tank partners are committed to localization, finding ways to understand the needs of local governments and communities while leveraging local stakeholders to advance reform. More than 80 percent of global think tank leaders report being somewhat or very impactful in promoting economic openness, in addition to combatting democratic decline (79 percent), improving governance (79 percent), and reducing poverty (63 percent).

Making a positive impact does not happen overnight. Nearly 50 percent of think tank leaders claim it takes more than five years to achieve a policy “success,” while 25 percent say it takes two to five years. But think tanks remain committed to creating a better world, with 39 percent of senior leaders primarily focused on fostering economic openness, 34 percent on advancing liberal democratic norms, and 20 percent on securing good governance.

The Executive Summary of the Report:

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated several troubling global trends, including increasing authoritarianism, economic protectionism, and threats to human rights and civil liberties. It threatened to undo the significant gains in global economic and political development since the end of the Cold War. Today, 2.6 billion people—35 percent of the global population—live under regimes that are becoming more authoritarian. By contrast, just 8 percent of the world’s population live under regimes that are becoming more democratic.1 For the first time since 2001, democracies are not the majority regime type in the world.2 Accompanying these shifts in governance are troubling trends across key aspects of human development. For example, the World Bank estimates that the pandemic has pushed 115 million people into extreme poverty.3 Likewise, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has warned that disruptions to food supply chains, declines in economic activity, and diversions of resources toward emergency medical responses due to COVID-19 will delay progress toward meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that was already moving at a slower pace than necessary to meet the targets by their 2030 deadline.4

Local think tanks are among the organizations working at the forefront of these challenges. With their deep understanding of, and analytical perspectives on, the domestic power structures in their respective countries of operation, and through their research and role in informing policymakers, the media, and the public with their analyses, these organizations can play a vital role in addressing the root causes and counteracting the impacts of such concerning trends. However, to date, there have been limited research and a lack of consensus regarding how think tanks make and measure impact, how they operate, and the degrees to which they are effectively addressing these and other challenges within their countries. Understanding these challenges is key to understanding think tanks’ utility and to maximizing their effectiveness. Accordingly, FP Analytics (FPA) undertook an in-depth investigation of local think tanks, interviewing 51 senior think tank leaders from organizations around the world and surveying another 322. This analysis sheds light on the perspectives of think tank leaders and how they are working to tackle four major issues including poverty and standards of living, economic openness, governance, and declining liberal democratic norms. Several notable findings emerged:

COVID-19 Presents Challenges and New Opportunities for Local Think Tanks: Think tank leaders felt that the pandemic has had a substantial negative effect on these four key areas in addition to causing operational challenges. The pandemic has provided cover for illiberal reforms and retaliation against opposition activity by authoritarian regimes, putting think tank staff at risk. However, the pandemic has placed a renewed spotlight on the importance of civil liberties, human rights, and the organizations and individuals working to defend them.

Governance and Declining Liberal Democratic Norms Are Major Worries: While all of the four major issues were serious concerns for survey respondents, two stood out. Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported being seriously concerned about governance, and 56 percent reported serious concerns regarding declining liberal democratic norms.

Local Dynamics Require Local Expertise: Though these organizations often work globally, around two-thirds of think tank leaders surveyed perceived significant unique aspects to how the trends of democratic decline, poor governance, poverty, and economic protectionism are manifesting in their countries. These leaders contended that local organizations are among the best positioned to address these challenges, given their local knowledge of the political, social, and other dynamics influencing socio-political realities on the ground. This includes an advantage in defining and measuring impact within local contexts.

Local Think Tanks Are Seeing an Impact, Despite Challenges: The vast majority of survey respondents reported having an impact or a substantial impact addressing poverty, declining liberal democratic norms, governance, and economic openness in their countries. How think tank leaders define “impact” is varied, with some pointing to concrete policy change and others noting amplification of research and analysis across public media. In countries where governments are actively suppressing dissent, think tanks are minimizing direct engagement with policymakers and diversifying their work to include monitoring and evaluating government activities, offering skills training, building youth capacity, translating literature, and diversifying school curricula.

While local think tanks are under tremendous pressure in some locations, and face great challenges globally from the pandemic, think tank personnel report having positive impacts on governance, declining democratic norms and liberties, poverty, and economic openness. In part, this is because they have adapted to the changing political and economic climate. Some have shifted toward a focus on messaging, public relations, and training students and activists. Others have continued to produce strong research, meet with political leaders, and spread their work through mainstream media. Think tank leaders repeatedly emphasized the value of coalitions and partnerships, noting that they have learned important lessons and best practices through connecting with others with shared goals. Specific recommendations for think tanks, as well as donors and stakeholders, to build on this success include:

For Think Tanks

  • Build and Join Networks of Think Tanks and Civil Society Actors with Shared Goals: Coalitions of local, regional, and global organizations can share resources and ideas, learn from each other’s successes and failures, and build a strong community working toward shared outcomes.
  • Diversify Funding Sources: COVID-19 has demonstrated that think tanks cannot rely on funding from sources from which money may be diverted to emergency relief during crises. Diversifying funding sources, and finding creative fundraising methods such as subscription models, will be vital for think tanks to continue doing their work, as well as to mitigate concerns about foreign influence.
  • Publicly Demonstrate Independence to Improve Credibility: Think tanks should strive for financial transparency wherever appropriate while protecting the safety of donors and staff, and they should consider additional methods for formalizing and communicating organizational practices for maintaining independence, for example, through establishing clear and transparent policies about editorial and programmatic independence from donors.

For Donors and Other Stakeholders

  • Foster Relationships in Fragile States: Respondents from think tanks in fragile states were more likely to report having a greater impact than those from think tanks in more stable contexts, suggesting that stakeholders would do well to engage with think tanks in fragile states when seeking new partnerships and opportunities.
  • Build Organizational Capacity: Think tanks that engaged in this study reported great need for increased organizational capacity, through improved training and education for staff, and better infrastructure, such as wireless internet.
  • Tailor Work to Local Needs: Local think tanks are often well positioned to understand the needs of the local government and community and focus their work accordingly. Stakeholders and donors could benefit from acknowledging their expertise and deferring to their local knowledge when determining organizational priorities and action strategies.
  • Strengthen Impact Assessments: Think tanks could secure more funding and build credibility by clearly demonstrating their impact. Stakeholders can support think tanks by partnering with data scientists and successful think tanks to offer training and practical support to those interested in improving their impact-assessment models.