Revitalizing Policy Think Tanks in Developing Countries: COVID-19 Challenges and Opportunities
This post is written by Suresh Chandra Babu, Senior Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath could have profound implications for the effective functioning of the food and agricultural policy systems in the developing world. Policy think tanks are a major influence for food and agricultural policy systems in developing countries. In the policy process, think tanks play critical roles in several stages. These roles range from setting the policy agenda, designing policy interventions, advocating for adoption of certain policies, monitoring the implementation of policies, and evaluating the policies and programs for their impact and refinements. While COVID-19 has come as a major disruption to the policy process in developing countries, it has also presented a major challenge for think tanks’ continued contribution and existence. Institutional development of the policy think tanks remains a major challenge as several of them continue to play a survival game year by year due to chronic funding challenges even in normal times.
While COVID-19 has brought several challenges to the policy systems in developing countries, it also presents several opportunities to revive the role of various actors and players in the policy system. In this blog, we look at the immediate challenges and the potential opportunities policy think tanks face for their revitalization. Based on preliminary consultations with selected leaders of the food and agricultural policy think tanks, we identify the opportunities to build resiliency of the organizations––both during and post COVID-19 crisis.
Policy think tanks support the containment and mitigation efforts of governments in developing countries in several ways. In some countries, think tanks have been invited by the policymakers to contribute to the planning and execution of interventions. In other countries, researchers of the think tanks have been actively producing policy briefs and memos on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Although given the uncertain role think tanks can play in the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to emerge, reinventing their roles could be challenging. Due to funding that is tied to specific projects, there is a chance that they may not go beyond writing speculative notes and briefs on the potential impact of COVID-19. In most cases, research activities have come to a grinding halt as their research and analysis depends on field surveys of the households which is banned due to social distancing.
As the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns continue (and as a result, field activities cease), think tanks are under severe pressure to repurpose their activities. For example, in order to keep think tank professionals on payroll, alternative activities must be identified for them to justify their salaries coming from projects. There is increasing fear that under these circumstances, policy think tanks, which are stressed even in normal times may collapse if they are not guided and supported during these hard times. What challenges and opportunities does COVID-19 bring for the revitalization of policy think tanks in developing countries? How can the struggling think tanks emerge even better after the COVID-19 crisis? We provide selected insights to address these key questions below.
A key factor that determines the survival of think tanks in tough times is how they manage their finances. Raising additional funding and managing the costs are two areas that need immediate attention. For example, the researchers should work from their home to reduce the cost of renting the office space and other associated costs. Financial management with projections that are based on sound judgment will help in prudent budget management. Donors of research projects may have guidelines for spending the resources and employing the researchers in the context of COVID-19 within their projects. While adhering to these guidelines are important, there is an urgent need to renegotiate the research projects in terms of objectives and modify the deliverables to keep the project implementation in progress. This will help in further catching up with the original objectives of the projects once normalcy returns.
Clear human resource policies can help in dealing with the crisis situation. A key challenge during COVID-19 is to keep the staff who are already on contract but had to stop the activities due to the travel restrictions resulting from the lockdown. For example, how to keep the enumerators on the job even though they may not be fully engaged in the data collection activities. Innovative methods to collect information from the field will keep research programs afloat during the period of social distancing when face-to-face interviews with the household sample surveys are prohibited. Online survey methods may offer alternatives if the respondents are able to respond online.
Alternative methods of field surveys are particularly useful if the key informant interviews are to be conducted with officials of the government departments and other agencies. Using technologies to remotely get information from the field can help inform the progress on policy and program interventions and help the governments and other clients track the impact of their activities. Cell phone interviews are becoming handy; they may not give a random sample in terms of analysis of data for inferences and hypothesis testing, but they may provide needed information to manage the crisis.
In periods of crisis, boards of directors of think tanks and the network of researchers connected to think tanks can play an important role by providing advice on the priorities to work on during the crisis and immediately after the crisis is over. Such consultations also provide an opportunity to develop a funding strategy for the post-COVID-19 world. For example, tracking government policies in the context of COVID-19 and guiding the policymakers on the lessons learned from other countries could be an effective starting point for beginning serious dialogue between the policymakers and the research community. This could be followed by simple information gathering exercises on the impact of COVID-19 in several spheres of development including food security, domestic markets process, internal and external trade, health service provision, migration pattern between rural and urban areas and vice versa, and the role of remittances on the livelihoods of the most affected population.
Adjusting in the short run to the needs of the national policymakers in the context of COVID-19 could help in gaining respect, credibility, and further increasing the demand for their policy research. Positioning think tanks strategically before public policymakers and development partners could be one of the best outcomes of COVID-19 for think tanks in development countries. However, this will require leadership of think tanks to take a strategic approach to see demand for evidence during the COVID-19 crisis and to develop the knowledge base and skills of their professionals to meet such emerging demands.
An additional area for leadership that think tanks in developing countries could provide is to organize consultations around effective management of the data systems. As countries increasingly realize during the COVID-19 crisis that their data collection, management, and sharing systems are not harmonized and coordinated, there is an opportunity for groups of think tanks to lead in a shared vision on how to organize data systems in the country that is used for generating evidence for the policy making process. For example, in a country that is facing food-related emergencies resulting from COVID-19, there could be several data systems measuring the nature and extent of food insecurity. The food balance sheets are calculated based on the area planted and the expected yields reported by the local government officials. The early warning systems try to predict the production levels of various food crops and their changes due to the shocks such as COVID-19. In addition, countries also have an integrated classification system of households based on rapid appraisals conducted by the food insecurity task forces. Further, these annual data collection systems are supported by periodic national household surveys. Yet, all these data systems are not effectively coordinated and harmonized for emergency planning and long-term policy analysis. Think tanks could take leadership in this area to invest in streamlining the existing data for policy making.
One of the repurposing exercises of the think tanks in the lockdown period could be to delve in on setting research priorities that are relevant and impactful in the post-COVID-19 world. In addition, organizing ethics and human rights protections of the research process could be another activity during this low intense period. Engaging in global and regional consultations on the issues that affect their countries is a good way to redirect the human resources when they are not able to conduct field studies. In addition, professional staff should be encouraged to take on-line courses to hone their quantitative skills in data management and quantitative and qualitative methods. In addition, human capacity building related to proposal writing, grantsmanship, and policy communication would also be helpful.
COVID-19 brings many challenges for the survival of think tanks. It also brings strategic opportunities if they can position themselves in the short run to meet the demand for evidence on the potential impact of disease outbreaks such as COVID-19. While this may become a testing time for think tanks that do not have flexibility in their programming, it can also be a time to reexamine their role in national policy systems. It could be the best time for organizing themselves through improving their human resources, financial management, data management, and research priorities to meet the post-COVID-19 world.