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Rethinking the Marketplace for Ideas

December 06, 2011

Advances in development happen when ordinary people benefit from smart ideas backed by sound policy decisions. Good ideas and well-designed policies know no boundaries, but researchers and think tanks in rich countries still dominate the marketplace of ideas—despite new technologies that have globalized knowledge.

The recent aid effectiveness meetings in Busan, Korea showed that responsibility for development is rapidly shifting to include new nations and institutions. Among these new actors are independent policy think tanks in developing countries themselves.

Supporting the ability of independent, domestic think tanks to contribute to development debates in their own countries is one of the first steps toward creating local ownership over development decisions.

Domestic think tanks are closer to what’s happening. They understand the local nuances of policymaking at home and have the most at stake if their recommendations fail. The strongest domestic think tanks can also tap into the global swirl of ideas, bringing the best the world has to offer to their national doorstep.

Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that every country has access to its own critical mass of independent, freethinking policy experts.

The International Development Research Center (IDRC) recently commissioned a survey of 985 active members of the policy communities in 23 developing countries to help inform the work of the Think Tank Initiative, an effort supported by IDRC, the development agencies in the UK and the Netherlands, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

IDRC’s survey found that, for the most part, government officials tend to rely on information produced by governments themselves. This narrows the range of information and ideas available to policymakers. Where there is a gap in knowledge, including on issues like agricultural development and food security, policy makers have a hard time getting their hands on high-quality information.

For donors, helping to build a country’s intellectual infrastructure goes hand in hand with building other critical capacities, like delivering vaccines to children and making markets work for small family farmers.

A weak public policy sector, like a weak health sector, squelches innovation, limits the flow of new ideas, and makes the better approaches more difficult. Weak policy sectors make progress on implementing even the simplest ideas a challenge.  

Putting ideas to work through domestic think tanks is not a new endeavor, but it’s one that is getting increasing attention. The Think Tank Initiative, the policy hubs of the Alliance for a Green Revolution, and the Global Development Network—all foundation grantees—are among several efforts to create lasting change through local research. Ideas matter, but they need a functioning, domestic policy market place to put them to work.

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