Dear Think Tank Review,
I’m still in Istanbul at the Think Tank Initiative Exchange: 43 think tanks from 20 countries across the three continents of Africa, Asia and South America are still here, still discussing research quality and impact. Now I’m a bit of veteran of think tank awaydays, or ‘wonkathons’, as we call then in Britain, but I’ve never been to one that lasts so long or involves so many people from so many different think tanks.
So what happens when a think tank awayday lasts longer than 24 hours? It’s an interesting research question for sure, and I can now reveal the answer. People loose their capacity to talk in anything but metaphors, similies, analogies and alliterative lists: “Good quality research is a bit like pass-the-parcel’.” “Economics is like an art form.” “Transparency is a mean to an end, not an end in itself.” “Consistency, coherence, courage and communication are the four Cs in shaping research ethics.” “Life is like a box of chocolates.” OK, I made the last one up.
Maybe it’s because we’ve been snowed into the hotel? Perhaps we should have had a Randomised Control Trial, with another conference held in a warmer climate? Or maybe it is because the participants must be on a combination of about 15 different time-zones. Over lunch, I suggest to one of the TTI staff that the jet-lag data would have been an informative infographic for them to have made. They are all mild mannered Canadians, who smile a lot, laugh at your jokes and never seem to get flustered. It seems to me that only Canadians have the national disposition to have run such a complex project for so long.
“I’ve seen you on Twitter,” says a forceful Ghanaian in the coffee break. “What do you think you are doing?” It’s fair question. There is a tweet wall in the corridor between the plenary and break-out sessions. The (probably) 80% of the conference that are not using Twitter are given a window into what the rest of us are doing as we stare at our smart phones, fiddle with our tablets and tap on our laptops. So over coffee, I explain to Cynthia, the forceful Ghanaian, what it is that I’m doing. Now she’s on Twitter too. And in the afternoon coffee break I overhear her taking to her colleagues: “Why are you not on Twitter? What do you think you are doing?” It’s a fair question.
During day two, we watch three videos (with extremely high production value) showing how TTI think tanks have influenced policy. One of them is from Senegal, where CRES have got smoking banned in public, also banned tobacco advertising and drafted a protocol accepted by the 15 West African ECOWAS countries to raise taxes on tobacco products. I am reminded of the government u-turn on plain packaging in the UK and the role played by IEA London (who, I can confirm, have almost nothing in common with IEA Kenya or IEA Ghana) in that opposite policy change. It’s interesting that most of the collaboration between the think tanks here are either with each other, in the same region or with development think tanks in the developed world.
This is one of the ‘elephants in the room’ which QQ has identified, through his highly influential blog OnThinkTanks. Throughout the conference, he consistently throws intellectual grenades to disrupt proceedings. That disruption has led to innovation. He is a grit in the oyster. Tomorrow, (day 3) there is no agenda… I know… I know… They call it ‘Open Space’ and the last time they did it (in Cape Town in 2012) it lead to the establishment of ‘Southern Voice,’ a collaboration to influence the next Millennium Development Goals, the ‘SDGs’, the Post-2015 agenda. That collaboration met in the same hotel earlier this week. Which means some of the people here have been at this wonkathon for five days!
It’s all too much for me. But at least I am coping better than the other guy, the one on the other Randomised Control Trial conference being held in the Seychelles. He never even made it back from the beach!
Head of News at IPPR and co-founder of WonkComms
This post was first published by Think Tank Review