Insulated from the world for the last several decades under economic sanctions, Myanmar’s progress is severely constrained due to lack of capacity to decide and deliver on competing priorities. The country has done better than some of its South Asian neighbours on achieving high literacy rates; however, there remain huge gaps in terms of meaningfully engaging the population in the process of nation-building at all levels. This is also true of capacities of think tanks, as producers of policy relevant evidence and knowledge. Several of these local organisations are still nascent, or in start-up mode.

The need for context specific, local, basic data, knowledge and research based information on many aspects of governance, economy and society in Myanmar has been apparent for a few years. In response to this, the Canadian government’s Global Affairs Canada and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) have launched a program to support the democratic transition to and economic development processes in the country through the Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar Initiative.

Supporting Think Tanks in Myanmar

To implement one of the components of the Knowledge for Democracy Initiative, in June 2017 IDRC launched a competitive call for proposals to strengthen local think tanks’ organisational effectiveness.

We received an interesting range of applications which were assessed based on a set of objective criteria outlined in the call. Following this initial assessment, the IDRC team shortlisted and visited a few organisations in September 2017. As a result, three Yangon-based think tanks were selected to receive core, or flexible, funding over a three-year period to improve their capacities to undertake high quality research on local priorities and develop their organisational structures. These include the Centre for Development and Ethnic Studies (CDES), Centre for Economic and Social Development (CESD) and Advancing Life and Regenerating Motherland (ALARM).

The three selected think tanks represent a range of organisational structures and thematic areas of focus seen across policy research organisations in Myanmar. These consist of a mix of a few established think tanks but mostly very young organisations working on a wide spectrum of social, economic and environmental policy themes. They also have varied organisational structures, sizes, mission statements, mandates, networks and capacity to carry out research and policy engagement activities. In several cases, think tank staff have returned to Myanmar from exile or after having completed their education elsewhere.

As a part of this program, all three think tanks will receive financial support combined with dedicated capacity development support by IDRC program officers to strengthen their ability to make organisational choices around human resources, policy outreach, communications and fund raising amongst others.

This is exciting for those of us who have seen the incredible way in which local think tanks contribute to development in their local contexts. This modality of support draws from our experience of the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), a multi-donor funded program that has committed core and targeted capacity building support to 43 think tanks in 20 South Asian, Latin American and East and West African countries over a ten-year period from 2009-2019. The TTI supports local think tanks as those best suited to surface, prioritise and engage audiences, and help find and implement solutions to local problems.

Core or non-earmarked funding allows think tanks to attract and retain local policy research talent, set their own research priorities and invest in policy outreach and communications to ensure that research results inform and influence national and regional policy debates.

While we are excited about the vision the three organisations have set out for their contribution in Myanmar, we can anticipate two challenges to the achievement of outcomes in the process: 

Time horizon - Organisations evolve over a long period of time. If IDRC’s experience with the TTI shows us anything, it is that change is the only constant and we live in a very dynamic, hyper-connected, complex world. Building organisational capacity to respond to policy priorities or set these takes a long time, repeated investment and can be a painstaking process. As the three think tanks will receive support for three years only, expectations as to what outcomes can be achieved and measures of what success look like need to be realistic and tailored to the context within which the think tanks work.

Ecosystem capacity - The number of applications received through the call for this component demonstrated enthusiasm in Myanmar on the role of evidence in informing policy choices. However, in reality, capacities on the ground are still very low and the ecosystem for evidence informed policy is still nascent. For example, given the current state of secondary and tertiary education in Myanmar, think tanks will find it challenging to recruit and retain high quality research and non-research staff. The pool for these skills is small and threatened by the relatively higher salaries that employment in international organisations or the private sector will attract. Finding non-earmarked funding and reducing dependency on this from foreign donors is another. Creating a demand for and producing evidence in a timely and digestible way for policy makers while governance systems are still evolving is no mean feat.  Most importantly, the ability to remain independent and objective in a fragile political context can be tremendously challenging.

Having said this, there is still plenty of room for think tanks to use their core funding in a smart, meaningful way to shape local policy priorities and their implementation.

Promise from the Think Tanks supported by the program

We expect that at the end of three years, the think tanks will:

  1. Have strengthened their capacities to become catalysts for positive change, i.e. have improved their capacities to ultimately bring about policy impact by informing policy discourses with relevant, timely and quality data and evidence
  2. Have catalysed their leadership potential to support the evolution of democratic governance structures, help shape independent, locally relevant policy agendas and create a pool of future Myanmar thought leaders, policy researchers and advocacy specialists who are able to bridge the gaps between local and national needs in a thriving democracy.
  3. Engage with different and new groups of stakeholders to contribute to the peace process, social and economic policy formulation

This is an experiment in a new context, a part of a bigger program of support to build the capacity to generate and use evidence in informing policies.