In Chapter 3 of the OCB book, Mome and Asif discuss their institution’s limitations when it comes to conducting quality research and advocating for policy change, outlining a process they undertook to address these concerns. In this post, they delve into the national context that regularly influences their work and the success of these efforts, providing an interesting overview of the many challenges that think tanks like SDPI face in Pakistan.

[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in a series on think tanks and organizational capacity building, edited by Katy Stockton and Shannon Sutton. The book, ‘Action Research and Organisational Capacity Building: Journeys of change in southern think tanks’, that this series is based on can be accessed here. This post was written by Asif Saeed Memon & Mome Saleem. Asif Saeed Memon is a former Associate Research Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). His work includes research and policy advocacy on education, governance and accountability and economic policy. Mome Saleem is a former senior research coordinator at SDPI. Academically an anthropologist she has worked on various development and social issues including gender, peace and conflict and climate change.]

Pakistan has seen considerable growth in the number of think tanks operating in the country in the last decade. The 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report counts 19 such institutions. This is a significant increase from the two or three found in the early 1990s. Despite this increase over the last two decades, it is difficult to measure the successful impact of these institutions on evidence based policy making in the federal and provincial capitals. 

While the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) was formed in 1992 on the recommendation of a parliamentary taskforce on climate change, ironically the relationship between the institute and policy makers has been mixed. While input from think tanks is accepted in some areas and to some extent, think tanks are not mainstreamed into the policy making world. Why is this?

We believe there are three main reasons for this disconnect between research institutes and policy makers in Pakistan. Two of these are external, while the third is an internal capacity issue for think tanks.

Reason 1: The politics of policy making

The 1990s were a decade of constant political turmoil in Pakistan, with four elections held in the country between 1988 and 1997. This was followed by a military coup in 1999. It wasn’t until the elections of 2013 that power was successfully handed over from one democratically elected civilian administration to another. To put this in context, nine general elections have been held in the country since 1970. Only two of the elected administrations have completed their terms. Additionally, the Pakistani electorate has returned the incumbent political party back to power only once.

This has led to a political class that is concerned with long-term policy making only insofar as it contributes to the possibility of getting re-elected. While this is true for many polities, the disease is particularly acute in Pakistani politicians.

To make matters worse, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 has created a stark dichotomy in Pakistan. An increase in development aid after Pakistan agreed to support coalition military intervention in Afghanistan has meant that financial resources for think tanks have increased considerably (perhaps explaining the increase in their numbers). Simultaneously, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – an umbrella term under which most think tanks have been placed in the popular conception – have come to be seen as influenced by aid organizations, and are often perceived as promoting a Western agenda.

Politicians, therefore, continue to look askance at the work of think tanks. Often after a policy recommendation is shared with a politician the first question asked is not, “Has this been piloted anywhere?” or “What are the costs?”, but instead “Who funded this research?”

Reason 2: The bureaucracy

Politicians don’t create policy. The actual nuts and bolts of policy in Pakistan come from bureaucrats. This does not mean that politicians do not lead on policy issues, but often they decide what needs to be done, not how. The how is often left to civil servants to decide. Despite this, most policy advocacy targets politicians and thought leaders. This represents one of the enduring challenges of evidence based policy advocacy in Pakistan.

Over the last five years this structural challenge has been multiplied by the devolution of powers from the federation to the provincial capitals initiated by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution (2010). Now think tanks have to forge links with five equally significant bureaucrats-politicians pairings, each with its own dynamic and challenges. It is important to recognize, however, that devolution also represents an opportunity for SDPI and other think tanks to tailor their recommendations more locally where relevant. In fact think tanks and donor agencies alike have arguably been slow to react to this change in governance structure.

Reason 3: Capacity

One of the enduring challenges for think tanks (and other research institutions) in Pakistan is the quality of research and research based policy recommendations they produce - a direct corollary of the quality of researchers being produced by the academy in the country. This means that a lot of capacity building happens on the job.

Secondly, there is almost no money and very little capacity to evaluate policy interventions. Despite massive policy changes (e.g. nationalization in the 1970s and privatization and liberalization in the 1990s) very few policies have been evaluated to determine whether they were successful or not. Even donor funded multi-year, multi-million dollar projects rarely come with funds earmarked for evaluation. And, overall, it must be noted that there is almost zero state funding available to think tanks and research institutions.
Finally, think tanks have not successfully established advocacy models which go beyond launching reports and policy briefs and networking with politicians and thought leaders. Various experiments have been tried (e.g. SDPI’s online TV channel), but it is still early to accurately determine their impact.

Where do we go from here?

In recent years it appears as though think tanks have begun to have some influence on policy decision making in Pakistan. As an example of this, SDPI, along with a handful of other think tanks, have been invited to provide feedback on various governmental committees and panels. And occasionally a law is passed, or a decision made, which shows signs of being influenced by one of the think tanks in the country.

SDPI has recently explored various modes of influence. These have included direct involvement in policy making forums led by the government. For example, the recently formed Islamabad Environmental Commission by the Islamabad High Court nominated SDPI’s Executive Director as chairperson. Similarly, SDPI has been partnering with the Ministry of Commerce on trade issues, providing technical knowledge and analyses to the Ministry. SDPI has also invested considerably in the creation and support of Parliamentary caucuses for women and minorities and, following the creation of these caucuses, the institute has provided research support to members on various legislative and policy issues based on their requirements.

Finally, through work on data in the form of political perception surveys (Political Barometer) and education data (Alif Ailaan District Rankings) the institute has been influencing policy makers through the public availability of data and its accountability implications.

Despite such recent endeavours, the impact of the think tanks currently operating in Pakistan is not as strong as it ought to be. The foundational principle of their work is that policy making ought to be informed by evidence-based policy recommendations. And that these recommendations ought to come from politically independent organizations.

At the moment, politicians and bureaucrats do not lean on think tanks and research institutes heavily enough. The next stage of think tank development in Pakistan has to be about bridging this divide.