Amman/Oslo, 8 July 2013: The message was clear from more than 20 Arab think tanks who gathered at a regional forum in Amman last week organized by the UNDP Oslo Governance Centre and the Foundation for the Future, in cooperation with UNDP’s Regional Centre in Cairo. Think tanks need to be independent, better linked to civil society and able to provide reliable and high quality data and analysis to both policy makers and the wider population, and they see a clear role for themselves in strengthening democratic governance in the region. They can also benefit from stronger ties with think tanks from other regions, both in the ‘South’ and in the ‘North’.
In times of crisis and political transitions, when decisions are highly consequential, a deep and situated understanding of evolving realities is particularly critical. The UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Jordan, Costanza Farina, emphasised this as she opened the Forum, underlining the timeliness of the event and its importance to the evolving situation in the region, highlighting some of the UN’s work in support to think tanks in Jordan and the region.
Learning from others: Think tanks’ changing profile in times of transition
The participants who gathered at the regional Amman Forum on the role of think tanks in supporting policy dialogue and consensus building agreed that they could do more to engage in policy making processes and support constituency based pressure in advancing the interests of citizens in all their diversity. The more diversified, reliable and independent the sources of information, providing high quality data and deep analysis, the higher the chances for more relevant and effective support to decision making. Herein lies the role of think tanks, not only in critical periods of transition, but also beyond.
“Think tanks need to position themselves politically as a progressive force to support democratic transition”, said Mark Orkin, professor at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. This sentiment was echoed by Myat Ko Ko from the Yangon School of Political Sciences in Myanmar. “We are working on raising awareness of issues that are critical in the current context, such as constitutional reform, civil-military relations, transitional justice or managing diversity”, he explained.
Women are also producers of reliable knowledge
Participants shared their experiences and indicated that a clear political commitment to engage with diversity, including equality on the basis of gender, class, age and ethnicity, is central to their work. On this note, Amneh Halweh, Regional Coordinator of the regional women’s organisation KARAMA, stressed how women activist groups should not be seen only as users of research and knowledge. “We are producers of new forms of knowledge to be reckoned with”, she said.
Participants agreed on the need to better capture and understand the new forms and types of think tanks that are emerging in the region and the new expressions of knowledge, going beyond statistical knowledge. Qualitative knowledge and the dearth of data on changing gender relations in the context of on-going transitions were flagged by a number of participants.
Peer-to-peer learning and sustainable support to think tanks
Building on the OGC-NOREF organised conference “The Political Economy of Transitions: Analysis for Change” in Oslo last year, the Amman Forum addressed the urgent need to share experiences for knowledge-based policy-making practices and how to better assist policy support centres and institutionalize strategic advice. The Forum facilitated further knowledge exchanges between centres and activists from the Arab region, as well as from other countries undergoing transitions. One of the outcomes of the conference was the agreement on setting up more structured modalities to support peer-to-peer learning and to provide technical and financial support for think tanks at this critical juncture.
Several participants highlighted UNDP’s comparative advantage in facilitating such modalities, in collaboration with key strategic partners. In this context, the experience of the intermediary organisation Kemitraan, which was set up in Indonesia decades ago to support that country’s transition to democracy, resonated with several participants as one from which countries in the Arab region could benefit. The Amman Forum, organised by UNDP’s Oslo Governance Centre (OGC) and the Foundation for the Future (FFF) brought together participants from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia, Indonesia, South Africa and Myanmar in addition to UN representatives and think tanks and activists from the North, including Norway, Sweden and the US.
The challenging but promising road ahead
The UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Tunisia, Mounir Tabet, stated that the Forum enabled participants to have a frank exchange on what makes think tanks more effective, and provided them with tools to improve their work. “But this is just the beginning”, he said. “We still need to build greater trust between the think tanks and the users of their products. By upholding the principles of professionalism, superior quality of work, independence and stronger communication, think tanks can effectively influence policy. This is not only expected of them, but a role they can play well.” Basma Kodmani, Director of the Arab Reform Initiative, a network of Arab think tanks, also stressed humility.“To be in a position to mediate and to influence, humility and independence are key”, she stated.
Heba El-Kholy, Director of the OGC, and Nabila Hamza, President of the FFF expressed content that participants identified many challenges and, more importantly, came up with concrete ideas to support the generation of policy-relevant and action-oriented knowledge in a sustainable manner. “Taking a long term perspective and mobilizing strategic support from the external community will be essential”, they concluded.
The UNDP OGC and the FFF, with the support of UNDP’s Regional Centre in Cairo and other partners both inside and outside the region, made a clear commitment to further action. This includes more detailed analysis, also of potential resource mobilisation modalities, a systematic study of Arab think tanks, support in developing necessary skills and establishing an online directory and network of think tanks in the region. “This is a crucial role to be played by the UN and by UNDP”, said Nader Fergany, Director of the Almishkat Center for Research in Egypt and the lead author of the Arab Human Development Reports. “Convening and facilitating networks and strategic partnerships is a UNDP strength – bringing diverse stakeholders together in a coordinated manner to generate new ideas and innovations”, he concluded.
The original release was printed online at UNDP.org.