Why Think Tanks Need to Do More than Write

Reform processes in the Western Balkans, and ways to take an active part in shaping them, were central themes of a conference that gathered 30 policy researchers from the region

27/06/2013 - 30/06/2013 | 09:00 - 18:00 | DGAP | Invitation only

Category: Balkans

Since 2010 the TRAIN Programme (Think Tanks Providing Research and Advice through Interaction and Networking) has supported think tanks from the Western Balkans with the aim of fostering policy dialogue between independent research institutes and policy makers in the field of EU integration. From June 27-30, the first TRAIN Alumni Conference brought together 30 policy researchers from different Programme years and countries, providing a platform to discuss the content of their work.

The issue of policy advocacy was at the heart of the Alumni Conference. There is not only a need for original and high-quality research, but also for research-based findings to be incorporated into the policymaking process and public debates. The conference’s main themes included cooperation and communication with state institutions in their respective countries as well as with EU actors, the use of media and new media, and coalition building among civil society organizations. As key areas of the EU integration process, in which a great number of the participating institutes are engaged, policy research and advocacy concerning transparency, good governance, and the rule of law were other central agenda items.

There Is no Panacea

In different thematic panels, the participants presented and discussed their experiences conducting research, communicating the results, and making recommendations, as well as the obstacles and difficulties they face in their daily work. The think tanks of the region operate in a challenging environment. Think tanks and other research institutions struggle to convey evidence to the public, but also to decisions-makers, because research does not enjoy a high degree of legitimacy in their society, according to keynote speaker Goran Buldioski, Director of the Budapest-based OSI Think Tank Fund. Less emphasis is placed on evidence in policy making. Emotions are often more convincing than research. It was pointed out by Eóin Young, co-founder and program director of the International Centre for Policy Advocacy (ICPA), that policy research is only one voice in a noisy room. To make their voice heard, it is thus all the more important for think tanks to communicate strategically.

Nevertheless, targeted and persistent advocacy activities have the potential to lead to a more transparent and evidence-based decision-making process after all, as illustrated by examples the participating think tanks gave from their work. There is particularly fertile ground for change where the demands of civil society organizations meet and generate high levels of public interest and where the European Union is applying pressure for the reform agenda to be implemented. The main thrust of the debate, however, revealed that there is no panacea. Instead organizations need to develop tailor-made strategies that take into account the situation in a certain policy area and the motivation of the actors involved.

More suggestions and critical thoughts on the work of think tanks in the Western Balkans were provided by Goran Buldioski. “Why do think tanks only write?” he asked in his keynote address. Think tanks in the region still too often limit their dissemination activities to publishing the results of their research, without spending sufficient time and resources on the targeted communication of their ideas and findings.

Croatia as a Reference Point

A constant reference point for the conference was Croatia’s imminent accession to the European Union. In a public panel discussion, participants debated the country’s EU integration and the consequences for the EU’s future enlargement policy with Christoph Retzlaff, Head of the Division for EU-Enlargement, European Neighborhood Policy, and EU External Relations in the German Federal Foreign Office. Panelists from Croatia as well as Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina provided different perspectives from within their countries on the new enlargement. The lessons learned from Croatia’s accession process have had an impact on the EU’s approach to the remaining accession candidates. Thus, in the membership talks with Montenegro, the chapter on judiciary and fundamental rights will be among the first negotiating chapters to be opened. Not least due to the rigorous accession procedure, EU membership for the other states of the region is still far away. According to one participant, the entry of neighboring country Croatia to the EU was nevertheless a much more concrete signal to citizens in Montenegro than previous enlargements toward Central and Eastern Europe. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the joke was that Western Herzegovina would also be entering the EU on July 1, 2013, given that the vast majority of Bosnian Croats living there also hold a Croatian passport. Croatia’s EU membership, participants agreed, would thus lead the region as a whole closer to the European Union.

Over 50 researchers from more than 20 think tanks from all countries of the Western Balkans have participated in the TRAIN Programme since 2010. TRAIN is funded by the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe of the Federal Foreign Office and run by the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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