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Southern Voices for Change in the International Aid System Project

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Global Trends in Think Tanks and Policy Advice

Source: The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program

Think tanks have become more active players in domestic and foreign policy in the last two decades and are now present in 169 countries. While the largest concentration of think tanks continue to be in the US and Western Europe, several factors are driving the growth of think tanks in other areas of the world.

1) Democratization
Democratization has opened more political space to establish think tanks, while political and economic reform has created a demand for developing more detailed policies and regulations.

2) Demands for independent information and analysis
More governments, facing increased pressure to improve economic and bureaucratic performance, appear to be turning to think tanks for evidence and independent advice. Government officials at all levels are asked to make decisions that are informed by research and data.

3) Growth of international actors
The proliferation of state and non-state actors such as NGOs and IGOs, foundations and interest groups have created more support and demand for think tanks.

4) Technology & communication advances
Better and cheaper technology have made it much easier for think tanks to operate and publicize their work. The Internet has made it much easier for even small think tanks with limited financial resources to conduct more extensive research, and organizations can use websites to share their agendas and findings outside traditional communication channels. These changes have helped extend the reach and impact of think tanks.

5) Globalization of NGO funding
Governments, foundations and interest groups are becoming more active and diverse in supporting policy oriented research and analysis by think tanks across most regions of the world.

6) More open debate about government decision making
Interest groups and public citizens are less deferential to allowing governments to monopolize decision making, which has put a premium on more open discussion of issues and policy options. Key players are less likely to accept government information and rationales, creating a demand for more independent sources of analysis. Global policy and advocacy networks have increased the power and influence of these organizations.

7) More complex and high pressure issues
Think tanks can sometimes be more flexible and adept than governments at addressing high-profile, sensitive, cross-cutting issues under severe time constraints. Sometimes governments actively seek input from think tanks to help facilitate more efficient decision making on controversial topics, or even when their ideas are not formally sought, think tanks can be in a position to produce policy options that are more publicly accessible, pithier and available more quickly than those generated by a more complex official government inter-agency process.

8) Going Global
Think tanks are increasingly adopting a global presence, perspective and audience. The economist George Stiglitz commented that think tanks must “scan globally and act locally” if they are to be effective in today’s policy environment. This trend is driven, in part, by transnational issues such as global warming, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, pandemics and terrorism. A number of global think tanks (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the International Crisis Group) have emerged in recent years which are designed to address global issues and serve a global audience of policymakers.

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