Conscious persons don't think of think tanks deprived of autonomy as true think tanks. When think tanks are sponsored and funded by the government, they are required to act as commanded by the government. In fact, such think tanks lose their identity as genuine think tanks. No radical ideas and views can come forth from them
Institutionalised think tanks support and assist decision-makers with refined ideas and expertise for effective enforcement of policies at the national and other relevant levels.
They render good services to the government and its agencies in their effort to achieve national development and socio-economic uplift.
The evolution of think tanks is the gift of the early 20th century after the end of the World War I and in the aftermath of the Versailles Palace Peace Conference in 1919. The outbreak of that devastating Great War pushed the UK and the US to conceive of think tanks to help their governments for better understanding of inter-state relationships and their impact on Europe and the US.
In 1920, Chatham House came into existence in London, and in 1921 the Council on Foreign Relations was established in New York. Both those think tanks are, to date, globally well-known institutions, especially for their expertise on foreign relations.
American writer Walter Lippmann considered them as a "secular priesthood" while reflecting the role and performance of think tanks, although they were then in their infancy.
Experts on think tanks are divided on the nature and function of their performance.
The academic-oriented school points out that think tanks should be "scholarly and objective" in their activity, whereas profession-leaning experts think that they need to be "policy relevant".
The academic school believes that "think tanks should adhere to academic research standards and focus on the big picture and longer-term issues while the policy- relevant school reckons that "think tanks should be more policy oriented and focus more on the needs of policy makers and current policy issues".
Additionally, experts also reassess that think tanks should persistently engage in the continued activity of generating new knowledge, that is, knowledge enhancement and knowledge expansion. That means the new domain of epistemological and creative function needs to be their consistent endeavour to prove their contributing ability in knowledge production.
One significant concern, though, is that fund providers and sponsors play a decisive role in the holistic activities of think tanks, from which there is no exit point for them to act as autonomous and free-wheeling
entities. Depending on the management and resources provided by fund providers and sponsors, think tanks are classified as conservative, libertarian, centrist and progressive. In such circumstances, think tanks cannot be in a position to work as autonomous entities.
Conscious persons don't think of think tanks deprived of autonomy as true think tanks. If think tanks are sponsored and funded by the government, no one can imagine of crossing the Rubicon. They are required to act as commanded by the government. In fact, such think tanks lose their identity as genuine think tanks. No radical ideas and views can come forth as their rein is in the inescapable grip of the government.
Whatever the autonomous nature of think tanks might be, the correct understanding is that they need to mobilise ideas and expertise to influence policy formulation. The raison d'etre for think tanks is to serve as important catalysts for ideas and actions.
Experts agree that to succeed, think tanks need at least six important elements.
They must have compatible and productive ideas; coalition of creative actors; institutional capability including resources; ability to seize the right moment; capability to convince decision-makers; and strength to keep stakeholders content. In fact, "think tanks need to do what they are good at, influence peddling in the best sense of the term", argue experts.
A UN survey quotes the Economist as describing "good think tanks as those organisations that are able to combine intellectual depth, political influence and flair for publicity, comfortable surroundings and a streak of eccentricity".
The Cairo Declaration (Jan. 2009) on the role of think tanks in developing countries states: "Promoting think tanks in developing countries could increase good governance and decision-making, and collaboration between think tanks in developing and developed countries could increase and speed up the capacity building process". The above two quotes depict the nature of think tanks and need of collaboration between developing and developed countries for serviceable achievements. Doubtless, the current complex and intertwined domestic and external situations demand more specialised expertise for decision-makers.
Nepal is still passing through a time with frequent political squabbling and fledgling democratic phenomenon. A sort of commotion is hanging on the political horizon of the country. Meanwhile, Nepal has yet to become a knowledge-based and expertise-infused society. Amidst such an emerging perspective, think tanks seem to be sitting on the backburner with no visible role to play.
Most decision-makings are carried out through political consideration, bureaucratic process, big business interest, ethnic connectivity and other linkages. This is natural as the country has yet to walk through a mature democratic dispensation wherein the wishes and needs of the grassroots people are well-factored in when a transparent and people-centric policy implementation process is embraced.
Several government-sponsored and NGO-funded think tanks exist in Nepal with less influence on the decision-makers.
It is time for the think tanks in the country to make their presence felt through their contributions for better policy direction and policy operation.
To make institutional performance influential, think tanks of Nepal need to be equipped with the six important elements mentioned above. It would be no exaggeration to say that people involved in the activity of think tanks should be blessed with wider vision and enriched with broader mindset.
A version of this article appears in the print on June 11, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.