Saturday, 4 December, 2021

State Of Think Tanks In Nepal

Kushal Pokharel


The ever growing significance of think tanks can hardly be exaggerated. From shaping policy agendas to catalysing actions and ideas, think tanks have a major role to play. In addition, they promote evidence-based discussions and provide important feedback for the policymakers to make effective decisions. However, managing risks and uncertainties in a volatile policy environment have become a growing challenge for think tanks across the world.
Challenge of influencing policy decisions and developing informal networks have also emerged. Moreover, think tanks are often alleged of bringing ideological biasness in their work and serving the interests of handful of like-minded individuals. They are also criticised for data activism and their reductionist approach, i.e. finding pure technical solutions to various issues that are embedded in socio-economic and political contexts. But the level of expertise they bring in and the networks and communities they cultivate can be pivotal for inducing social change.
Globally, several problems ranging from poverty, inequality, climate change, food security to organised crimes have been increasing. Amid this scenario, think tanks occupy a significant role in brokering ideas, stimulating debate and providing innovative practical solutions. While the developed countries have invested on think tanks and extracted benefits for making informed policy decisions, the scenario is pretty different in the context of developing countries like Nepal.
If we closely analyse the evolution of think tanks in Nepal, with the emergence of a democratic era in 1950s and the establishment of Tribhuwan University various study centres like CERID and CNAS were founded with an objective of providing policy directions to the government. However, owing to overt politicisation of these institutions, the anticipated outcomes were not obtained. The problem was further complicated by the paucity of funds. While some of these centres have already shut down, others are functioning at a sluggish pace. Meanwhile, the government of Nepal also set up Institute of Foreign Affairs for expediting policy research on international relations and diplomacy. The bitter reality is that the IFA has become passive thereby not being able to contribute in the academic and policy discourses on the issues of foreign affairs.
The present government of Nepal recently set up policy study centre in a bid to provide boost to nurture the culture of research and improve interactions between researchers and policymakers.
On a sad note, the main personality, a reputed social scientist who was mandated with the task of providing the leadership to this institution has already stepped down citing some personal reason. Hence, the centre has already become defunct in a very short period of time since its establishment. This hints at an alarming situation and calls for effective policy responses to find the root of this problem and provide momentum to this noble initiative.
In the context of Nepal where we have recently transitioned from unitary to a federal state, the need of think tank contributions in taking effective policy decisions is increasing. As we have already been hearing news of the growing tensions between federal, state and local level governments regarding the exercising of their constitutionally granted rights, think tanks institutions that can provide an empirical study on the sharing of rights and responsibilities in the federal context regionally and globally can be crucial.
Nevertheless, there are some pertinent challenges the government need to address for ensuring the smooth functioning of such institutions. First, the appointment of experts based on merit in such institutions should not be compromised. In the absence of non-partisan experts, think tanks cannot provide effective solutions as evidenced by the historical practices of think tanks in Nepal. Second, providing adequate budgetary and human resource to such institutions should be prioritised. In this regard, the government can also form various think tanks under university and employ bright university faculties and graduates in research endeavors.
Third, the government also need to identify prominent non-governmental research institutions that are working on critical issues of development and find a way to support them to maximise their impact. It is equally important to segregate NGOs that are working in delivering development products and those that are really engaged in critical studies at this juncture. Hence, think tanks with academic and research orientation needs to be encouraged. Fourth, the government should create a platforms where these think tanks can share their research findings and help the policymakers in comprehending the issues at a profound level.
Since Nepal is bracing to move on the path of economic prosperity, investing in think-tanks should be the top-most priority of the government. Providing autonomy to these institutions to conduct research and gathering evidence for devising transformative policies has become urgent. During this entire journey, cultivating trust between policymakers and researchers and the willingness of each other to support their endeavours will also assume great significance.

(The author is a member of the Social Science Faculty at NIMS.)