By Scott Guggenheim, Social Policy Adviser, AusAID; and Ben Davis, Senior Program Manager, Knowledge Sector and Tertiary Education, AusAID
Enrique Mendizabal recently wrote an interesting blog post about AusAID’s knowledge sector program. He said it’s “by far one of the most interesting programmes related to think tanks out there”. We’re also quite excited by it. The idea of treating knowledge as a “sector” actually originally came from an Indonesian (Kamala Chandrakirana) and it does seem to be resonating well across a surprisingly diverse range of interests.
We hope the project’s documentation made clear that while there’s a certain “aha!” moment to realizing how much the current state of affairs is not unique to any one institution. It reflects a long legacy of how colonialism and then the New Order actively pursued policies to block the development of independent inquiry. What next follows is a long, hard slog that can easily fail. Indonesia’s past is not really entirely past; the gloomy state of Indonesia’s knowledge sector may have its roots in the country’s New Order history. Nevertheless, our bet is still that the ongoing transition to democracy, the rise of a middle class, Indonesia’s overall economic growth and global engagements, and, above all, the emergence of a generation of young people, for whom the New Order is something that their parents talk about, have fundamentally changed the landscape of what is possible by way of reform.
Enrique raised a number of interesting, useful points. and we’re glad to engage in a public discussion of them. Like him, we too need to give some disclaimers vis-à-vis the ongoing procurement of a managing contractor. We helped develop the concept notes and design document, but we’re not involved in the procurement process ourselves, so our engagement in this discussion will not influence any procurement outcome of the tender process.
Enrique mentioned his preference for a more flexible framework built around “conversation” or “dialogue” over our supply-demand-intermediaries framework. We can agree with his main points, but still opt for the more defined structure that the standard mode provides. We like to think that we’re pretty clear in the design documents that these are heuristic categories, not real ones, and that they have fuzzy borders. Still, flattening them all into a “conversation” is a bit too amorphous. Our purpose here is not just to promote dialogue across Indonesian players but to make changes to the ability of the different organizations to produce better analysis and for that analysis to then inform policies. The advantages of the standard model are that it gives some sense of how to assess where gaps are, and it provides an overall sense of both agency and tasks among functionally differentiated actors in a way that a “conversation” doesn’t.
Enrique’s second set of comments refers to the bigger picture, the one that involves political parties, university reform, private sector and so on. Here, we’re in full agreement. What he’s picking up on is what we like to describe as the difference between strategy and tactics. He’s undoubtedly right that policy institutes are just the thin edge of a wedge—behind that must come university reform, political party linkages, and so on (step by step, though). Bigger agencies than ours have spent several decades working on these issues. Indonesia is huge and its challenges are commensurate with its size. We fully agree that improving universities, fixing campaign finance and so on are all part of the same puzzle; but if we tackle them all at once we can be sure that very little will actually happen. Better instead to acknowledge the whole and then use individual projects to bite off particular bits. Several members of the team that oversaw the design of the knowledge sector work are already working on a first cut at how to support university reform.
In terms of where “global expertise” on think tank development lies, we are again in full agreement. We thought that was clear from the many citations and comparative references to other developing countries in the design document’s analytics, but if it isn’t let us reiterate it on behalf of the team. Developed country expertise often takes for granted a lot of the institutional background and scale of investments that in fact help explain a couple of things: why their particular model works in their developed country context and why direct transfers from that reality to this one almost never work out. Unfortunately, all too much “global expertise” is about providing advice that would work if everything else also already worked.
At the same time, simply picking developing country specialists because they live and work in developing countries isn’t such a hot strategy either. Developing country specialists are themselves somewhat shut out of the global guidance market and as a result there’s nowhere near as much two way learning as there should be. All too often, south-south exchanges have been nearly as hindered by too much unique country and historical context as north-south exchanges have been.
In general, our approach will be extremely eclectic: less emphasis on people’s identity and more on what they can offer. There’s surely something to be said for the fact that where you sit can determine what you see. Fortunately, these days there is a growing pool of countries that have been tackling these very same problems of transition, democratization, and the definition of public space. So count us in on this one, and we’ll also be taking on board the specific suggestions about who to approach by way of the program’s expert guidance panel.
Finally, Enrique was right in saying that the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) framework is the weakest part of the program. That said the contractor needs to be involved in setting the program outcomes alongside AusAID and Bappenas because M&E begins with clarity on what a program’s objectives are.
We’re fortunate that allied bits of this program are focusing on building up evaluation rigour through our scholarships program and partnerships with specialized institutes such as J-PAL in the US and the Australian network of development evaluation people. Rest assured that the diagnostics work does not stop with the approval of the design; several are already underway, including field reviews of such hot topics as clean governance in research, political campaigning and public information, regionalized research, among others.
We thank Enrique for his insightful comments. We will certainly take on board his suggestions, including those on independent research, more use of independent M&E expertise and a lot more hands on oversight by the core program team.
We are hoping to continue the program’s tradition of publishing its findings in both English and Indonesian into the blogosphere quickly for public discussion, and we very much hope that those who are interested like in the program, like Enrique, continue to pass on their thoughts and observations.