Think tanks play a vital role in any country’s decision and policy making by providing expert opinion and analysis. The term ‘think tank’ was first used during World War II to refer to a secure place where the military strategists could deliberate on the future strategies.
In today’s globalized world, in addition to changing dynamics, the role of think tanks has increased manifolds. In the West, think tanks influence policy making and educate both citizens and governments on the emerging issues and policy options.
The first think tank that was founded in 1831 was the British Royal United Services Institute. While the start of the 20th century marked the start of think tanks in the US where Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hoover Institution, Brookings Institution, and Council on Foreign Relations among others were established. At the end of the 20th century, nearly 2,000 think tanks existed in the US, and around 25,00 think tanks around the globe.
Likewise, several think tanks work in Pakistan. They are expected to help governments develop policies, present new ideas, and generate quality material for international publication. However, so far, think tanks in Pakistan have fallen short on these fronts. Why is it so?
Think tanks in Pakistan are facing the following issues: Firstly, Pakistani think tanks do not have clear aims. There are broadly four types of think tanks: academic, advocacy, party and contract think tanks. All are driven by their ideology, funders’ requirements and agenda, and most importantly purpose. Academic think tanks are generally independent and funded by endowments, individuals, private institutions and organisations. They produce neutral research and ideas. Similarly, there are advocacy think tanks driven by ideology, and focus on short-term issues and present findings to the donors. Then there are party think tanks, which fulfill the needs of the respective parties while driven by party allegiance. Lastly, there are contract think tanks that are funded by the government. They formulate long-term policies and options for the governments.
If the funders and government want to attain global standards, they need to categorize think tanks and grant them full autonomy.
On the contrary, the Pakistani think tanks do not specify the category they fall under, and also refrain from mentioning the sources of funding. If the funders and government want to attain global standards, they need to categorize think tanks and grant them full autonomy.
Secondly, the issue of merit in the hiring process of researchers is a huge dilemma. Think tanks need research experts capable of generating original ideas for policy making. However, appointments are made on the basis of favoritism, nepotism and other vested interests. The eligible researchers and policy experts are left out. As a result, think tanks are unable to produce meaningful research, develop viable policy options, and publish quality material in international publications.
Thirdly, scholars are expected to work within a specific area. But, in Pakistani think tanks, scholars are discouraged to criticize or offer a balanced judgment on matters of concern.
Fourthly, there is scarcity of resources that hugely affects the output of researchers. Some think tanks do not allow researcher to print papers or offer travel grants for international conferences. Once, a researcher known to me was supposed to present a paper at Oxford but his think tank could not bear the travel expenses. Similarly, some think tanks expect researchers to stay in office for eight hours a day. They are not encouraged to use the same time to pursue PhDs. Likewise, there are think tanks whose heads receive more salary than the accumulative salary of all the research staff. This disparity needs to be addressed.
Lastly, the global linkages and interaction of think tanks are nominal. Any effort toward achieving such connections is discouraged.
Think tanks need to be properly monitored. For the sake of credible research, hiring must be done on merit and resources must be appropriately allocated. Without addressing these concerns, expecting quality work would be an absurd idea.
Zafar Iqbal Yousafzai, author of The Troubled Triangle: US-Pakistan Relations under the Taliban’s Shadow.