The lay of the land: An interview with Hans Gutbrod on think tanks in the South Caucasus
Interview by Dustin Gilbreath
Hans Gutbrod: The think tank sector is most relevant in Georgia, since Georgia is a context in which ideas are being worked out, and where there is an interest in policy solutions. Citizens have come to expect that the government delivers. So that, in principle, is a great opportunity for institutions in Georgia.
In Armenia, by contrast, policymaking is fairly closed. There are a few elite pockets of discussion, often involving the Central Bank and some other institutions, but in my view, the space for discussion is narrower. There are some bright spots, such as the Civilitas Foundation and CRRC Armenia. Both of those (and I have worked with both, to be clear) can contribute ideas, but the political system offers fewer access points.
Civilitas Foundation, interestingly, has developed into providing even more content and media, and that is a sensible approach, as it can be hard to transmit messages through traditional media that often has an insufficient institutional and financial basis for quality journalism. CRRC Armenia has been active on issues involving social protection for a long time, and has a good network and contacts in that field. Yet, overall, Armenia is punching way below its weight as a country, with only a limited effort to make it an attractive country to live, work and stay in. This limits the role of any research organization. Perhaps indicative of that situation is that even a Prime Minister whose appointment was greeted with at least some optimism, such as that of ex-Central Bank Director Tigran Sargsyan on balance delivered fairly little. When Prime Ministers can't deliver, there's not that much that think tanks can do.
In Azerbaijan, there isn't any think tank scene to speak of. The government typically has tried to solve any problem by throwing money at it, and by throwing any independent voice into jail. The results are mixed, at best. Yet, ironically, an investment in think tanks might be even more important, just for that reason. Ultimately it's possible, but unlikely, that the regime of Ilham Aliyev will last long. The most remarkable aspect about Ilham Aliyev really is how utterly incompetent his government is. They were handed huge amounts of money, and mostly blew it on themselves and a few prestige objects, instead of actually modernizing the country, its universities, and establishing alternatives to oil and gas. While the regime looks solid now, it has so little management capacity that it could unravel quite quickly in a crisis.
The key question is what alternatives will then be available. Given that there is no opposition to speak of, who can be ready to run things? You need to train people who understand the policy issues so that they can deliver results within the first six months of taking over. If you do that, a post-Aliyev government has a good chance. Conversely, if there is no viable alternative things could turn grim quickly, as Libya illustrates. I know this sounds far out right now, but it's important to hedge against downside risks, and thus policy research would be a good investment.
Coming back to Georgia, policy research organizations haven't really caught up with the new realities. The previous Saakashvili government was brimming with ideas. Some of these ideas were harebrained, but others also proved remarkably successful and even visionary. With the government hatching so many ideas, research organizations often struggled to keep up and had limited opportunities to contribute new suggestions.
This has now changed. Most people agree that the current government is much more receptive to outside input and ideas, partially because they produce fewer of their own. Yet we don't see that much input from research outfits. Many policy research organizations, have settled into a comfortable routine of criticizing the government, along with the society. That's understandable, but there is a missed opportunity of bringing in new ideas. Take one example: when the mayor of Tbilisi promised to plant 1 million trees, this would have offered an extraordinary opportunity. Research organizations could have jumped at this issue, coming up with ideas on how to plant these trees, talking about urban planning, reviving parks, greening the city, bringing in excellent ideas that worked elsewhere. Here and there this may have happened, but I haven't really seen a sophisticated paper by anyone that advanced the discussion.
So what's the biggest missing ingredient, for policy research organizations to succeed? In my view, it's curiosity. I myself have been to many events which are interesting, engaging, and where new ideas are being discussed. It's regrettable that often not a single policy researcher is there, even if the event happens close to their office. Improving ideas doesn't happen in isolation. It's a result of intense discussion. It also often requires sifting through lots of less relevant material. Of course, I understand that all these organizations have many other things to do: other projects, administration, other obligations.
Yet research outfits aspiring to be think tanks do need to ask themselves whether at the end of the day they really are passionate about policy. If you have not read Nudge, what are you doing at the table of a policy discussion? I know this is an extreme view, but I do think it needs to be brought into the discussion.
To be a good lawyer, to be a good practitioner, to be a good policy professional – for all of that you need to keep up with what's happening in the field, you need to connect with the community you work in. I wouldn't want my heart to be operated on by someone who is fumbling along, without having checked in with what's happened in the field in the last 20 years. Why should we demand less from think tanks? In the most extreme case, they're involved in open-heart surgery of entire societies.
Donors, too, should be discriminating in that regard, and hold local research organizations to a much higher bar. Asking for more transparency is just one of those aspects -not sufficient, but certainly necessary. We all need to ask more, to get better results, better policy proposals, and ultimately, better policies.
Ultimately I'm fairly optimistic that this can succeed, though think tanks may be dragged into the future rather than leading into it, and existing institutions may be sidelined. The playing field is now better for those that are agile. Ray Struyk has put forward a great book on how to manage think tanks, and this can help ambitious institutions get it right, if they take the materials seriously.
Another reason, to end on a plug for something that I put together, is that now journalists and ordinary citizens no longer need to take anything on faith. They have access to some of the best think tank research through tools such as www.findpolicy.org. So new ideas may come in, though not necessarily from formalized organizations.
The key challenge for all of us is how to accelerate a better understanding of policy. The best think tanks should be ahead of this process, not behind.
DG: In Azerbaijan, given the recent crackdown and shuttering of organizations which could provide just the training you mentioned, where are there (if there are) opportunities to invest in think tanks either from the side of donors or domestically?
HG: I think in Azerbaijan, the key is to invest in organizations that may work on the outside, that help to clarify what really is going on, that use innovative tools, that collect data that highlights how official data just isn't right. In a way this would be a research outfit that could feed into discussions via social media, a kind of research version of the original version of Radio Free Europe. I know that this is difficult, but you really need to invest into thinking precisely when times are particularly difficult. The case for such external research organizations has also been made by Emin Milli, a dissident who spent significant time in jail for daring to speak up.
DG: You noted here as you have noted elsewhere that donors need to push for higher quality research outputs from local organizations. Do you have any concrete recommendations of how to do so?
Well, there are many measures, and not so many have been tried. I would hope that donors engage substantially with this question. Here are some key measures that come to mind.
- Finance: there should be more core financing to start with. Many research organizations are totally projectized, and this makes it harder for them to invest into quality.
- Nudging: at the point of application, ask about quality assurance mechanisms. Some key questions could include what are you actually doing, with whom, how? Can you put this on to your website, to indicate your commitment to such quality assurance? That would be a good start.
- Checklists: use and encourage the use of checklists. For example, does a policy proposal include a budget? Or is it just a wishlist?
- Comparison: encourage and finance small public reviews and comparisons. For example, does an organization make its old reports accessible, or does it lose all materials when updating a website? Unfortunately the latter still happens way too often, and is a great loss. Many organizations barely think of that, and knowing that you will be reviewed could encourage more attention on that issue.
- Network: create access to constructive external peer review. You could potentially encourage the formation of a network of quality review. This would be an experiment, but if it works it could have a transformative impact.
- Transparency: there are many reasons for transparency, but an additional one is that having full financial information on a grantee website helps donor coordination. Donors should not just be transparent themselves, their quality can also be measured by the transparency of their grantees.
I think there might be many more ideas, and that is why we need a debate on these issues.
DG: Any final thoughts?
By Zaur Shiriyev
By Yevgenya Jenny Paturyan
By: Dustin Gilbreath
CRRC’s third annual Methodological Conference: Transformations in the South Caucasus and its Neighbourhood
[Note: Social Science in the Caucasus is publishing the work of six young researchers who entered CRRC-Georgia’s Junior Fellowship Program (JFP) in February 2015. This is the third blog post in the series. Click here to see the first and second blog posts in the series.]
[Note: Social Science in the Caucasus is publishing the work of six young researchers who entered CRRC-Georgia’s Junior Fellowship Program (JFP) in February 2015. This is the second blog post in the series. Click here to see the first blog post.]
CRRC’s Junior Fellowship Program (JFP) was launched in 2009 as a Carnegie Corporation initiative within the CRRC, with the goal of providing on-the-job training opportunities in applied research for young social scientists.
Deserving to be beaten and tolerating violence: Attitudes towards violence against women in Azerbaijan
In August 2012 CRRC launched the study of Georgia’s Workforce Development system, commissioned by the World Bank. Document review and key informant interviews have been used as main research methods in this study. On 19th of December, the World Bank office in Tbilisi hosted a workshop which aimed at presenting and validating the preliminary finding...
As Georgians prepare for parliamentary elections set for October 1, 2012, political parties have entered the final stage of the pre-elections race. One of the important attributes of active citizenship and civic engagement is voting in elections. This blog explores Georgians’ attitudes toward voting in elections based on age group and gender differences. In this r...
CRRC Methodological Conference on Measuring Social Inequality in the South Caucasus and its Neighborhood
The recent history of the South Caucasus as seen by the world’s media – Part 1, Armenia and Azerbaijan
By Till Bruckner
By Dustin Gilbreath
By Nino Zubashvili
By Dustin Gilbreath
In terms of the business findings, CRRC's Media Survey (undertaken in September/October 2009) generated extensive data that is available to help media make good business decisions. One recent presentation, summarized here, focused on showing the diversity of data that is available.
Food Safety in Georgia: views from retailers, producers and consumers in Tbilisi and Samtskhe-Javakheti
Book Review | The Post-Soviet Wars: Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict and Nationhood in the Caucasus | Christoph Zürcher
Brookings Index of Regime Weakness | State Rebuilding or State Collapse in the Caucasus | The Annals of Data
Here are some basic tips and tricks we found useful.
Book Review: Georgia Diary: A Chronicle of War and Political Chaos in the Post-Soviet Caucasus | Thomas Goltz
Visa liberalization: How much do people in Georgia know about the conditions of visa-free travel to the EU?CRRC’s previous blog posts have shown that the population of Georgia had rather moderate expectations of the recent visa liberalization with the Schengen zone countries, especially when it comes to the question of how much ordinary people will benefit from it. Europe Foundation’s latest survey on Knowledge of and Attitudes towards the European Union in Georgia, conducted in May 2017, provides a more nuanced understanding on how people in Georgia feel about this process and to what extent they are familiar with the conditions of visa liberalization.
Taking partly free voters seriously: autocratic response to voter preferences in Armenia and GeorgiaDo voters in less than democratic contexts matter or are elections simply facades used to create a veneer of democratic accountability for domestic and international actors? Within the Autocratic Response to Voter Preferences in Armenia and Georgia project, funded by Academic Swiss Caucasus Net, CRRC-Georgia and CRRC-Armenia aimed to help answer this question, at least for Georgia and Armenia. On October 27, Caucasus Survey published the results of the project in a special issue, available here.
On December 1-13, 2016, CRRC-Georgia asked the population of Georgia about their New Year’s plans. Unsurprisingly, people mostly follow established traditions. A large majority (73%) plan to ring in the New Year at home. Nine per cent will meet it in a friend’s or a relative’s home. Meeting the New Year in the street or in a restaurant or a café is not yet common, and only one per cent of people in Georgia plan to do so. Another 15% had not decided in the first half of December where they would celebrate the New Year.
What are young people’s values and how are these different from older generations’ values in Georgia?As Georgian society is going through social and cultural changes, it is important to understand people’s beliefs and values. Comparing the values of young people to those of the older generations is also important. This blog post summarizes the findings of a study that examined the values of young people aged 18 to 25, and analysed how these values are different from the values of older people in Georgia, based on both quantitative (World Values Survey, 2014) and qualitative data (40 in-depth interviews conducted in 2016). The study looked at values, perceptions, attitudes and tolerance towards different minority groups in Georgia. It concludes that in many cases, the younger generation shares more modern views and values, while the older generations are more inclined to support traditional values and hold conservative points of view.
During Sargsyan’s incumbency, dissatisfaction with government grew and support for protest increasedSerzh Sargsyan, formerly the President and then Prime Minister of Armenia, resigned from office on April 23rd, 2018, following 11 days of peaceful protest. Over the past 10 years, which coincide with Sargsyan’s time in office, Armenians were increasingly dissatisfied with their government. At the same time, the country witnessed growing civic engagement, with “youth-driven, social media-powered, issue-specific civic activism,” referred to as “civic initiatives”. CRRC’s Caucasus Barometer data from 2008 to 2017 reflect both these trends.
In the December 2017 CRRC/NDI survey, pollution was the second most commonly named “infrastructural” issue, with 23% of the population choosing it in the respective show card. Only roads were named more often, by 33%. Approximately equal shares of men and women named pollution: 25% of women and 20% of men; similarly, there was no difference in the frequency of naming this issue by age.
The Caucasus Barometer survey regularly asks people, “Which of the following statements do you agree with: “‘People are like children; the government should take care of them like a parent’ or ‘Government is like an employee; the people should be the bosses who control the government.’” Approximately half of the population of Georgia (52%) agreed in 2017 with the former statement and 40% with the latter. Responses to this question have fluctuated to some extent over time, but overall, attitudes are nearly equally split.
In early December 2017, two schoolchildren were killed on Khorava Street in Tbilisi. On May 31st, 2018, Tbilisi City Court announced the decision on the Khorava Street murder case. The announcement caused mass demonstrations led by Zaza Saralidze, a father of one of the murdered children.On June 19-26, 2018, within the EU-funded project “Facilitating Implementation of Reforms in the Judiciary (FAIR)”, CRRC-Georgia conducted a phone survey on people’s knowledge about the Court decision and their evaluation. The survey resulted in 1005 completed interviews, and is representative of the adult Georgian-speaking population of the country. The average margin of error of the survey is 2.8%.