Common challenges, common solutions

[Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of blog posts co-published with On Think Tanks. The views expressed within this blog series are the authors alone and do not represent the views of CRRC-Georgia.]

By Dustin Gilbreath

So far, in this series think tankers working in the South Caucasus have reflected on the issues challenging their countries’ think tank sector. In many ways, some fundamental problems lie at the heart of the specific problems, and I think they can more or less be summed up as problems with language and audience; quality of research; funding; and transparency. This post takes a look at one of these challenges – language and audience – and considers some things that might nudge the region’s think tanks forward.

Language and audience

Language, and specifically the demand for English outputs from donors, limits the size of the audience of research in the region. Zaur Shiriyev has described how the use of English in Azerbaijan in the 90s (and presumably to this day to a large extent) limited the public’s access to research, and Jenny Patruyan reflected on English-centric nature of think tank websites in Armenia. Definitely, different phenomenon, but language is still the underlying problem, and both authors’ issue with language comes from the fact that only an elite or foreign audience can access the research. Notably, funding was cited as one of the reasons for the English language outputs, and donors might help address this problem by requiring publications in both languages (and of course, should also fund translation and/or editing if they do).

When it comes to audience, I don’t think any of the contributors to this series have bemoaned think tanks’ efforts to reach elites so much as highlighted that organizations should consider broadening the reach of their research rather than targeting elites alone. To me at least, expanding to a broader audience seems like a good idea, maybe not for all organizations, but for many. To do this, first everything has to be in an accessible language, but just as importantly it should be in a form that someone will actually consume – only the most dedicated reader will take the time to go through a 50 page policy paper.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t need policy papers anymore, but rather that think tanks here should try to pair their longer, more demanding of the reader outputs with simpler and more accessible ones. Infographics and even products think tanks wouldn’t normally consider producing like games should be options that are on the table. Some progress has been made on the digestibility front, and Jumpstart Georgia’s work provides strong examples for other organizations in the region.

Something that would not only help with the language/audience problem, but also probably contribute to developing quality would be the development of something resembling Think Tank Review. Although the original was spurred on by the need to get policy makers to actually read reports, the organization, in practice, also spreads, archives, and reviews think tank work. For the South Caucasus, there would need to be translation into local languages (and potentially Russian) on top of TTR’s usual work, but language aside, it could improve quality by letting researchers know their work could be reviewed. As internet access is prevalent throughout the region, and most 18-55 year olds here know how to use the internet, something like TTR could bridge the elite to general public gap. Notably, a regional site would help this divided region stay better informed about the goings on of their neighbors, and could serve as a platform for discussing the larger issues facing the South Caucasus as a region rather than as individual countries. Moreover, policy success could be shared and reflected upon.

Of course, these are just a few ideas, which might make dents in the problems described so far in this series. Have other thoughts? Let’s have a conversation in the comments section below.

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