Article: "How Think Tanks Support Economic Policymaking" (كيف تدعم مراكز البحوث اتخاذ القرارات الاقتصادية)
نُشر في صحيفة الحياة
English version below
في تقرير نشره معهد «لاودر» في جامعة «بنسلفينيا» عام 2016، احتلت الكويت المرتبة الأولى بين الدول الخليجية في عدد مراكز البحوث، إذ يوجد فيها 14 مركزاً، وهو عدد قليل نسبياً. فهل تعيق قلة هذه المراكز في الدول الخليجية تقدمها الاقتصادي؟ـ
According to a report published by the Lauder Institute in the University of Pennsylvania, in 2016, among the Arabian Gulf countries, Kuwait was ranked first in terms of think tanks, with 14, compared to merely seven in Saudi Arabia. In contrast, Iran had 59 think tanks (18th in the world), and Israel had 58 (20th in the world). The question is: to what extent does the paucity of think tanks in the Arabian Gulf countries impair their economic advancement?
A table of the top ten countries in terms of think tanks presents clear evidence of the importance of think tanks to economic progress and influence: USA (1), China (2), UK (3), India (4), Germany (5), France (6), Argentina (7), Russia (8), Japan (9), and Canada (10).
How can think tanks—which have textual output, and don’t produce any tangible goods—contribute to economic growth? Economic development does not depend on hard resources only, as there are countries with high per capita incomes that are poor in terms of natural resources, such as Singapore and Japan. Conversely, there exist countries that have low levels of per capita income despite generous endowments of natural resources, especially in Africa. Differences in economic policies are the most important cause of differences in economic progress, as countries such as South Korea and Iceland benefit from mature and intelligent economic management. Consequently, think tanks contribute to economic growth via their role in drafting effective economic policies. How do they go about this?
By employing economics experts, who exclusively focus their efforts on analyzing economic policy.
You might ask yourself: what distinguishes think tanks from the research units housed in the ministries in charge of economic policy? The relative intellectual freedom enjoyed by think tanks is the key difference. When a researcher in a ministry works on a proposal for an economic policy, or on the evaluation of a current policy, the ministry’s rules prevents them from sharing their ideas outside the organization. The researcher cannot solicit global experts for comments on their analysis, or collaborate with researchers in other organizations on studies that support policymaking, because ministries regard such topics as being sensitive and confidential. In contrast, think tanks encourage their affiliates to share their ideas widely. Since the dawn of civilization, scholars have deduced that the speed of scientific advancement multiplies when there is an opportunity for scholars to discuss cutting-edge ideas with other experts, and to collaborate with them on substantive research. That is the reason why leading scholars prefer to work in the highest profile American universities, as these institutions have the best environment for the sharing and development of ideas.Consequently, we find that in many countries, ministries draft economic plans that contradict those of other ministries, as the researchers are prevented from discussing their proposals with their colleagues in other organizations! In successful economies, think tanks play a central role in coordinating between the various economic policymakers.
There is an additional reason for the importance of think tanks vis-à-vis the research units found in ministries, which is the advantages of competition. The research units housed in government organizations are shielded from competition, as the demand for their output is guaranteed by their parent organizations. In contrast, think tanks have to compete with other think tanks for the attention of policymakers based on the quality of their research output, which creates a powerful incentive to improve performance—an incentive that is absent from ministerial research units. This is the reason why over 1,800 think tank exist in the USA, most of which can be found in the capital, Washington D.C., in close proximity to policymakers.
Your next question might be: aren’t universities capable of supporting policymakers? They possess the intellectual freedom and compete among themselves. The answer is “no,” because university researchers are both trained and required to perform long-term research, which usually takes years, and focuses on abstract topics with no relation to the daily issues that interest policymakers. Depending upon academic scholars to draft an economic policy is equivalent to asking a medical researcher to perform surgery in an area outside their expertise.
So what distinguishes think tanks from private consultancies?
First, consultancies typically focus on issues at the level of an individual company, and do not deal with country-level affairs.
Second, in practice, consultancies usually do not present fundamentally new ideas; instead, they focus on assisting a company in implementing a plan that its management arrived at, especially bold ones that require deep changes to the company’s structure that are opposed by employees. In such cases, consultants are called upon to provide justification from a neutral and credible party, which helps management overcome opposition to their new vision. This service differs from what policymakers need, as they are looking for new ideas, and substantive, objective analysis from macroeconomic experts, rather than support for ideas that policymakers independently arrived at.
We have thus far treated think tanks as competing alternatives to other types of research organization; however in practice, they play a complementary role as part of a rich and diverse intellectual environment. Accordingly, the Gulf countries need to rectify the paucity of think tanks, especially during a time when bold, transformative policies are being proposed and implemented
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