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A role for think tanks in polarized societies

Many developing countries are politically polarized. This is certainly the case in Latin America. Many of these countries are about to face electoral milestones (e.g. Paraguay 2013, El Salvador 2014, and Venezuela 2013 after former President Chavez’s death), where polarization is intensified and debates focused on programs and ideas usually are no more than desires, defeated by demagogy, personal confrontations and political moves.

Think tanks and research centres can play a key role in polarized societies facing electoral campaigns. But this role can’t be played in isolation: alliances and associations with peers and other civil society organizations are important to demonstrate equanimity and promote debates on reliable information, proposals and ideas in general.

It is important to note that many think tanks in the region were born under the umbrella of a political party. For instance, that is the case in El Salvador. This country has one clear and unique political characteristic: parties do work. Right and left (if it is acceptable to refer to these concepts in our current age) are clearly represented: the right wing ARENA party and the Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) have dominated the political landscape since the end of the Salvadorian Civil War (1982-1992), with ARENA winning four consecutive presidential elections. In March 2009 the FMLN won the presidential election.

In El Salvador, polarization is strongly present, not only at the political level but also at the level of society, including CSOs and think tanks. After four years with the FMLN at power, El Salvador will face elections in 2014, and the tendency to push debates into demagogy and confrontations is very high. Similar case in Paraguay, where the Partido Colorado has governed the country for a period of 61years that ended in August 2008, when former President Fernando Lugo won the elections and governed until he was impeached in June 2012. Elections in Paraguay will take place next April 2013.

The challenge for think tanks in these contexts is not to hide or reject their history and origins, but to share their ideas, introduce questions, encourage policy makers to debate and, if possible, involve all the policy community in a big conversation.

For those interested in increasing the use of evidence, electoral campaigns are a great opportunity to promote evidence based debates. In polarized contexts research quality and academic rigour need to be emphasized, especially among think tanks that have close ties to different governments. In that way, think tanks contribute to reducing political polarization in the country by addressing structural critical issues and providing rigorous data and analysis. Research quality and good data are critical.

But even if a think tank is recognized by the policy community (because of its history, its research agenda, its human resources, etc), plural alliances or associations seem to make the difference in polarized societies. Simply because they put together different ideas from diverse organizations, and within them, from different persons which particular approaches to specific policy issues. Plural networks can encourageequilibrium among polarized position or, at least, are mechanisms to avoid one-way thoughts.

A collaborative approach can then become an effective way for think tanks to influence the public policy process. In polarized societies, different groups may realize that the ideological debates of the recent past (and also present) need to be superseded by a more pragmatic effort. They could agree to work along common causes or agree structural diagnoses based on evidence and then discuss different ways to address those problems where ideological positions may play a more important role. For instance, think tanks may agree about an increase of the number of poor people in the last decade, and then discuss if the increment of the social expenditure by the State via conditional cash transfers is a valid mechanism for helping people to overcome poverty or if they are CCT are only tools for manipulating people and buy votes and another solution is needed.

Think tanks can become part of these coalitions and may have a leading role, if they can convince others of the value and relevance of their research. “Paraguay Debate” (Paraguay), “Agenda Presidencial 2011-2015” (Argentina), “Centrando el debate electoral” (Peru) are examples of collaborative actions within the civil society, led by think tanks, aimed at influencing presidential electoral debates and strengthening programmatic features of the debate. Networks are not easy to manage and they require patience and strategic leaderships: think tanks can play that role.

“Paraguay Debate” was established as an inter-organizational platform that brings together organizations and associations, in order to join forces to position public interest issues on the political agenda and in the public debate about key aspects of social and economic policy and governance in general. “Paraguay Debate”brings together think tanks and NGOs, combining expertise in different issues, research and territorial work and, as set before, different approaches to reality. Organizations have produced a common format for Policy Notes that are based on each organization’s research or thematic strength. So the platform constitutes a collaborative effort to enhance the democratic process during a strategic window of opportunity.

“Agenda presidencial 2011-2015” was a contribution of some Argentinean organizations to improve the electoral debate and key public policies of the country. Those organizations brought into discussion fifteen documents or memoswhich synthesized more than fifty policy proposals to consolidate the progress made by the country in recent years and to renew the strategic policy agenda for growth with equity in Argentina.These documents identified the central challenges, great dilemmas in each area and the recent achievements on which to build new policies, and made policy recommendations, including its fiscal costs and political feasibility to implement them. During 2011, the initiative promoted analysis and discussion of proposals with major presidential candidates and their technical teams, related sectorial leaders and entrepreneurs.

So networks seem to be a good mechanism to promote evidence-based debates. Paraguayan organizations identified the opportunity and started to work together. Salvadorian organizations may try to do similar efforts for elections in 2014. But the big challenge for networks is sustainability: electoral campaigns may be a good start point to work together. However, these efforts need to be continued in order to push for more evidence based and programmatic conversations once the new government is elected.