How and Why We Network Asian Think Tanks

Participants chat between sessions at the forum in Seoul.
Participants chat between sessions at the forum in Seoul.

By Li Dongxiang

Networking enhances peer learning, strengthens collective capacities, bridges the gap between research and policy advice, and eventually contributes to the effectiveness of public policies in developing Asia.

Think tanks are playing an increasingly important role today in formulating and implementing public policies in Asia and the Pacific. Many of them get involved in supporting governments in preparing development strategies and addressing emerging policy issues. Sometimes they are referred to as the 5th power in a modern society.

Developing Asia faces common economic and social challenges, and think tanks in the region need to learn from each other to better serve their respective governments to address these challenges. However, although some ad hoc exchanges exist among them, Asian think tanks were not well connected with their peers because they lack a systematic knowledge-sharing platform.

Networking is a powerful tool for knowledge cooperation. Networking Asian think tanks will enhance peer learning, strengthen collective capacities, bridge the gap between research and policy advice, and eventually contribute to the development effectiveness of public policies in developing countries in the region. By networking, ADB can also get useful feedback on its researches and receive first-hand knowledge that helps us better do our job in the region.

This is a demand-driven initiative, firstly put forward to us by several think tanks back in 2012. Perfectly matching 3 of the 5 drivers of change—knowledge solutions, partnerships, and good governance and capacity development—as identified by ADB in Strategy 2020, the Asian Think Tanks Network (ATTN) was soon after launched by ADB and the Asian think tanks in 2013.

So how can we best help Asian think tanks better network for maximum impact?

Targeted membership or positioning of the network is the key. We have focused on bringing together government-affiliated economic think tanks, particularly those under macroeconomic agencies such as ministries of finance, economy and development agencies, which can most directly advise and influence policy making. The ATTN currently has 35 members, with most Asian countries represented by a single think tank.

To dig deeper into solutions to the challenges facing Asian countries, we have centered knowledge sharing consistently on the twin issues of promoting innovation and inclusion so far. Future themes may be adjusted according to changing contexts. Basically, the network focuses on development issues that are of a common, fundamental, and/or urgent nature for the region.

We have taken a multi-pronged approach to foster the network. Personal contact and face-to-face exchange are always important, so we have gathered annually by organizing the Asian Think Tank Development Forum: 2013 in Beijing in partnership with the Asia-Pacific Finance and Development Center (AFDC), 2014 in Seoul with the Korea Development Institute, and 2015 in Kuala Lumpur with the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER).

This year the forum will be held in October in New Delhi, in partnership with the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy and the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. Supporting the annual fora are a network website, an electronic newsletter and proceedings.

For participating think tanks the networking initiative has been beneficial even at this initial stage. Qiangwu Zhou, Deputy Director-General of AFDC, called the network a “significant and timely” platform for Asian think tanks to share experiences and ideas on a multitude of economic and development issues, while MIER Executive Director Zakariah Rashid requested “more opportunities for the vibrant sharing of knowledge and generous exchange of experiences among the think tanks and ADB.”  

Inspired by the success of ATTN and supported by ADB, the CAREC Institute—a knowledge institution established in 2006 to promote regional cooperation in Central Asia—set up the subregional Central Asia Think Tank Network and organized the 1st Central Asia Think Tank Development Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan in June 2016.

Going forward, we may create even more subregional knowledge sharing networks, use more information technology for networking, and coordinate future fora with other international events such as ADB’s Annual Meeting to enhance effectiveness and efficiency. We may also carry out more joint studies and bilateral staff exchanges to encourage greater interaction among the participating institutions.

Challenges, though, remain. Initial financing for the ADB-led think tank networking came from the People’s Republic of China’s Regional Cooperation and Poverty Reduction Fund. But in the long term, a sustainable funding mechanism must be found. This may ultimately be in a combination of donor funding, TASF, business sector financing–something we explored at our Kuala Lumpur meeting—and more contributions from the think tanks themselves, particularly those from the bigger and more advanced economies.

The ATTN is a joint effort between ADB and the Asian think tanks. Currently ADB serves as the lead agency and secretariat of the network and will continue its support for the years to come, but ultimately governance would better lie with the think tanks themselves. This may evolve over time, but could ideally take the form of a rotating leadership role, perhaps initially among a core group of think tanks that have stronger capacities.