Event ReportsPublished on Jan 19, 2019
A gradual development has tasked think tanks with the responsibility of shaping contemporary narratives around economics, security, politics, nuclear arrangements, among others.
Time ripe for think tanks to rethink dissemination of information

Observer Research Foundation, in collaboration with Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP), Lauder Institute, University of Pennsylvania, organised the third India Think Tank Forum on 7 January 2019, at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi. The forum brought together a diverse representation both of regional, national and international think tanks, for an informative and productive exchange on key policy issues. The role of think tanks in civil society and the challenges faced by them, formed a key part of the conversations that took place at the conference. Some of the broad themes in discussion were ‘India and the World’, ‘Economy and Growth in India through a Gendered Lens’, ‘Strategies and Operations Challenges faced by Think Tanks’, ‘Think Tanks and SDGs’, ‘Think Tanks in the Digital Era’, among others.

Delivering the keynote address, Rajiv Kumar, Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog, flagged off the Forum, highlighting that the first decade of the 21st century is marked by “tectonic shifts” — not unlike those of the first decade of the 20th century. In order to address the challenges presented by these changes, there is a need for countries to come together and formulate shared solutions. The new developments comprising of these tectonic shifts, include technology and automation, communications, threat to the environment, population ageing and healthcare. The prospective solutions must aim to operate at a “glocal” level, which is a combination of both “global” as well as “local”, and preserve the benefits of globalisation with local culture, identity and markets. Countries need to agree to operate on the basis of “rule of law”, where nations small and large prosper, with each country being responsible towards securing a peaceful global order. Dr. Kumar presented a future plan based on 6Cs, comprising of coalitions, coexistence, convergence, common public goods, communications & connectivity, and cooperation & collaboration to provide an integrated, holistic solution to these tectonic shifts.

As the world enters into an era of flux, where old assumptions of the international system are being called into question, the time is ripe to debate what the coming era will look like, and how these new dynamics will shape India’s place on the global stage. First, economic productivity is no longer concentrated predominantly within the traditional economic powers as states in the emerging world are increasingly taking centerstage as engines of global economic growth. Second, the United States’ overwhelming military edge is under challenge by China and Russia’s modernisation efforts, including in the nuclear realm. Third, American experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that traditional military power is no longer legitimate or sufficient in the types of conflict that dominate the world today. Fourth, the rise of populist leaders around the world is a symptom of dissatisfaction with the performance of existing economic and political structures. This dissatisfaction manifests at the international stage as well, with powers contesting the status quo. These four factors are also at play in the Indo-Pacific, which has emerged as the principal arena strategic competition between two great powers: China and the United States. For China, the presence of foreign powers within what it sees as its own backyard is a threat to its sovereignty and security. While China sees an opportunity in the apparent decline of US influence to seize control of the region, the United States is bracing itself to protect the status quo with policies of competition and containment.

India, particularly, has a unique responsibility, as it shows a microcosm of what needs to happen in the world; that is, a society that is plural, diverse, with both demographic and democratic dividend, and a strong cooperative and competitive federalism framework. Going forward, countries must understand that “business as usual” will not work and that governments, in collaboration with think tanks need to come up with fresh ideas to address these myriad challenges.

As for the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which encompass a broad set of targets ranging from poverty eradication, human health and sanitation to sustainable safeguarding of the global ecosystems, it is important to question the role of think tanks in measuring the progress made so far, and brainstorm ways of achieving the targets by 2030. Despite having capital constraints, think tanks must combine efforts to create knowledge, lead action and aid financial viabilities. It is critical to have a balance between rational intervention and irrational political choice when it comes to achieving the SDGs. Think tanks thus play an important role in bringing in disparate stakeholders together establishing a narrative, prioritising SDGs to each government agenda, and disseminating information without any political bias. Interconnectedness between stakeholders and the targets of the SDGs is a requirement essential to achieving the SDGs but the implications are not clear to many governments. Thus, think tanks need to create a roadmap that interconnects and creates a consensus on how India should achieve the SDGs.

One of the most serious challenges the think tank community is facing today is the difficulty in working ‘with’ the government, instead of ‘for’ the government. Moreover, the major problems plaguing the world today, such as in the field of healthcare, sustainability and disaster resilience, are not only complex problems, but are also moving targets that do not have fixed answers. Think tanks, therefore, must constantly strive to innovate the ways and means in which they engage with the outside world, the domain of industry, media et cetera, to cultivate novel ideas and policy prescriptions around problems that are global and all-encompassing in nature.

In a sense, then, following are the three broad trends think tanks are trying to respond today. First, old assumptions, institutions and frameworks are increasingly losing relevance, a gradual development that has tasked think tanks with the responsibility of shaping contemporary narratives around economics, security, politics, nuclear arrangements, etc. Second, technology — largely understood as the utopian tool meant to deliver mankind from misery, in the past — has its own agenda. Technology now functions as an actor, not an instrument, and possesses the ability to shape society, politics, act as a tool of propaganda and misinformation, and at the same time, continues to deliver millions from poverty and other serious inadequacies. It is this dual face of technology that think tanks need to contend with. Third, is the arrival of truly global politics, which is global not only in terms of the voices in represents, but also the rise of communities that are able to aggregate and create impact, which is far greater than what think tanks can achieve.

Therefore, the time is ripe for think tanks to reinvent the ways and means of producing and disseminating information, take it to communities that are more vocal than institutions can be, and ensure that the discourse is embedded with information and knowledge, and is far more dispersed and democratised than ever before.

This report is prepared by Shubhangi Pandey, Junior Fellow, ORF.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.