‘Context is King’ in bridging research and policy

Research Shaping Policy Session

Research Shaping Policy Session

The new buzzword around the world is ‘evidence-based policymaking’. But how effectively does research reach and inform policies in the real world, and what is the role of think tanks in bridging this divide? The Directors of three Think Tanks in Colombia, Chile and Equador shared tactical approaches in a session entitled Research Shaping Policy: Latin America’s Experience, and lived up to their reputation for ‘fierce debate’.

The GDNet-convened session highlighted how crucial  the political context is in shaping the effectiveness of think tank interventions in a country. For Orazio Belletini, Executive Director of FARO in Equador, rapid turnover of politicians is a constant problem: Ministers of Finance last an average of only six months in his country. Information is scarce, dispersed, highly technical and difficult for policymakers to use.  “The political landscape is characterised by ideological fragmentation and volatile coalitions”, he said. “By the time a researcher has finished his policy paper, the Minister interested in the results is no longer in office”.

The situation in Colombia is somewhat different. Roberto Steiner, Executive Director of Fedesarrollo, talked about the organisation’s experiences as a ‘non-partisan institution in a non-ideological environment’ which has stability. “We are effective when supporting government initiative; quite effective when members of our staff eventually become policy makers (his previous deputy has gone on to become the country’s Health Minister); and less effective when advocating for our own agenda (although still influential in the debate itself)”, he said.

The panel presented different tactical approaches to gaining policy traction. For Belletini, the secret lies in synthesising research and visualising the results. During the 1990s and 2000 several studies measured amphibian, bird, mammal and plants diversity in the Amazon rainforest but very little of it influenced policies in the Amazon countries. In 2010, FARO published the first comprehensive synthesis of biodiversity data for the Yasuni Natural Reserve in eastern Ecuador and northern Peru showing they are the only region in South America where species richness centers for all four taxonomic groups overlap.

They visualized this intelligence in a map which succeeded in generating public and political debate about taking action to preserve this unique site. For Patricio Meller, Research Director at CIEPLAN in Chile, the secret lies in ‘good, strong numbers’. “Research has to create a single output that is easy to understand, easy to remember and easy to repeat – like a good song”, he said.

Mellor described how the electoral ambitions of Augusto Pinochet’s followers in the first free elections in 1990 were thwarted by simple statistics. In  canvassing for ‘economic freedom’, they were challenged to explain how, after 17 years of Pinochet dictatorship, five million people in Chile were poor. “Twenty years later, people still remember this number”, he said. Dr Magued Osman, Chairman of the Information and Decision Support Center in the Egyptian Cabinet, provided an African dimension to the discussions.  He said that policymakers expect research that is timely, relevant, solution-oriented, clear and concise – and doesn’t blame the policymakers for society’s ills. If think tanks can deliver this, they are likely to make progress in informing and influencing policy.

Dr Osman’s office has a long track of convening think tanks, having organised international forums in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Laura Zommer, Communication Director at CIPPEC in Argentina and Master of Ceremonies for the session, fielded questions from the floor. They included an intervention from Bangladesh reminding participants that ‘good policy is not necessarily good politics’ and this brings challenges for those wanting to promote evidence-based policy to politicians. Other questions highlighted the need for robust monitoring and evaluation of impact of think tanks – a statement that brought consensus from the panel.

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About Megan Lloyd-Laney
Director of CommsConsult www.commsconsult.org and hopelessly - some would say exhaustingly - committed to the relentless pursuit of communications excellence in everything we do. Happy to be part of the team behind www.researchtoaction.org - the 'go-to' platform for anyone wanting to maximise the potential of their research

One Response to ‘Context is King’ in bridging research and policy

  1. It’s a shame blogs sometimes hide the richness in these stories. For a more in-depth analysis of the research policy linkages in Ecuador, Colombia and Chile you might want to try this book (including a chapter by Orazio): http://bit.ly/9qJs5v it is in Spanish but there is a summary in English.

    For an ever more captivating study on the Chilean case, I encourage you to read James Puryear’s account here: http://bit.ly/eNEkAq

    The role of think tanks is a particularly interesting one -and in fact one that Orazio’s chapter in the book on think tanks in Latin America focuses on. I have made some contributions to this here: http://bit.ly/faXLUw

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