Interview with James McGann -- International Think Tanks

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In today's installment of TTLA's six part conversation with James McGann about his rankings of global think tanks, the conversation turns to the international scene.

TTLA: This blog jotted down some of the international cities that your report mentions as think tank hubs. What do these cities have in common that makes them hubs: Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Kiev?

James McGann: "There are two basic reasons. One is that there is a significant concentration of think tanks, and they are both provincial [as well as] often serving the region. And two, is that there is a significant degree of interaction on a regional basis with other institutions, and the catalyst of these meetings both organizationally and intellectually are these think tank hubs."

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TTLA: Are there certain sets of conditions that tend to attract tanks? Nascent democracies? Funding mechanisms? A history of loving poetry and literature? Just making that last one up...

JM: "The first two are clearly contributing factors. There has to be a hospitable environment that allows for think tanks and other NGOs to operate. These hubs are not just hubs for think tanks, but also for other NGOs. And that is because there is a global and non-indigenous funding, and there is the legal space created by regulation in the government that allows for NGOs to operate freely within the countries that have been identified."

TTLA: Is having a growing and thriving think tank culture something that some governments in emerging powers are encouraging as a feather in their cap, a way to gain international respect?

JM: "Yeah. But there is also a counter, and more insidious, trend in terms of systematic NGO pushback. I've documented it across countries -- there are about 22 that are where these NGOs and civil societies got out ahead of authoritarian regimes and [for example,] partnered with the color revolutions which were in part successful because of the intellectual and people power that think tanks helped generate.

"Governments realized that, and realized they were outmaneuvered. And they have essentially pushed back in using legal and extralegal means to limit the numbers, role, and influence of think tanks and other NGOs that are politically active."

TTLA: Can you share an example of a legal and also an extralegal maneuver?

JM: "Sure. In Russia, [there are] two instances, actually. [There was to be a] major meeting for NGO representatives, and people were stopped on the trains and detained so they would not make it to the meeting. And then, the Russians double-tax.

"Once a grant is received in Russia, it is taxed, and then once it's received by the NGO that it was targeted for, it's taxed again. So the double taxing reduces the money available, with the clear intent of being able to reduce the activity of that institution.

"And then all of the "? well certainly the Russians, the Chinese "? have developed fairly onerous regulations and laborious-by-intent review processes for certifying think tanks that operate in the country. So if you're a threat, you can be assured you're not going to be certified."

TTLA: Have you noticed a consensus manner worldwide, or stateside, in how tanks are funded? Is it catchall? Government contracts? Patrons? Memberships? I guess book sales aren't going to bring in a [heck] of a lot of income these days.

JM: "In the U.S., it's a very diversified base of support, which is unusual. There's a large degree of transparency to the funding, more than anywhere else in the world. Basically you can find online the tax returns that each non-profit is required to submit to the I.R.S. Those are not required in other countries, and certainly not available to the public?

"Some of the sources of funding in the European countries are governments and political parties. And to an increasing degree these days, corporations. There's not a sort of individual philanthropy that exists in the United States. So you don't have a [Bill and Melinda] Gates or a [George] Soros putting significant amounts of money into policy research, nor do you have private foundations the way we have here. They are all political?

"That's the sort of model for most of Europe. And in the rest of the world? in most of the developing countries the principal "? almost exclusive "? source of the funds are international donors "? private and public "? and the government.

"So there are three categories. Developing is almost exclusively public and private international donors and the host government. And then in Europe, it's political parties, government and corporations. And then in the U.S., it's a highly diversified, highly developed range of source of funding."

TTLA: We'll read off noe a couple of international tanks that the report cites as regional winners. TWhat about these makes them so well regarded?' First, in Egypt, the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies.

JM: "Within the region, it's widely recognized as a Center that produces high quality, reliable research. Then, obviously, the location in Egypt marks it as a center in terms of media and intellectuals for the entire Middle East, in historical and contemporary contexts. While there are political limitations, there is still a vibrant intellectual climate in Egypt."

TTLA: In South Africa, the Center for Conflict Resolution?

JM: "Some of this is really determined by the nature of the political moment. [In the region,] conflict is unfortunately pervasive? [This think tank is] centered in a country that has strong support for think tanks, and a need within the region and within the state itself."

TTLA: And on the opposite end of things, I see that North Korea has two think tanks. Wyoming, I notice, has zero think tanks. Anything to add about either of those?

JM: "Well, there two [different examples.] Wyoming is a sparsely populated state, which would probably be the most logical explanation for that. And in North Korea, an authoritarian regime, there is a direct correlation between a lack of political parties, a lack of political freedom, etc., and the number of think tanks. There's a Viability Index that looks into regional factors that help explains why there are more think tanks in certain areas relative to others."

TTLA: There's that old baseball story about the scout who goes to watch some hot pitching prospect, who strikes everybody out and pitches a no hitter. Only one batter even hits a foul ball. And the one scout says, 'I want to sign the batter.' On that note, what's the story with the two tanks in North Korea?

JM: "I don't know. What I do know is they are really government-controlled. One is security-related. I've identified them, but I don't pay much attention to them because the situation there is so severe."

TTLA: Moving farther away from our Axis of Evil-style connecting of Wyoming and North Korea "? which to our readers in Wyoming, we didn't intend. Let's hear now about what seems like a Herculean effort that went into compiling this report. You and your team of unpaid interns "? students, I'm assuming "? how many person hours went into the project?

COMING TOMORROW: McGann's Answer, Plus Wrap-Up And Reaction

James McGann Week on TTLA:>

Illustration copyright and courtesy Richard Nielsen, 2009

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