Indian philanthropic money into think-tanks silencing foreign funding question
Think-tanks are under scrutiny. In September, the Norwegian funding to a US think-tank—the Centre for Global Development (CGD), where India's chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian was senior fellow prior to his recent appointment—resulted in a huge uproar.
The funding, allegedly, was to influence the trajectory of an American foreign aid programme. The CGD, citing its considerable work on reducing global poverty and inequality, maintained it would never be influenced by sources of funding. It added that details on its funders, and amounts, were on its website and that it had nothing to hide. The imbroglio has however re-opened the debate on foreign funding of think-tanks, on the need for funding transparency, on the buying of and peddling influence, on the thin line between think-tanks and lobbyists.
Colours Of Money
Indian philanthropists are aware of the risks of engaging with the knowledge-shaping process, but are clear it has to be done. Many believe that Indian think-tanks have to be funded by Indians and that the influx of foreign money into the thinking of a nationstate can be perilous.
"Who is funding, and why, becomes critical, especially while engaging on decisionmaking related to sovereign functions of a state," says Nitin Pai, co-founder of The Takshashila Institution, a relatively new Bangalore-based think-tank. For issues without a defence or strategic colour, foreign money does flow into all sorts of non-profits, though even that is under the lens lately.
CV Madhukar, who co-founded PRS Legislative Research, had a near-death experience when foreign sources evaporated a few years ago due to governmental intervention. PRS was eventually resurrected by quick thinking Indian philanthropists who decided it did have a role to play in the governance process.
Madhukar recounts how his team receive frantic calls from MPs, before and during parliamentary sessions, seeking answers or explanations on a whole range of bills and issues, some as basic as 'what is fiscal deficit?' "It's good to see Indian philanthropy evolving and beginning to touch issues of research and policy," says Madhukar, who now leads Omidyar Network's drive on governance in India.
Colours Of Debate
Rohini Nilekani and her husband Nandan, Infosys co-founder, have made one of the biggest commitments in this space: around Rs 50 crore to the Bangalore-based Indian Institute for Human Settlements, which focuses on urbanisation issues, critical for a developing economy like ours. Rohini is seen to lean slightly towards the left of centre for she doesn't look upon free markets as a saviour of mankind. However, she has, on her own, funded think-tanks across the left to the right ideological spectrum.
She also helped Takshashila, with a clear pro-market agenda, get off the ground. Nitin Pai reveals that Rohini, as the angeldonor to the institution, made it clear that she disagreed with him on many contentious developmental issues but would still like to support him. Has her money changed the thinking process at Takshashila? No, he says. He wouldn't have taken the money if the intent was to influence his thinking. "I cannot influence how people think; wouldn't want to either," explains Rohini. "But it's important to have people of authenticity and integrity speaking up on issues, in a non-polarising way." The idea is to trigger healthy debates, to have multiplicity of voices, of all hues and biases.
Colours Of Approach
Transparency, therefore, is critical in the think-tank space. It is important for the public to know who has funded the think-tank and what its leanings are. It can prevent mishaps like that of a BBC interview of a thinktank director who pontificated on cigarette packaging regulations last year, without the disclosure that his institute had been funded by tobacco companies.
Luis Miranda, former CEO of IDFC PE, is backing the Centre for Civil Society and Gateway House for he believes the Indian system continues to be steeped in socialistic thinking and that "JNU types" —implying left leaning, from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi—wield disproportionate influence.
He is also keen to cut into newer areas of integrating the voice of business in foreign policy approaches. "The issue is not of capital or FDI from China, we need the right policies for the world to come our doors," he says, and explains how Indian IT and pharma companies, our strengths as a nation, have scant opportunities in China. "Can we work with the government on this?" he asks.
The trickle of Indian philanthropic money into the think-tank space is also expected to trigger some rigour into research. All along we have had views and narratives masquerading as research or deep thinking. It's about time to jettison this approach and embrace a whole array of social science techniques and tools to deal with complex issues. It's important to infuse credibility into the process. "We are moving to becoming a very questioning society," explains Pai.
Read the story on The Economic Times website.