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A notable absence in the political space – Think Tanks Ukraine

February 16, 2015

For those who don’t follow this blog on twitter – where it is far more active than it is at blogging ashamedly – yesterday a conversation ensued with the (usually) erudite followers it has.

It commenced with this tweet:

Passed through this:

And ended (more or less) thus:

In a very old post, a crudely hand-drawn diagram of a democratic society was used – and will be used again now (sorry).  IT skills are severely lacking at this blog – indeed it is IT retarded.

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As was written not very long ago in an entry here, “Indeed, a once fractious and impotent Ukrainian civil society is now motivated and battle-hardened.  It is an extremely strong player in Ukrainian life – and it has matured swiftly too.  The only real dilemma that faces Ukrainian civil society today is just how hard to push the government (and political class more broadly) whilst it is fighting a war in the east.  A difficult balance with regard to pressure and prioritising issues, for collapsing the government unnecessarily serves nobody – probably not even the Kremlin.  Likewise drowning the current government in a sea of demands, to the point it could not be responsive even if it tried, is counterproductive.

The question for the political class is whether or not Ukrainian civil society and society are prepared to wait for it to catch up with them, or whether the political class will, in effect, be left behind.  A strikingly different situation to 2 years ago.  Indeed, civil society, quite literally, now bypasses government where ever possible.  The clearest example is raising money, buying equipment, and delivering it to the front line in eastern Ukraine for those fighting for Ukraine. No government bureaucracy or procurement involvement whatsoever.  It is though, by no means the only example, simply one of the most stark and headline grabbing.”

What has not been written about here, is the notable lack of robust and publicly recognised think tanks.

As the last quoted tweet asks, has anybody ever seen a policy paper published by a Ukrainian think tank?

Can anybody name a Ukrainian think tank?  How about 3?  Or 5?

If you can name them, what do they think tank about?  Domestic policy?  Foreign policy?  Rule of Law?  Local governance?  Human rights?

Isn’t that what NGO’s and civil society do?  Well yes – and no.

There is a difference between think tanks and NGOs/civil society.

Think tanks are usually thought of as places devoted to devising and promoting policy recommendations – be they short or long term – to governments and (more often than not multilateral) organisations.  Places where the enlightened mull the issues of today and tomorrow, arriving at possible policy solutions.  More often than not, these policy papers and suggestions are publicly available.  Indeed, with think tanks today, there is an underlying current of “publish or perish” to some degree.

That is not to say that think tanks always arrive at the same policy solutions.  There may be many sensible and well argued differing solutions to a problem.  With policy what counts is whether it will be effective, ineffective or counterproductive – and understanding that with time, that policy outcome can and may/will change.  That is the entire point of policy review.

NGOs and civil society can play this role as well, but they also play roles as service providers, activists and educators.  They get their hands dirty.  They don’t exclusively mull the problems of today and tomorrow from the faculty lounge, or think tank pressure cooker/boiler room/gatherings around the water dispenser, pondering solutions.

Perhaps the easiest way to display the differences would be (my own) Chatham House, Carnegie or RAND think tanks, verses the NGOs such as The Red Cross, or Oxfam, all the way down the NGO and civil society chain, to those handing out condoms and providing free HIV tests to the prostitutes in Odessa, organising blood drives for the Ukrainian army, or fund raising for their thermal socks.

The point to this entry, however, is that there is a notable lack of publicly recognised, dedicated, Ukrainian think tanks, or even foreign think tanks in Ukraine, despite a plethora of illuminated Ukrainian and foreign academia to be found within the nation.  Published policy papers, even fewer.

Thus the traditional think tank discourse is seemingly left to the NGOs – which is OK – but when attempting to influence or provide sensible policy options to government ministers and/or parliamentary committees who have very little time to concentrate on a specific issue for long – not withstanding informing the public space of the issues faced and the options suggested – it perhaps pays to deliver the policy options entirely separately from a simultaneous plea to assist in circumventing the mind-numbing bureaucracy preventing an NGO delivering at the coalface.

There is thus a notable gap in the democratic political space in Ukraine for think tanks – despite civil society now being far more structured, assertive and mature, than it has even been before.

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