Banking on Knowledge: The Genesis of the Global Development Network

By Diane Stone | Go to book overview

4

Think tanks in independent Belarus

Catalysts for social transformation

Oleg Manaev

The civil society connection

Policy institutes and think tanks often claim to be independent civil society organisations that contribute to public debate and the health of democratic society. Furthermore, think tanks perform many functions either independently or in cooperation with community-based organisations. In many instances, think tanks can act as a source of research and analysis that other NGOs may be unable to undertake. In addition, they often provide community services such as education and training. Accordingly, one of the panel sessions at GDN99 in Bonn sought to critically assess the role of think tanks in civil society and as 'third-sector' organisations.

The third sector, where voluntary associations, charities, trade unions, religious bodies and other non-profit modes of activity promote civil engagement, is often regarded as the home domain of think tanks. These organisations are not solely directed towards political parties, government and international organisations. The research they conduct often has broader social purposes. Thus, the contributions by Ratna Sudarshan and by Gabriel Ortiz de Zevallos and Alejandro Salas in the two chapters that follow outline the productive partnerships that think tanks can build with other actors in society to assist in the social provision of goods and services.

In some parts of the world, the rights of citizens to organise, lobby and protest-such as by contributing to the establishment of an alternative think tank-cannot be taken for granted. Such organisations, where they exist, often cannot afford to challenge state prerogatives. Indeed, it can be very difficult for new organisations to acquire credibility and recognition in societies where political subservience is ingrained or where intellectual bodies are viewed with hostility.

In advanced liberal democracies, civil society is usually regarded as a sphere of social relations and activity where there is considerable independence from both the state and the market and where development of civil society occurs autonomously. Where civil society is fragile, it can be the case that think tanks and many NGOs are organised and funded by the state; that is, the growth of civil society can be a state-led process dominated by political elites. Civil society becomes a domain where the state intervenes and manages social and political associations, the media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Similarly, international organisations and aid agencies seek to 'grow' civil society, often through the 'export' of ideas, institutions and practices (Carrothers 1999).

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