Thursday, July 7, 2011

In Qatar, do think tanks Matter?

You could have never walked the corridors of Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Texas A & M, Northwestern, Weill Cornell, University College London, the Parisian HEC and even Virginia Commonwealth University in the same day except in Qatar. The tiny oil and natural gas rich country, which illustrates a unique model in the region, decided to be the quasi Washington D.C of the Middle East where its focus is on investing in the intellectual and cultural aspects.

One, however, cannot imagine Washington D.C with Georgetown but without Brookings and other well reputed think tanks. Therefore, in addition to the research centres which are stemming from Qatar Foundation and each of the aforementioned Universities, Qatar recruited not only Brookings Doha Centre, but also other multinational think tanks such as RAND Qatar Policy Institute (RQPI) and Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). They also incubated Azmi Bishara's Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies and the Arab Democracy Foundation whose Board of Trustees is chaired by Her Highness Shiekha Moza bint Nasser.

The Characteristics of Think Tanks

Before delving into why think tanks in Qatar don’t matter, it is necessary to understand the basic characteristics of think tanks. Although some scholars will simplify the definition of a think tank to a bridge between the civil society and the policy makers or the academia and the government, yet it is necessary to get a better understanding of think tank.

There is a conspicuous disparity in the definition of think tanks among scholars and experts depending on the milieu they exist. The traditional Anglo-American definition was driven by the legal boundaries and the characteristics of a democratic system and a developed society which are the importance of the public opinion, the existence of a strong civil society, a well-established tax regime, and the importance of the independence of research. However, the most suitable definition of think tanks today which fits our society is McGann’s definition of transnational think tanks. He defined a think tank as
a public policy research, analysis and engagement institutions that generate policy-oriented research, analysis and advice on domestic and international issues that enables policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues. Think tanks may be affiliated or independent institutions and are structured as permanent bodies, not ad hoc commissions. These institutions often act as a bridge between the academic and policymaking communities, serving in the public interest as an independent voice that translates applied and basic research into a language and form that is understandable, reliable, and accessible for policymakers and the public. [1]
The one million riyal question would be, does a country like Qatar need more think tanks knowing that Qatar has an underdeveloped civil society, limited human capital and passive public opinion. And my answer to that simple question would be ‘NO.’ We rather need independent policy entrepreneurs from outside the policymaking milieu to introduce innovation — the generation, translation, and implementation of new ideas – into the public sector and assist in the nation building exercise.

Policy Entrepreneurship and Think and Do Tanks

One would argue that even entrepreneurs would require to work through certain legal entities and within a certain jurisdiction. And here comes the role and importance of think and do tanks which are involved not only in shaping policies but also in helping governments implementing them. This goes hand in hand with Joseph Schumpeter’s theories of entrepreneurship and innovation. Schumpeter is known as the "champion of innovation and entrepreneurship" and he asserted that innovation and technological change of a nation comes from the wild spirits. He also believes that innovation is the critical dimension of economic change. Schumpeter, in his second theory about entrepreneurship, added another dimension which is the importance of the large organizations. He asserted that innovation and the economy are driven by large companies which have the needed resources to invest in R&D. [2] Although his theories are focused on the role of entrepreneurship and innovation in the economy but they are applicable to the public policy milieu too.

The key success factor for such a suggestion is the motivation behind becoming a policy entrepreneur and starting a think and do tank. Unlike multinational think tanks, which depend on competent expatriate researchers and analysts, those think and do tanks should be founded by entrepreneurs who are integrated within the society and grounded in the local and relevant concerns of the people. Hence, policy entrepreneurs have a competitive edge since they are living the problem and they will be living the suggested solution. Those entrepreneurs would have a vested interest as they will be affected by their solutions. Moreover, they could evolve into being bureaucratic, political or executive entrepreneurs through holding positions within the governmental sector. [3]

There is no better place for a policy entrepreneur to grow in as the Washington D.C. of the region. Qatar's visionary leadership dedicated 2.8% of its GDP to be invested on Research and Development which was reflected in Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) and Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP). This level of unprecedented spending on R&D in the region made Qatar a haven to researchers and think tanks. However, the country would need to enforce policies that would encourage and support policy entrepreneurs for strategic considerations. The government would need to become an incubator for policy entrepreneurs through including and involving those entrepreneurs in their policymaking process in order to come up with policy solutions that could work for the society.

A valid argument might arise about the quality of deliverables and the experience and competency of these entrepreneurs. Not a single rational person would claim that they would be more professional or knowledgeable than those top notch policy analysts and researchers who work for RAND or Brookings. However, skills and competencies are attainable but entrepreneurs would have one thing, which no other competent analysts or researchers can have regardless of the years of experience that they have got and their educational background. It is Passion.

* The title of this article is inspired by Nicholas Carr’s famous article, “Does IT Matter.” It is my first article to be published in a newspaper. It was published in the Peninsula on the 20th of July 2011
  1. [Text] Bureaucratic Entrepreneurs: who hold formal positions in government, although not leadership positions; Political Entrepreneurs: who hold elected leadership positions in government; Executive Entrepreneurs: who hold appointed leadership positions in government