Global challenges – why think tanks have some, not all of the answers

Published on 25 January 2016

Melissa Leach

Emeritus Fellow

This week I am in New York and Washington DC to meet with partners and alumni, and there are some big subjects up for discussion. Hot on the heels of the World Economic Forum and the recent announcement by the World Health Organization on the end of ebola in West Africa, inequality and global epidemics, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are all on the agenda.

In and amongst this we will also be discussing the role that think tanks have to play in addressing some of these global challenges. It will come as no surprise that at IDS we think that they do have a significant contribution to make. New cutting-edge research, knowledge and evidence is critical, but how this research and knowledge is generated, by whom and for whom, is as important.

Making a difference means working in partnership

IDS recently published our new five year strategy. The process of producing this focused minds within the organisation on defining our role as a research institution based in the UK at the University of Sussex, and our ongoing relevance in a rapidly changing world. The result is articulated in our engaged excellence approach which underpins how we undertake research and share knowledge – in partnership with, and linking to those who are at the heart of the change we wish to see. It encapsulates a way of working that has been embedded and promoted over the course of IDS’ 50 year history, and we hope will ensure that the research, knowledge and evidence we and partners produce is timely, relevant and can make a positive difference to people’s lives.

An interconnected world needs interconnected solutions

Our approach is driven by the fact that we live in an increasingly interconnected world, where challenges that arise in one place extend to affect others elsewhere and therefore require interconnected solutions. This means high quality multidisciplinary robust research that brings together natural sciences and social sciences. It means working with local academic partners but also civil society, states and communities. It demands collaboration and communication, and an understanding that no one individual, group or organisation has all of the answers.

Ebola – new vaccines are only part of the answer

The recent Ebola outbreak highlighted such interconnections, exposing both the world’s vulnerability to global epidemics, and the extreme effects of crisis in highly unequal political economies, which we will be discussing at an event at Results for Development. Reports of a new ebola vaccine and recommendations made in the recently published report by the independent Commission on Global Health Risk convened by the US Institute of Medicine ‘The Neglected dimension of global security: a framework to counter infectious disease crises’ to strengthen public health systems, improve global and regional coordination and capabilities and fund more research and development geared to infectious disease threats are very welcome. However our work at IDS with partners on ebola, underlines the importance of understanding local attitudes and behaviours to inform disease control efforts, and demonstrates that while new science, evidence and policies are essential, these measures risk failure unless coupled with socially-informed institution- and trust-building in vulnerable places, with community engagement at its heart.

Linking global goals to local realities

Engaged research and knowledge and the convening power of institutions like IDS also have a central role to play in making the link between global frameworks and local realities. The SDGs providing a case in point. What do the 17 goals and 169 targets agreed in September last year, and that committed all global governments to ‘leave no one behind’, mean for a young mother living in the Mathare Slum in Kenya, or a teacher working in El Sheimy in Egypt or a steelworker at risk of losing his job in Corby? The Participate Initiative, a network of 18 participatory research organisations working with poor and marginalised groups in 29 countries, which played a key role in the process around designing the SDGs, is now attempting to address this question and ongoing uncertainty through a new project on Participatory Monitoring and Accountability (PMA). The PMA programme is working with poor and marginalised people in Egypt, Ghana and South Africa to help them hold local and national governments and the private sector to account around how the SDGs are implemented and monitored.

The Participate Initiative and other programmes such as the Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) Program for think tanks in Latin America and South Asia have also worked to stimulate the demand for high quality research and evidence and to build the capacity of researchers, communications and knowledge professionals, practitioners and policy makers across the globe to produce and use it. This will be critical in translating the global goals into national plans.

Moreover, as part of our fiftieth anniversary celebrations, IDS alumni ambassadors in Brazil, Mexico, Nepal, Myanmar, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana will be exploring the opportunities and challenges for their own countries in relation to implementation of the SDGs. The results of which will be shared at the IDS’ States, Markets and Society conference in July. Hopefully, lessons around SDGs at local and national level can be drawn from both the project and the alumni events and can be shared with other countries, including the UK.

In sum, think tanks and other research and knowledge generating institutions have an important role to play in tackling some of the big challenges that the world faces such as inequality, sustainability and security. But we need to look beyond our default modus operandi – beyond disciplines, beyond high-level panels, beyond institutions, beyond markets – if we are to contribute to the transformational change we aspire to for everyone, everywhere.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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