ASSESSING NEEDS IN A CLIMATE OF CHANGE: A BASELINE STUDY OF THINK TANKS IN THE MENA

Introduction :
The concept of a ‘think tank’ remains relatively
new to many MENA-based societies –
this despite the presence of organisations
dedicated to research and public policy. However,
the question of how these organisations operate
and their capacity and effectiveness to influence
policy is unclear. How do these organisations
reconcile their research interests with the needs
of the public? Understanding the weaknesses,
strengths, and challenges faced by these
organisations is fundamental to supporting and
strengthening them.
The explosive growth of Arab civil society, and
alongside it organisations operating as ‘think
tanks,’ can be explained by several factors.
The democratic transition in several Arab
countries particularly over the last 4-5 years
created in some cases, an entirely new political
environment, which enabled think tanks, in many
cases for the first time, to set up without legal
obstruction from the state. The influx of foreign
funding, post-Arab Spring, acted as a catalyst for
new think tanks in these countries to explore and
explain political, legal and economic challenges
and other themes. The third, and perhaps most
important factor was the considerable growth
of political activism as a phenomenon across
Arab societies, with this activism leading to the
formation of formal organisations.
Often, the history and geography are factors
in the emergence of think tanks in the Arab
world and in how think tanks set their priorities.
In countries like Palestine and Iraq, with a long
history of conflict and foreign interventions,
domestic security vacuums and instability
underscored the need for internal dialogue and
debate, giving rise to ‘think tanks’ and other
research organisations specialising in political
and economic affairs. Faced with a significant
set of challenges, the organisations in these
countries directed their attention (over the last
2-3 decades) to the creation of modern, civil and
democratic states that enjoy popular legitimacy,
an enterprise that has seen little success.
The region’s evolving situation continues to
prove challenging for organisations working to
influence public policies, their efforts, therefore,
require a realistic assessment.
Identifying Think Tanks
As a relatively new phenomena in the MENA
region, we begin this report by defining what
we mean by ‹think tanks› and what type of
organisations fall under this category. With no
clear scholarly consensus on its definition, there
is a degree of judgment involved in determining
what characterises a think tank – often suggests
that the term is informed by the biases of those
who define it. According to the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP), ‘think tanks
and policy research facilities can be defined as
organisations that generate research products,
which inform decision making on specific policy
issues and aim to influence policy content.’(1)
(1) UNDP, 2009, “The role of think thanks and research


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