Think-tanks / Global
What’s the big idea?
At these global institutions it’s the thought that counts. We’ve been to London, Nairobi, Madrid, Hong Kong and Washington to meet the researchers and academics that fill think-tanks with ideas and policies to direct those that wield the power.
Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Staff: 158 staff; 136 fellows
Attend enough controversial debates and panels and you’ll certainly come across the Chatham House rule. Favoured among those eager to discuss dicey matters, it requires that anything said in a discussion can be shared but the speaker’s identity remains strictly off the record.
The rule is named after its originator, the think-tank Chatham House, and is used around the world as well as at the London-based institute during sensitive meetings. “This is a place you can come to and talk very, very frankly,” says Michael Keating, Chatham’s associate director of research partnerships. “So we get very senior people coming in.” The UK prime minister, David Cameron, chose Chatham House as the venue for his November 2015 speech on Britain’s membership of the EU.
It is just one example of the influence Chatham House wields. The organisation was founded in London in 1920 as the British Institute of International Affairs, with the aim of preventing future wars by studying international problems. Later renamed for its headquarters at St James’ Square – once home to prime minister William Pitt the Elder, the Earl of Chatham – the institute’s mission has also shifted.
In addition to convening global leaders and international thinkers, Chatham House carries out research, with programmes divided by region as well as topic. The institute’s focus is broad-based – as is its funding. Chatham House took in £14.5m (€20.5m) in 2014-2015, almost entirely through donations and research-based partnerships, as well as its membership fees.
Though governments, corporations and individuals financially back research, the institute aims to secure its funds from multiple sources. Chatham House insists on independence so that it can hold the public’s trust. Without public trust, the think-tank wouldn’t be able to use its prestige, research and convening power to fulfill its fundamental mission: influencing those in power.
“We’re not a university,” says Keating. “We’re in the business of actually trying to change the way people think about things and the way people do things.”
Notes: Original thinking
Director: Robin Niblett
Raised in Mallorca and educated at Oxford, Niblett became director of Chatham House in 2007 after spending the bulk of his career at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies. In 2015 he was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for promoting the UK as a global centre for foreign policy.
Five issues Chatham House is watching in 2016:
- China. Increasingly important in Chatham House’s research, the country’s economic muscle is being reflected in its growing military and diplomatic weight.
- The EU. It’s not just Brexit and Grexit: the whole European project is being tested.
- Refugees. The movement of people – and the instability that drives it and is created by it – will only increase.
- Security. In addition to taking a traditional approach to security research, Chatham House looks at global health from a security perspective.
- Syria. Insecurity in the region is not only down to the violence: the population exodus is also destabilising neighbouring countries.
Earlier this year Sahan Research revealed that Isis had manufactured and used chemical mortar shells against Kurdish fighters and civilians in Iraq and Syria. The investigation – conducted together with illegal-weapons tracking group Conflict Armament Research – marked a step-change for the young organisation.
Sahan was set up in 2012 by former Canadian soldier and UN investigator Matt Bryden, Belgian arms expert and ex-paratrooper Emmanuel Deisser and Abdirahman Osman Raghe, a researcher and former Somali government official. Since then its niche has been as a Somalia and Horn of Africa specialist but its knowledge of Islamist groups and terrorism, chronic civil war and state-building means its expertise is in broader demand.
The research in Syria and Iraq is a sign of that intention to expand. So is a recent investigation into the organised criminal gangs smuggling people from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan to Europe. Sahan’s payroll is also expanding, with 81 people now on staff and plans to swell to more than 100 in early 2016. The think-tank sinks its consultancy profits – it turned over €2.8m in 2015 – into pioneering research. “Sahan” is a Somali word for a scout or pathfinder; it’s the person sent ahead of a nomadic group to spot trouble and find the best way forward. “That’s what we want to do,” says Bryden. “Not just look at problems and provide analysis but provide solutions as well.”
Notes: One step ahead
Director: Matt Bryden
Educated and raised in Canada, Bryden moved to the Horn of Africa in the 1990s. Working first as an aid worker and then a political analyst with the International Crisis Group, he became fluent in Somali. Before founding Sahan, he also headed a team of UN investigators engaged in monitoring the arms embargo against Somalia.
Five issues Sahan Research is watching in 2016:
- Politics. Somalia’s political transition in 2016 and beyond.
- Terrorist groups. The growth of Al-Shabaab as both a regional and international threat.
- Counter-terrorism. Stopping the spread of violent extremism among young people in east Africa and the Horn.
- Weapons. The mass production of improvised explosive devices by Isis in Iraq and Syria, including the development and use of chemical weapons.
- Human-trafficking. Monitering aggravated smuggling between the Horn of Africa and Europe.
Real Instituto Elcano
When Spain’s US-friendly prime minister José María Aznar spotted the prevalence of think-tanks during a visit to Washington, he wondered why Madrid lacked such institutions. Shortly after, in 2000, he set up the Real Instituto Elcano to provide the government and Spain’s biggest multinationals with a policy instrument to inform the country’s transformation. Fifteen years on, Spain’s economic isolation has given way to expansion: it now invests more in Latin America than China, fuelled by analysis conducted at the institute.
Real Instituto garners its €4m of funding from the corporate giants that make up its board of trustees, a compelling group from Repsol to Renfe, Iberdrola to Inditex. Also on the board are government ministers and three of Spain’s former prime ministers. “It’s an unusual structure but we define our own interests,” says director Charles Powell.
Despite the imposing make-up of the board, he maintains the team of 30 researchers and administration staff is not subject to corporate or political interference. A network of academics, scientists, ngos and journalists give teeth to analysis and collaborations. “We are often asked how companies benefit from being associated with us,” says Powell. “There are intangibles such as prestige but when Repsol was expelled from Argentina, we were right there to argue the case. We’re here to defend the national interest.”
Notes: Wise investment
Director: Charles Powell
UK-born Spanish citizen Powell was promoted from deputy director of research and analysis to director in 2012. He’s since increased collaboration with EU and Latin American counterparts and strengthened Elcano’s non-partisan credentials. “We’re more transparent than ever and future moves towards further depoliticisation will aid our credibility,” he says.
Five issues Real Instituto Elcano is watching in 2016:
- Catalonian secession. The stalemate will continue until a new central government initiates constitutional reform.
- Chinese slump and Latin America. China’s declining investment in the region could prompt big political change.
- Algeria. It’s incredibly opaque, has the highest military spending in Africa and the 78-year-old president has made few appearances of late; a potential powder keg.
- Cuba. Expectations generated by the opening up of relations have not been matched in reality but Spain’s longstanding presence endows companies with insight on doing business in Cuba.
- Middle East and North Africa. The region is in flux with a deep crisis of expectations.
Asia Global Institute
Location: Hong Kong
A new think-tank that focuses on Asian economies shouldn’t have much trouble finding issues to keep itself occupied in 2016. At least, that is the hope of the Asia Global Institute (AGI), which opened its doors in July 2015. All new think-tanks tend to worry about how to build their credibility but the AGI should be fine in that regard: Nobel laureate in economics Michael Spence will be overseeing its research.
The think-tank was also formed in partnership with the prestigious University of Hong Kong (HKU). AGI board member Barbara Meynert says the decision to partner with HKU was simple: “Either we build a think-tank and wait decades for it to grow or we become a part of a larger organisation.”
With a staff of just five, the AGI is testing a newer, leaner model of think-tank. This is something that has been possible through its relationship with HKU, which brings access to notable professors and a new space in the university’s main building, a century-old Edwardian Baroque-style structure.
The scope of the AGI's research will be expansive. The think-tank will naturally delve into Chinese trade and the country’s finance issues, such as shadow banking and the internationalisation of the renminbi. However, the institute’s interim director, Professor Tao Zhigang, says that the AGI will also have a broader geographical remit – very much in keeping with the name above the door.
Notes: Economy class
Interim director: Professor Tao Zhigang
Professor Tao became interim director in October 2015. A veteran of the university, he is a conduit between think-tank and faculty and, he says, “a product of globalisation”. Shanghai-born and raised, he completed his economics PhD at Princeton University before moving to Hong Kong in the 1990s.
Five issues the AGI is watching in 2016:
- Digital economy. The mobile internet is transforming business models. How can it help Asian exports?
- Trade and investment. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement has enormous potential; could other bilateral trade-and-investment agreements be far behind?
- Sustainability. The rise of China and India has taken a toll on the environment; energy consumption should not be forgotten simply because the economy is slowing.
- Finance. Emerging markets are anticipating the US Federal Reserve raising interest rates; how can financial institutions and central banks support the global economy?
- Macroeconomics. What impact will China’s new Silk Road and other big projects have on its regional neighbours? Is everyone travelling in the same direction?
German Marshall Fund of the United States
Number of staff: 121 employees; 42 fellows
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) centres its operations around the idea that what happens on one side of the Atlantic has implications for the other. The memorabilia at its Washington headquarters harks back to the Marshall Plan, the US-funded recovery scheme for Europe after the Second World War and the inspiration for the GMF’s founding. A West German grant established the foundation in 1972 to commemorate the European-US co-operation of the 1948 programme.
About 15 years ago, the GMF shifted from a single-issue foundation to a multifaceted think-tank with three areas of focus: a fellowship programme for US and European leaders, a civil-society programme that hands out grants and a policy-research arm. It has a presence in seven cities outside of the capital, including Berlin, Paris and Brussels. Its funding has diversified from the days when German state money first got it off the ground, with $28m (€26m) in income last year from a combination of private and government donations. Just as Europe has changed since the days of the GMF's founding, so has the institution – but the spirit of its mission remains the same. Director of urban and regional policy Geraldine Gardner says: “We want to understand the ongoing conversation in a particular policy issue, within the US and European context, and then be able to translate those insights into what would be relevant for either the US or European context.”
Notes: Marshall Spirit
Director of urban and regional policy: Geraldine Gardner She brought her urban-planning expertise from the DC mayor’s office to an international audience when she joined gmf in 2012. Gardner’s programme operates on the principle that policymakers from around the world can learn a lot from their peers on economic and sustainability matters.
Five issues the GMF is watching in 2016:
- European challenges. Shifting obstacles, including an influx of migrants and Greece’s debt crisis, will require research on how to adapt to these new challenges.
- European security. Russia and its actions in eastern Europe will change the nature of alliances such as Nato.
- Asia Pacific. How will the region’s changing politics, economics and defence affect the future of trilateral US-European-Asian relations?
- Cities and urban policy. At the cutting edge of change and innovative policies, how can cities in the US and Europe learn from one another?
- The US presidential election. The next occupant of the White House will re-evaluate the country’s position in the world, including its European relations.