MANILA — As the complexity of the issues facing our societies continues to grow, political decision-makers increasingly face the problem of how to handle what is often termed information overkill.

As a way out, they often seek the assistance of intellectual helpers — academics, consultants, advisers. Often, these aides belong to think tanks — companies or institutes that research and write reports that address the challenges of our times. The proliferation of these think factories, as they are also aptly called, has provoked a debate regarding the role of these institutes in the political system.

While everybody seems to agree that these advisers are necessary, as even the brightest politicians are unable to grasp the complexities of many issues they deal with, critics argue that think tanks are rarely objective and are mainly concerned with promoting their own agenda.

“They don’t think, they justify,” says Jonathan Rowe, a lawyer and libertarian writer from the United States.

As with many things, think tanks originated in America, where, back in 1921, bankers, diplomats and journalists concerned about the government’s foreign policy set up the Council on Foreign Relations. The council remains an influential player in U.S. foreign policy debates.

According to one account, 3,000 think tanks operate today in all parts of the world. About half are based in the U.S., and 20 percent operate in Europe. Critics say that in America there are twice as many conservative think tanks as there are liberal ones, and that conservative institutes are better funded.

Arguably, the conservative or “neoconservative” institutes have a major influence in Washington, D.C., as can be seen in their support for the war in Iraq.

It doesn’t end there. Everyone interested in what U.S. policy vis-a-vis the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait or any other international hot spot may look like in the foreseeable future should carefully study the materials and statements emanating from the conservative think factories in Washington.

While the various think tanks are driven by different ideological motives, all have one common objective: to actively influence policymaking by shaping public opinion and the intellectual climate in which political decision-makers operate. In this regard, think tanks are similar to lobbyists. But unlike lobby groups who usually prefer to operate in the background, think tanks are keen on publicity. Media advocacy and publications are central elements of their strategy.

As think tanks aim at pushing a specific political agenda, their relationship with politicians and political parties becomes crucial. Actually, politicians and parties are often their main target group — and at the same time the main source of their business.

In some democracies, political parties have set up their own think tanks. Germany, where every major political party is entitled to public funding for a “party foundation,” is a case in point.

Political think tanks with close relationships to political parties and different forms of government support are also found in other European countries and in the U.S. Typically, these partisan institutes engage in three main functions:

They give policy advice to the leadership of the political parties they are allied with.

They train and educate party members and candidates for public office.

They provide a network of politically like-minded individuals and experts and are thus also perceived as recruitment grounds for prospective political leaders.

Unlike in Europe and North America, political think tanks and party institutes are not widespread in Asia.

“The whole notion of independent political think tanks is problematic,” says James Gomez, a civil society leader from Singapore. According to him, the state has always played a dominant role in intellectual institutions in many countries in Asia and continues to do so today.

While only a few independent political think tanks operate in this part of the world, the number of political institutes with a direct link to a political party is even smaller.

“Politicians in the Philippines usually get their advice from outside, so they don’t need the party,” says Ramon Casiple, who heads the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, one of the few independent political think tanks in Manila. “We have weak political parties, and the concept of think tanks is not institutionalized.”

Importantly, many think tanks in the Philippines and other Asian countries are sponsored by foreign donors. In many cases, these donors are political think tanks themselves. Thus you may have a situation in which a wealthy think tank from the West gives money to a less privileged partner institute in Asia. The financial support is hardly ever given unconditionally. Usually, the foreign donor assists the local partner in promoting specific objectives, such as political reforms, economic deregulation or human rights.

Traditionally, foreign donors have given the bulk of their money to civil society groups — organizations, movements and networks that operate independently from government and the state. Importantly, thus far political parties and their allied organizations have not been among the main beneficiaries.

“Due to the unique political roles of political parties, international resources should be reallocated in a more equitable manner,” writes Krishna Kumar in a recent paper on international political party assistance, published by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

There are indications that this is already happening, as more and more Western donors have discovered the important strategic role that modern platform-based political parties play in the consolidation of democratic governance.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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