“Foundations” is an series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Linda Frey is an officer with the Foundation’s Global Development Program. Before joining the Foundation, she managed a variety of democracy-building projects in Latin America for the Washington, D.C.-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. At the Hewlett Foundation she makes grants to improve the delivery of public services in developing countries, particularly for the poor. She also manages the Foundation’s newly launched Think Tanks Initiative, which she discusses here. The initiative is working to strengthen policy research institutes in the developing world.

Frey has a master’s degree in public and international affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and an undergraduate degree in political science from Duke University.

What is the Hewlett Foundation’s Think Tank Initiative and why have we embarked on it?

In the United States, think tanks conduct and fund research to help improve public policy. Our goal is to create this model in the developing world, where these kinds of institutions are few and far between. Typically, think tanks are funded privately, and developing countries have few foundations and other sources of money to do that.

Right now, most of the institutions that do exist get mostly short-term funding, for individual research projects, and the topic is usually defined by the donor. So they don’t have the opportunity to set long-term research agendas that make sense in the local political context. We’re trying to make longer-term grants-in this case four-year, general-support grants-to cover overhead and bring on the staff they need to do the work and strengthen the health of the institutions.

There’s also a human-resource issue. There are fewer trained Ph.D. researchers in Africa and other parts of the developing world. And they tend to get snatched up by their governments and international organizations, which pay better and offer them a clear career path. That’s an underlying goal of the initiative: to help build stronger institutions that will provide career opportunities for newly minted researchers.

We’re making a significant commitment to this over ten years, but we’re hoping to get other donors to join in so it can be expanded throughout the world.

How will the work unfold, and is anyone helping us administer it?

We don’t have the resources to administer something like this, so we’ve partnered with the International Development Research Centre, which is a quasi-public agency that the Canadian government created to help researchers in developing countries use science and technology to solve problems. They have regional offices around the world and are also contributing financially to the initiative.

We’re in the process of reviewing the first applications now. They’re from eleven countries in East and West Africa. In East Africa, it’s Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. In West Africa, it’s Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Mali. We received almost 300 applications. The International Development Research Centre has offices in Senegal and Kenya, so they will start working with applicants to make final selections. We asked the institutions to lay out their research agendas for the next two to four years and explain why they think the issues they’ve selected to research are important in the local political context. Broadly speaking, we’ve asked the institutions to look at social and economic policy issues. That could be anything from how an education system is working to an examination of a government program or more traditional economic research. One new wave of research is looking at how the political structures and political economy affect a government’s ability to make progress in improving the lives of its citizens.

How do you assure that this research actually gets used by policymakers once it’s created?

That is one of the crucial issues for policy research. It’s done by academics who don’t necessarily think about how to convey things to policymakers. To address that, we’re helping these institutions think through what they need to do to make sure the research is relevant and accessible. Part of it is engaging the policymakers up front to get buy-in and making sure you’re asking the right questions in your research. Outreach to advocacy groups and international groups is also important, so we anticipate working with some of the larger institutions to think about communications plans to disseminate the work.

How long will it take for the first rounds of research to be completed and begin to inform policy?

Initially we expect to fund twenty to twenty-five institutions. We certainly hope that even in this first four-year grant cycle we can look back and begin to see improvements in the quality and quantity of research they are doing and-more importantly-an improvement in how well they are linking to the places that can use the knowledge they create. We also want to see that they are making investments in their own institutional health so they can continue to grow.

What does success look like, and when do you hope to see it?

That’s the million-dollar question, and it’s one everyone who does this work struggles with. It’s also why this area is underfunded. It’s a very long-term proposition. If you look at our think tanks in this country and how long it took to get them where they are today, it’s not five years and maybe it’s not even ten years. We see this program as a minimum ten-year commitment, and we’d like to see it go longer.

But you have to examine the incremental progress. We expect to see these think tanks get really good people who are able to make connections with people in important places, and then provide them with reliable data. So when a policymaker is trying to craft a policy on, say, a social-welfare program, or how much to decentralize government, they have information that enables them to make an informed decision, instead of an ideological one.

A lot of time and thought has gone into how to measure the progress along the way. We’ve talked to people who have managed and led think tanks, people who have studied them, asking all of them how you measure success. And we decided to look at three fundamental things. The first examines the quality of research, and that’s probably the easiest. The second examines whether the work is linked to policy, basically tracking the think tank’s interactions with the policymaking process. The third looks at the health of the institution, things like a drop in staff turnover and establishing new sources of general operating support.

Is the lack of think tanks a problem only in Africa?

The problem is worldwide. Next year we plan to expand to Latin America and South Asia. The poorer the country, the more acute some of the problems are: weak universities, less private and government funding, and so forth. We’re putting our emphasis on lower income countries. So in South America we’ll probably focus on countries in the Andean region, which are among the poorest.

Can we and the International Development Research Centre do this alone?

The scale of this undertaking is quite large. We can’t underestimate how skewed the resources are right now. Of all the resources that international donors spend on research about development issues, something like only about 6 percent actually goes to researchers based in the developing world.  Considering the scale of it, we’re mindful that we can’t do it alone. That’s why we’re very eager, in the next couple of years, to bring in other donors to expand this pool and make it a long-term effort. The interest is there. People in the international community are starting to talk about it.