Reliable policy research is an underrated planning tool in developing countries.
Step out onto any of Jakarta’s city-centre highways during office hours and you will have no trouble crossing the road. This is because during peak times, a car journey that should take 20 minutes can take up to two hours, as drivers crawl along in the 30°C heat.
If Jakarta was the capital of a developed country, the authorities would have access to science-based advice on the policy options for easing the traffic from universities, state-sponsored research centres, industry, environmental groups and think-tanks. But in much of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, such advice is rarely available for areas such as transport, agriculture, health, education and energy.
The lack of this capacity in Indonesia has recently been highlighted by the World Bank, which is considering a proposal to create a policy think-tank geared specifically to the needs of the many international agencies that are operating in the country.
The bank’s entry into this sphere is welcome. A couple of decades ago, such agencies seemed uninterested in helping young researchers from developing countries to gain badly needed skills in policy analysis. As a result, the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi, for example, began life in the spare bedroom of its founder, Calestous Juma. And Saleemul Huq, founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, spent many a sleepless night worrying about how to pay his staff.
Today, these two centres are among the developing world’s leading research-policy establishments, and their histories, along with those of Pakistan’s Sustainable Development Policy Institute and Colombia’s Alexander von Humboldt Institute, are described on page 8.
Two lessons stand out from these stories. The first is that each institution relied heavily on a driven, committed individual, who nurtured success where many would have expected failure. The second is that, despite the success of these particular institutions, impartial policy analysis is being held back in poor countries for want of either public or private sector support within these nations themselves.
Both governments and wealthy individuals in developing countries continue, on the whole, to regard sound policy analysis as a luxury that they cannot afford. They are wrong, and should join with donor nations and international agencies in backing the establishment of reliable, local organizations that can undertake it.
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Think about it. Nature 451, 1 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/451001b