(Perfil) In late September on behalf of Cadal I attended the Global Think Tank Summit in Montreal, Canada. CADAL was one of two Argentine organizations represented at the meeting, out of a total of around 90 ¨think tanks¨ overall. Our participation was funded by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. I had the chance to chat with representatives from large, well-funded organizations that are known everywhere as well as smaller organizations from a wide array of countries.
Although I was very happy to represent Cadal, I admit I had not realized we were a “think tank.” I had thought of us as a non-governmental organization (NGO). But, we appear in the Global Go To Think Tank Index published by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2015 Cadal was number 59 on a ranking of think tanks in Central and South America.
Whether a think tank or an NGO, we definitely are part of the global and regional voices in favor of democracy, human rights, freedom, and institutional economic openness. The organizations represented in Montreal were a diverse group, with varying ideologies and priorities, but there was a general feeling that we all share a commitment to policies for the public good, and I had the sense that most of the others shared Cadal´s basic values.
Two sobering themes were discussed at the meeting, one involving the state of the world and the other the role of think tanks. The first theme was that we are experiencing a moment of global populism, expressed mostly but not exclusively in the developed countries. Speakers pointed to the Brexit vote as one indicator of rising populism, and several also predicted Donald Trump would win the US elections on November 8th. Most attributed the phenomenon to peoples´ insecurity about economic and cultural issues. Among these representatives of world civil society, there was great pessimism about the prospects for democracy and international cooperation to advance in the coming years. The few optimistic points of view were voiced by people representing organizations based in developing countries.
The second theme centered around an opinion editorial TTCSP Director Dr. James G. McGann had published in the Washington Post on October 6, 2015 entitled “For Think Tanks It´s Either Innovate or Die.” Dr. McGann argued that think tanks operate in a more competitive atmosphere than in the recent past. There is a new battle of ideas out there. It is more democratic. But it is also full of more noise, and, we discussed at the meeting, even “post-truth.” Public institutions are not trusted, given the constant unleash of scandals about traditional elites and organizations of all sorts. To be relevant, think tanks need to rethink how they do their work and get their message across the cacophony. This may imply new priorities, such as more emphasis on new technologies and greater preparedness for participation in the 24-hr news cycle. The most concrete idea I took from this discussion was that all the big global think tanks are installing their own television studios.
Overall, the message I heard in Montreal was dire, both for the liberal values Cadal embodies and for the ability of think tanks and other civil society organizations to have any sort of effect on the world. However, I thought of reasons for optimism about Cadal´s ability to do good work even in the current difficult context.
The first is that we have many young participants. In particular Cadal´s program for international interns is one of the most open and dynamic internship programs I have seen in Argentina or anywhere. Young people across the world tend to be more open and tolerant than those of us in middle age and beyond, and Cadal plays a key role in helping them become active contributors to national and global debates.
The second reason for optimism is that unlike some big global think tanks, Cadal is used to operating on a shoestring. It is proof that a small group of fair-minded people can accomplish a great deal (how else did we end up on the TTCSP ranking given our resources?). Part of the secret is that our researchers also affiliated with universities and other organizations, and we promote their work whether the Cadal logo is there on the page or not.
The third reason for optimism is that Cadal and the region we work in are as well-placed as ever to speak in favor of liberal values. Although there is still much uncertainty about international politics, particularly what the upcoming Trump presidency will do, in Argentina and South America there is less ideological extremism than in the past. The Argentine people are tolerant of foreigners and minorities and favor of humanitarian actions. The government of Mauricio Macri is more liberal than Trump, Putin, or the assorted nationalistic European leaders that are currently making a splash.
To put it bluntly, members and supporters of Cadal needn´t think of ourselves as part of a global elite that is falling. We are part of a new generation of liberal voices who are rising.
Sybil Rhodes is Vice President and Director of Academic Council of the Centro para la Apertura y el Desarrollo de América Latina (CADAL).
Source: Perfil (Buenos Aires, Argentina)