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Collusion or collaboration? The Think Tank Initiative

November 24, 2010 10 comments

Is the West capturing Indian think-tanks via Think Tank Initiative-an effort to increase policy development capacity.

Number of Government Employees (data and image source - Click for larger image.

Number of US Government Employees (data and image source – Click for larger image.

Bloated bureaucracies

Reluctantly, the West now admits that ‘no one can argue India is a failing or failed state’. With a rising economy, India is being subjected to a tide of aggressive trade and tariff barriers, diplomatic actions and propaganda initiatives. With such non-military aggression, India definitely needs to muscle up its own foreign affairs ministry.

A declining Britain has  15000 Foreign Office employees. India has a cadre, numbering less than 700 of Indian Foreign Service (IFS) rank – compared to 15000 Foreign Office Staff in UK. The Indian IFS-to-Foreign Office employee of Britain may not be an apt comparison – but that is the best indicative data for now.

USA has some 2.0 crore (20 million) employees (local, state and federal) – roughly equal to India’s which has a population, four times the size of US population. And we are not talking of contract staff in the US Govt. who are off-rolls. Experts worry about

the 10.5 million federal contractors and grantees the government’s “hidden workforce” because politicians tend not to mention them when discussing the size of the federal bureaucracy. Yet such workers absorbed nearly $400 billion in federal contracting funds and $100 billion in federal grants in 2005. They often performed vital work such as researching new vaccines, running federal computer systems and making body armor, weapons and meals for the military.

The number of civil servants is increasing, too, up 54,000 since 2002 to 1.9 million workers. That is still fewer than the 2.2 million civil servants on the federal payroll in 1990, at the end of the Cold War.

The US foreign service comprises of some 11,500 Foreign Service employees 7,400 Civil Service employees 31,000 Foreign Service National employees  – totaling to about 50,000.

A remarkable case comes from Ireland. In a country of 45 lakhs, some 3 lakhs are highly paid government employees. An estimated 69% are in the 15-64 years of employable age – leaving us with a workforce of 30 lakhs people. Fully 10% of the Irish workforce is in the Government. With such a bloated bureaucracy, apart from bankruptcy, what else can happen in Ireland?

Been there and done that! The Think Tanks are a known devil. Indians love this unknown angel.

Been there and done that! The Think Tanks are a known devil. Indians love this unknown angel.

Brains and brawn

These small numbers of IFS bureaucrats have run a tight ship. At this stage I will take recourse to Lant Pritchett and his discussion paper on ‘India-The Flailing State’. Pritchett thinks that India ‘runs’ due to the ‘incredibly spectacular intelligence, cleverness, and competence of the top tiers of the Indian government’.

Indian bureaucracy, of which these 600+ IFS diplomats are a part of, are let us assume, better than the British 15,000 – or the American diplomatic corps or Chinese 50,000 foreign office employees. For instance, Pritchett notes that the World Bank, which usually has

Setting up a think tank. All you need is some devious money. Cartoonist - Wiley Miller.

Setting up a think tank. All you need is some devious money. Cartoonist – Wiley Miller.

staff of high quality with international expertise, was by and large matched or over-matched at nearly every level by their counter-parts at the corresponding levels in the government. The brains of the Indian state can formulate excellent policies and programs in nearly every domain. The head is so strong it can even remain in teetering control of the mountain of official paper work … (from Is India a Flailing State? Detours on the Four Lane Highway to Modernization Lant Pritchett Harvard Kennedy School.)

Red herrings – the challenge ahead

To get around the ‘problem’ of economic stagnation, the West has created artificial ‘crisis’ situations.

  1. Population Explosion
  2. Global Warming and climate change
  3. Civil Wars in Africa
  4. Islamic Demonization and the spectre of Islamic terrorism
  5. Financial meltdowns

These are major diplomatic offensives using media, academia, events and situations, to

  • Maintain superior negotiating positions
  • Define the agenda – which usually means non-substantive issues.

But for an India to match the trade and tariff barriers, propaganda and diplomatic offensives, calls for more resources.

The inner working of think tanks. Cartoonist – Wiley Miller.

The inner working of think tanks. Cartoonist – Wiley Miller.

Distortion of outcomes

Complicating the current situation is the US currency mechanism, called USCAP (by 2ndlook) which favors selected US allies with advantageous exchange rates.

Using outsiders

I am all for a thin Government. Now, if that must not change, what must? Judicious use of ‘outsiders’? What Americans call think-tanks. India has a few think-tanks – and these Indian think-tanks turn out competent, workman-type of reports.

Using Western constructs, ideology (and funds) as a start point, these Indian think-tanks believe that they are not effective due to funding constraints, for one. The other allegation that these think-tanks make is how Indian government and bureaucracy does not take them or their output seriously.

Collaboration and cooperation

This may be the opportunity and opening that Indian media (the largest in the world, quantitatively) can use to improve their standing in the global market.

Indian media caters largely to the domestic consumer for one and the Indian diaspora for another. In spite of its size, high growth rate and healthy financial position, Indian media is not thinking global.

Indian media and the academia can change this. Collaborative work, supplementing GoI’s output can be the direction for all three constituents – media, academia, and the bureaucracy to break out of the current pecking order.

Benign designs?

The manner of funding Indian NGOs by external sources, especially the West, isnot benign anymore. More than 33 lakh NGOs operate in India, with foreign funding that is estimated at US$4 billion. This figure is double the official Government figure that is based on declared receipts, which reports say, are under-declared.

In times to come

Is the West aiming to capture these Indian ‘think-tanks’? The promotion of Western Climate Change agenda by Amartya Sen, under the auspices of the Aspen Institute India is indication of times to come.

The lure of ‘foreign’ sabbaticals to Indians is reducing. An over-valued rupee has diluted the perceived value of foreign junkets. Better opportunities at home has decreased the attractiveness of Western posting. With increasing opportunities in India, some of usual tools used earlier have been blunted.

A new idea!

How then is the West aiming to ‘influence’ Indian policy ‘development’? The Think Tank Initiative is an ambitious South-Asia wide effort to increase policy development capacity. Run by

five international donors, coordinated by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), an ambitious South Asia-wide effort to increase policy development capacity in the subcontinent, through the “Think Tank Initiative” (TTI). The donors, contributing a total pool of $110 million globally, include the Hewlett and Gates Foundations and the British and Dutch governments.

 Fishing in the thinktank (Cartoon Date - Mar 29, 2009; from the Lincoln Journal Star; Courtesy - - Cartoon by Neal Obermeyer). Click for larger picture.

Fishing in the thinktank (Cartoon Date – Mar 29, 2009; from the Lincoln Journal Star; Courtesy – – Cartoon by Neal Obermeyer). Click for larger picture.

The first salvo was fired by Kanti Bajpai who wrote about the ‘few’ Indian think-tanks in April 2010. This was soon followed by Sanjaya Baru – earlier spokesman and media advisor to the Indian Prime Minister (between May 2004-July 2008). He espoused the cause of foreign funding of Indian think tanks. Prof. PN Bhagwati joined the issue with Sanjaya Baru, and suggested that Indian Govt. can depend on NRIs – instead foreign funding.

By the way, we are in august company. This initiative has reached out to China, too!


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