What can think tanks do to make public policies more effective?

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Margarita Beneke de Sanfeliú • 13 January 2021
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Article by Margarita Beneke de SanfeliúDirector of the Center for Research and Statistics at FUSADES in El Salvador. 


Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has been full of additional challenges to those we already had. This new year is a good time to reflect on the public policies that have been implemented or proposed to deal with the social and economic impacts, but also with the institutional and political effects. As think tanks, what elements can we add to make our recommendations and proposals more effective?

  • Firstly, we must recognize that a situation or public policy can impact different groups, especially among vulnerable populations, in unequal ways. When the pandemic began, our societies already had structural problems and gaps; Latin America is the most unequal region. The coronavirus crisis, and its responses, have resulted in larger gaps. Initial data show that the effects are stronger on the less educated, those without access to digital technologies, young people, on those working in the informal economy and, above all, on women. The “positive” side is that gaps are becoming so visible that they will be impossible to ignore. It is vital that in our proposals we apply differentiated gender and life-cycle approaches, ie, that every age group is considered. We cannot, as think tanks, remain neutral in this situation.
  • All this requires quality, timely, reliable and sufficiently disaggregated data. It is essential to ensure that no one is left behind. Not all our countries are lucky enough to have data with the required level of disaggregation. But in some, data is simply not being used. We need to engage with national and international bodies so that disaggregated data can be generated and disseminated transparently for the various vulnerable groups. And its use should be promoted. In addition, if information gaps are detected, we must promote the generation of the required data.
  • Understand that context matters. Latin America is a diverse region, but sometimes we tend to see it as a whole. Not all answers apply to every context. As think tanks, we must contribute to the global conversation by introducing the notion that there is no “one size fits all” solution for this region.
  • Incorporate elements of “evaluation thinking” when designing or implementing a response. The emergency requires that policies be implemented as a matter of urgency, but we must at least ask ourselves, or help our politicians consider, a few questions: Why do we think this policy will work? What are these assumptions based on? Do they apply in this particular context? Incorporating this kind of thinking can help us detect and avoid potential problems in implementation, or to identify how various aspects or policies interact, compete or reinforce each other (identify synergies and trade-offs).
  • Demand transparency in decisions and accountability at all levels. There are many needs and limited resources. We must ask ourselves: Are we spending well on what should be spent, or are we wasting our resources? We should even wonder whether resources are being diverted and corruption created.
  • Help reassess local priorities to better reflect the most urgent needs of different populations.
  • Promote debating beyond the short term. I believe that the United Nations Agenda 2030 framework is useful as a starting point for discussion. It helps to focus on what is urgent, without losing sight of the long term. The idea is to ensure that recovery does not mean going back to where we were but moving strongly towards a better future for all.

The current crisis is too big and moving forward requires articulated efforts from many parties. Think tanks can contribute precisely by acting as catalysts for these efforts' articulation between local, national, regional and global actors.

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