by Lauchlan Munro
Canada’s only independent think tank on international development and foreign policy, the North-South Institute, will soon close its doors. According to media reports, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) communicated its decision not to continue funding NSI on September 2. A few hours later, the NSI Board decided to close the Institute for good.
An important independent voice in debates about international development and Canada’s relations with developing countries will thus soon fall silent. Since 1976, NSI has been producing research on the developing countries of the world and Canada’s relations with them. For those who care about pluralism, research and evidence-based policy, this is a sad day. Think tanks can do certain types of research that those of us who work in universities are often not encouraged to do: more topical, more applied, yet still rigorous. To lose the country’s only think tank in a given field is to lose an important element of our intellectual biodiversity.
Unfortunately for groups like NSI, the fact that the federal government camouflaged its intentions for so long gave them insufficient time to develop alternative funding sources, radically change their business models, or merge with other, similarly affected organizations.
The reported decision by DFATD to end funding NSI after almost 40 years was no doubt taken at the political, not the bureaucratic, level. The current government’s unhappy relationship with researchers of all kinds, both inside and outside of the federal public sector, is a matter of public record. Yet many of us clung for months to the hope that this government, which claims to believe in pluralism and which at least still pays lip service to the notion of evidence-based policy making, would find a few hundred thousand dollars to keep NSI afloat while it continued its efforts to diversify its funding base.
But why should public funds be used to support a private research institute, you might ask. Certainly, there are conservative think tanks in Canada who make much of the fact that they refuse to accept any government money, and those think tanks have also been around for a long time. Alas, the fact is that pro-business, free-market think tanks will always be able to raise money from large corporations and wealthy individuals who espouse similar causes and whose thinking follows similar lines.
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Those think tanks that follow a more progressive agenda, or that simply work on issues that corporate Canada and high net worth individuals will never be interested in, will always have more trouble raising private money. How many corporations do you know who want to fund research on the ways that commodity prices, industrial policies, and preferential trade agreements affect incomes and labour conditions in developing countries? That was one of NSI’s research programs.
For several decades now in Canada, federal and provincial governments have recognized this market failure and provided limited funding to independent research centres and non-governmental organizations that do research as part of a broader mandate. These think tanks and NGOs also raised funds from other sources, but over the decades they got heavily dependent on government (especially federal government) funding.
The current federal government’s decision to discontinue this longstanding bipartisan tradition of public funding of intellectual diversity through think tanks and NGOs has never been publicly announced. But it is now clearly established as policy, as the 2011 death of FOCAL, then Canada’s only think tank on Latin America, and the impending death of NSI make clear. Unfortunately for groups like NSI, the fact that the federal government camouflaged its intentions for so long gave them insufficient time to develop alternative funding sources, radically change their business models, or merge with other, similarly affected organizations.
- Jacqueline Best, Hedging Bets: Aid Agencies’ New Preoccupation with Failure
- Stephen Baranyi, What Should Canada Do About Cuba’s Participation in the Americas Summit?
Was NSI a perfect organization? No, it was not. It appears to have clung too long to the old model of a bricks-and-mortar think tank, at a time when other research institutes were pioneering more networked business models. NSI tried to diversify its funding sources, but met with only modest success in that regard, and the successes it had were too little, too late.
I know it is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. Actually running a think tank with no endowment and no guaranteed funding from anyone is quite another thing, and I salute those who have striven valiantly, though in vain, to keep NSI afloat.
Perhaps somewhere among the political staffers in the minister’s office at DFATD there are those who today are celebrating the demise of the North-South Institute. But anyone who cares about intellectual and political diversity, and about finding ways to use evidence to solve complex problems about Canada’s place in the world and its relations with developing countries, should today be feeling a deep sense of sadness and shame.