Policy Community

A Look at Think Tanks in the Philippines

by Herman Joseph S. Kraft

Think tanks have always been seen as being important to the policy-making process in any country. In the Philippines, at least since 1986 (that is, since the overthrow of the Marcos regime), this has become increasingly true. Two noticeable developments have been the emergence of new institutes, both inside and outside government, directly engaged in policy-support activities, and the increased integration of research institutes into the formal policy-making process. An even more interesting outgrowth of the post-Marcos years has been the strong involvement of Philippine advocacy and cause-oriented groups, each with its own research and policy agendas in policy-relevant issues not only in the Philippines, but also throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The contribution of these groups to the policy-making process has been largely indirect, but nevertheless important in terms of influence.

Think tanks in the Philippines could be generally categorized in terms of their linkages with the national government. Several were set up by the Philippine government for the specific purpose of providing research input into the policy-making process. Some of the most important of these were established during the Marcos period, including the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) and the Development Academy of the Philippines (DAP). Both were established with the help of an endowment fund provided by the government, and both started out as government "corporations" that were intended to service the more specialized research needs of agencies. PIDS, for example, is an economic research institute; it has always been closely affiliated with the National Economic and Development Authority, the country's economic planning bureau. DAP, though not strictly affiliated with any one government agency, has been more involved in the development of programs designed to address the specific training and research needs of the government bureaucracy in general, and of specific agencies in particular. What is important about both PIDS and DAP is that they exemplified the focus on domestic policy concerns of the Marcos years. Since 1986, several government think tanks have emerged whose policy focus is more concerned with the environment outside the country. Among the most widely recognized of these are the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute (CIRSS-FSI) and the Office for Strategic and Special Studies of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP-OSSS). Both CIRSS and OSSS have been actively involved in discussions on questions of national security policy, and in international forums on the security of the Asia-Pacific region.

Nongovernment Think Tanks to the Fore

It is, however, the emergence of nongovernment think tanks that has been most significant in the post-Marcos years. It must be made clear that nongovernment think tanks existed even when Marcos was president of the Philippines. They were, however, largely marginalized from the policy-making process, partly because of the centralized nature of the regime, but mostly because most of these institutes and groups refrained from participating. A few of them prospered and continued into the post-Marcos period by becoming more directly involved in trying to influence policy. The Center for Research and Communications (CRC) was a prominent example. Many, however, especially those ideologically inclined, have continued to adhere to an anti-government, anti-establishment agenda and have completely dissociated themselves from the formal policy process. They have instead become active in providing the research requirements of protest movements and solidarity networks across the Asia-Pacific region. New research organizations, however, have emerged in the post-Marcos era of increasing cooperation between government and nongovernment institutes. Among these, the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies (ISDS), established in 1991 by a group of academics at the University of the Philippines, has fast become one of the most important think tanks in the country. ISDS has since become the Philippine affiliate institute at the ASEAN Institutes of Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS), and in this capacity has contributed directly to Philippine foreign and defense policy discussions.

Even as the cases of the Armed Forces' OSSS and the Foreign Service Institute's CIRSS illustrate the increasing recognition of the value of think tanks within government circles, CRC and ISDS specifically illustrate the growing contribution of nongovernment think tanks to the policy process. Whereas the Marcos regime had relied primarily on inputs from government agencies, enhanced interaction between government and nongovernment institutes in the discussion of policy-relevant issues became the norm after 1986. The government has made direct efforts to involve these groups in the policy-making process. Meetings have been held on significant issues in which think tanks have been asked to send representatives to participate in discussions. A clear example of this is the series of Cluster E (the executive branch committee responsible for political and security affairs) meetings on the Mischief (Panganiban) Reef issue that involved representative experts from different think tanks and organizations. Several of these organizations have been asked to enter into formal consultancy arrangements with government agencies to provide nonpartisan views and recommendations on policy issues. Equally important are the organization of conferences and dialogues co-sponsored and jointly organized by government agencies and nongovernment think tanks.

Government think tanks such as the DAP, PIDS, and increasingly CIRSS-FSI and the Armed Forces' OSSS have organized meetings on policy issues ranging from domestic agriculture to international security concerns. What is most interesting today is the increasing support by the national government to meetings organized by nongovernment think tanks. The initiative of ISDS for a series of international meetings on the South China Sea territorial dispute is an important example of this development.

Different Approaches to the Asian Financial Crisis

Understandably, think tank activity in the Philippines has been focused on the Asian financial crisis since 1997. Although the Philippines appears to be weathering the storm better than some of its neighbors, the effects of the crisis remain a key policy concern for the government. PIDS, CRC, and other institutions such as the Philippine Center for Policy Studies (PCPS)-an organization formed by a group of economists and political scientists at the University of the Philippines-have organized different activities on the issue, including the organization of seminars and workshops and the publication of policy papers. Business-sector-oriented groups such as the Romulo Foundation have been pushing the government to take the initiative on the establishment of closer coordinative mechanisms among Southeast Asian countries to contain the effects of the crisis while continuing efforts toward trade liberalization within the region. The emphasis on the financial crisis and its effects on the Philippine economy, however, have brought about a spillover effect to precisely this question of economic liberalization. Several NGOs in the Philippines, some of which are behaving as the idea generators and research banks of the protest movement in the country, have been very active in networking activities with groups in the Asia Pacific region that have an anti-trade liberalization bent. They have been especially key in opposition to the government policy of support for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Distinct incongruities exist on the approach to the crisis taken by more mainstream think tanks versus that of institutes and organizations that are more oriented along an ideological, anti-establishment line.

Human Rights

Another area in which Philippine think tanks have been making a strong impression within the region is on the issue of human rights. The liberal democratic regime in the Philippines has allowed groups in the country to take the lead in human rights advocacy in the region. ISDS has been the principal institute organizing the ASEAN Colloquium on Human Rights, a dialogue mechanism under the auspices of ASEAN-ISIS. This conference series has become an annual forum that brings together scholars and officials in Southeast Asia to discuss the issue of human rights in the region.

More strident organizations have also been involved in pushing the issue. The Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor (APCET), which was initiated by Philippine NGOs, has become a region-wide support network for human rights. Its initial focus on the issue of East Timor has now expanded to include other human rights concerns in the region such as Myanmar and, more recently, Malaysia. These groups also remain critical of human rights conditions in the Philippines. The Initiative for International Dialogue (IID), the group behind APCET, has questioned the motives behind President Joseph Estrada's pronouncements on the Malaysian government's treatment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

The issue on human rights illustrates the crystallization of two parallel trends in think tank activity in the Philippines. In general, the development of think tanks both inside and outside government that are dedicated to influencing government policies on key issue areas has contributed to the vicissitude of voices and ideas that have become part of the policy process. However, even though many of these organizations are dedicated to working with the government, nongovernment think tank activities supportive of opposition toward the policies of the national government are on the rise. This parallel development serves to emphasize the inadequacy of more mainstream think tank efforts in addressing the need for critical forums in the policy-making process. These alternative NGO activities represent concerns and interests that have been largely marginalized in the existing socio-economic structure. Consequently, these groups have sought to build constituencies that can question conventional practices and beliefs and present alternatives to official government positions. These efforts therefore tend to be deliberately critical of government policies, and seek courses of action designed to change the existing order. What is interesting is the degree to which these groups have been supported by ideologically like-minded institutions in Japan and Europe, and even by philanthropic organizations in the United States. Clearly, the latter see in these groups and their activities the potential for increasing the process of democratization and the emergence of civil societies in Asia-Pacific countries.

The Rise of Anti-establishment Organizations

The continuing presence and strength of these "anti-establishment" organizations and activities raise an important issue: the degree to which think tank activities will continue to influence the policy-making process. Clearly, an assumption exists that think tanks can help open up both the content and context of the government's policy concerns, making these ostensibly more sensitive to the needs and concerns of the people and the varied communities in the country. Instead, however, most mainstream think tanks have provided a venue only for selected groups and communities to participate in the policy-making process. The idea of inclusivity is based less on allowing marginalized groups to raise issues they feel are reflective of their concerns than on the idea of broadening discussions of those issues raised primarily by state elites.

Having said this, what needs to be done to further the relevance of think tanks in the Philippines? Clearly, the interaction between government and nongovernment groups has progressed since 1986. The participation of think tanks in the policy-making process has expanded the extent to which government has been able to tap into the concerns of the people. The importance of their contribution cannot be underestimated. That protest groups and think tanks associated with them continue to gain influence even outside the Philippines should be seen not as a weakness, but rather as an indicator of the increasing growth of civil society in the country. On the other hand, the presence of this alternative set of voices should not be taken for granted. The need for the improvement of dialogue between these groups and the government-difficult though that may be-is clear. The increased collaboration among nongovernment actors has been an important aspect of community-building not only in the Philippines, but throughout the East Asian region.

Think tanks in the country, whether mainstream or anti-establishment, have always tried to convey new understandings of policy issues. It is good that the government should continue to have this view of think tanks. If anything, government should welcome an even more open exchange of ideas with think tanks-including anti-establishment ones. This can only benefit the institutional development of think tanks in the Philippines and the enrichment of the policy-making process in the country today.

Herman Joseph F. Kraft is a researcher at the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies, in Quezon City, the Philippines.

Copyright (c) National Institute for Research Advancement (NIRA)