by Hasan Altaf
In a city like DC, the think tank circuit does a roaring trade in “developing countries,” their problems, and an endless list of ways to solve those problems and take those countries, to use the easy dichotomy of think tanks, from developing to developed. The hottest commodity on the market, lately, the dream subject of international development, is Pakistan. It has become the perfect laboratory for think tank experiments, a veritable Petri dish of everything that could go wrong and every possible way to imagine a solution; rarely does a week go by without a presentation or, at least, a visiting expert.
Recently, I went to one such presentation at a respected think tank in DC. It was raining, and people straggled in one by one, shucking off their overcoats and placing their umbrellas carefully under their chairs. The room filled up with suits and briefcases as the interns ran sound checks. The atmosphere, as the audience milled around waiting for the presentation to start, was so far removed from what we were there to hear about that it felt almost theatrical. It’s hard to tell, in such circumstances, whether you are part of the show or simply there to applaud – or, perhaps, both.
My usual instinct, out of not so much cynicism as sadness, is to avoid these events, and I had forgotten that their real purpose is never the one stated. The presentation is an afterthought, a sweetener. The real point is the social gathering, the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes. It was fascinating to watch the not-so-idle chitchat as people ran into old friends and found new ones, to overhear the experts trading war stories from their time “in the field.” People discovered friends or colleagues in common, experiences they had shared, times they had just barely missed each other. In a way, it was heartwarming. This world, of international development and the research that surrounds it, is a small one, and people stick together.
Somehow, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. It felt as though the last century had disappeared and that all of a sudden we were back in the olden days. Coffee and bagels have replaced the gin and tonic, we have lunch meetings instead of chhota pegs and rounds of polo, and we wear business casual instead of whatever they wore back then, but the spirit of the thing is the same. These are safe spaces, as far as possible from the noise and the mess, for the agents of civilization – and, now, the native elites – to discuss and fix problems that are oceans away, to alter the courses of lives that are not their own.
When the presentation starts, when the expert speaks, it’s usually hard to argue with them. Who would question the idea that a country like Pakistan needs more schools, better teachers? Who would fight against more hospitals, more nurses, more security, stronger democracy? And the experts present their case so well, too. The PowerPoints are minimalist and non-distracting, organized bullet points with a few charts and graphs; everything is clear and easy to follow. We nod and smile and clap and feel hopeful. We ask the right questions, afterwards, and feel we have done some good. This time will be different. This time is always different.
And this is what strikes me as the real danger of these things. The problem isn’t what they say – it’s where they say it, how they say it. In the lecture rooms of a think tank, in a classroom at a university, over Starbucks in DC or London or Geneva, the diagnoses and recommendations make perfect sense. But once you take them out of the lecture hall, out into the world, the magic disappears. The sparkle doesn’t survive. We are left with books that look good on our bookshelves, that we can cite to increase both our credibility and theirs, to further the conversation.
The conversation is with ourselves. Think tanks, even more than the colonial clubs they have replaced, exist in an echo chamber, cut off from the world that they attempt to fix and the problems that they have made their business. Which is not to say they do nothing: They do a great deal. In the most benighted corner of the “developing world,” I am sure you would be able to find one excellent school with a great teacher, a miracle-working doctor in a well-stocked hospital, a working sewage system – and behind it there might be, somewhere, a think tank or an NGO.
The math, though, is hopelessly against them. For every success story, there are thousands of failures, and the overall systems are failing. The solutions that come out of think tanks treat symptoms, not diseases – which is fine, but if you treat symptoms long enough, and well enough, eventually your patient will believe that he is no longer sick. And the doctor will be convinced that he himself has performed the cure.
A country like Pakistan is full of problems – that we can all agree on. And those problems must be solved. But I can’t believe the solutions will come out of think tanks, at least as they are now. Think about it this way: We built a house, without a foundation, out of the most flimsy and flammable materials we could find, and then stocked it with gunpowder. Every time I go to one of these talks, it sounds like I am being told to walk softly and carry a fire extinguisher. Maybe I’ll follow that advice and maybe I won’t, but the house is still a danger.
If there is failure here, in the gap between excellent theories and miserable practice, it’s a failure of something like translation, and of vision, and of understanding. The think tanks fail to understand, for one thing, that something like “education in Pakistan” cannot be solved piecemeal. (If, under the best of circumstances, they educated a million more children, what jobs would those educated children perform? And what does “education” mean? How can “education in Pakistan” be fixed by more schools and better teachers, if part of the problem is what they’re teaching?) This is the treating of symptoms, a kind of cosmetic surgery that makes the sick man look healthy again while leaving him rotting from the inside.
What the rest of us fail to understand is that, like politicians whose main goal is reelection, the real project of think tanks is think tanks. “Developing countries” and their problems are useful, as objects of study, but the end project is the institution itself. Their primary responsibility is their own existence, their own relevance, and their own reputations – and “developing countries” are not the ones who judge them. They sit before a jury of their own peers. As do the rest of us, too. If the education system fails in Pakistan, it won’t be the think tanks that get blamed, and it won’t be their fault. It will be ours, and we will, hopefully, be held responsible.
When that particular talk was over, I picked up my umbrella and followed the crowd heading out into the rain, streaming back to offices at the World Bank, the aid agencies, the NGOs, with new papers in their briefcases and new contacts in their BlackBerrys. I didn’t feel particularly hopeful, and I can’t believe that they did, either. These people with their PowerPoints will not save us. It would be ridiculous for us to expect them to. Something important is missing from this equation, and neither the think tanks nor the countries that are think-tanked are providing that. Until that missing ingredient is found, that last step taken, each is basically talking to itself. Both, though, seem fine with that.