THE new government recently replaced the director-general of the country’s premier strategic think-tank, the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (ISSI), with the intention of rebuilding the organisation.
The fact that the former director-general was given 15 minutes notice led to a great hue and cry and even to suggestions that this might have happened at the behest of the Americans. Notwithstanding the need for restructuring the institute, the method employed to oust the director-general was a bad idea for three reasons.
First, it encouraged conspiracy theorists to suggest that nothing happens in Pakistan without orders from Washington. Some opportunists had the audacity to lump this dismissal and the appointment of the director-general, Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), together. One commentator even suggested that these two instances were examples of American influence on Islamabad. The writer did not even bother to check his facts. The incoming director-general, PBC, was never a permanent employee of the Voice of America. Nor did he ever get favourable treatment for his pro-democracy views from the Voice of America management due to the strong pro-Pakistani establishment lobby inside the American organisation.
Second, the dismissal established a bad precedence which, in turn, will make any new head of the institute nervous that his/her survival was subject to the pleasure of the political bosses. This strategy is detrimental to promoting professionalism which the ISSI badly requires.
Third, it would not give the dismissed director-general an opportunity to evaluate her own work or lack of performance in not making the institute what it deserved to be: an excellent think-tank with the capacity to carry out objective analyses. In the past eight years or so, the institute had merely become a showpiece and propaganda machine that only employed youngsters without direction or research staff resembling deadwood.
The entire issue of restructuring the ISSI raises the larger question of the need to restructure public-sector research institutes. For years, Islamabad has spent many resources on maintaining a number of research institutes that have served little purpose other than to provide employment and to say what the establishment wished to hear. It is not just an issue of putting the ISSI in order but all Islamabad-based research institutes which have not produced credible research.
Research is a technical field that requires input in terms of information and theoretical knowledge. The fact of the matter is that there is hardly anyone in any of these think-tanks who is trained in research methodology. As a result, we have produced substandard research. The ISSI and its sister institute the Institute of Regional Studies have become employment exchanges for fresh graduates who are not trained in research methodology or encouraged to produce work worth looking at.
The first thing that the government must try to get rid of is the involvement of the intelligence agencies in giving clearance to researchers. An environment in which the Intelligence Bureau or the Inter-Services Intelligence has to give security clearance to researchers does not produce credible work. There have been instances in the past when clearance was withheld or withdrawn from employees for questioning the logic of the head of the institute. Of course, the reason given in such cases was that the interaction of some researchers with foreign diplomats jeopardised national security.
It is important to note that neither of the two institutes have access to classified information. Currently, the main source of input includes Pakistani and foreign newspapers, journals and books that are accessible to all — unless Pakistan’s intelligence agencies think that people outside do not read at all. Researchers would have to meet foreigners including diplomats to access information that could go into their research product.
The most important thing that these organisations need is a fair amount of independence for the research staff so that the end-result is output-based institutions and not bureaucratic ones where people have no option but to produce poor quality work. It ought to be realised that research institutes are meant to provide input for decisions and not to take decisions. So, research has to be objective and critical at the same time.
One cannot expect these think-tanks to start producing results with a change at the top. There are four suggestions which one would like to offer for restructuring these organisations. First, the think-tanks must bring established academics on board as research associates or put them on the research board. In fact, known names, irrespective of what side of the ideological divide they belong to, should be brought in to improve the credibility of the organisations. Pakistan and its leadership should develop confidence in their country and should not think that differences of opinion would jeopardise the country’s security. As it is, Pakistan can boast of very few established names in academia that have an international standing.
Second, younger researchers or permanent employees should be taught research methodology and instructed on developing expertise in specific areas rather than be rewarded for their PR skills.
Third, researchers must be given an opportunity to visit other countries to conduct fieldwork and to talk to experts. The final product should be reviewed by established academics inside or outside Pakistan. In fact, researchers must be encouraged to publish their work in refereed journals outside. This would contribute tremendously towards improving the quality of their research and writing skills.
Finally, the management of the institutes and that of research should be separated. Such separation will ensure that the research staff is treated with greater respect than the managerial staff and not expected to run errands for the heads of organisations as is the culture in the think-tanks under discussion. Moreover, like in all good international think-tanks, a research council should be formed to discuss new ideas and events every week with emphasis on on-going research.
Needless to say, Pakistan badly needs good research institutes that are not simply used as government mouthpieces. The diplomatic corps and political establishment are large enough to undertake this task. These are organisations which were established to conduct analyses that could later be factored into decision-making.
Currently, Pakistan lacks the capacity to explain itself to the world because it has a poor research base. This is not just about the world being deliberately unkind to Pakistan but the absence of institutional mechanisms through which the country and the government could prove that the ability to think and introspect is very much there. Restructuring these research institutes would be a small but much-needed move in this direction.
The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.
Source: Daily Dawn, 30/5/2008