A Different Year for European Think-tanks

The Year 2004 was Marked by Two Inaugural Events
All of us have been in contact with ideas of freedom years or decades ago; and we have embraced them whole-heartedly. But once people get these ideas, how do they go about developing them? In particular, how do they put them into action? And what is the point of fostering good ideas if you can communicate them to no one?
The past year was exceptional for European free-market institutes. It was marked by two new significant events that aimed precisely at providing the keys to answer such questions: the first meeting of the European Resource Bank, held in Borovets, Bulgaria, and the first European think-tank school, organized in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The idea of a Resource Bank is simple: to gather individuals who share the same values and goals, and to exchange with them experiences and ideas. For, indeed, the “ultimate resource” available in order to bring wealth and peace to this world is made of those individuals who are attached to the principles of property and responsibility and are anxious to implement them.
Hence about 80 individuals from 20 countries and around 30 think tanks and institutes of all sorts met in Borovets, Bulgaria, on October 29-30th. Among representatives from the “old” and younger think-tanks were those from the new ones presenting their brand or sometimes just a desire to start NGO activity. To this list must be added individuals who came to the meeting to share their particularly rich experience, such as Mart Laar, Barun Mitra, Hans Labohm, and Milen Veltchev. (More information can be accessed at www.rbeurope.org).
One may wonder whether it is not an old-fashioned idea to meet physically while it is so cheap nowadays to communicate through the Internet or cell phones. Why should busy people spare several days to join a conference in a remote place of the Bulgarian Rila Mountains?
The event in Borovets largely confirmed there were a number of compelling reasons for that. One way to put it is by referring to F. von Hayek’s distinction between tacit and scientific knowledge: on the web you can get the “scientific knowledge” – knowledge about new policies implemented here and there, knowledge of arguments designed to oppose silly policies, knowledge about good books, about history – you name it.
During a Resource Bank meeting people get the “tacit knowledge” – knowledge about individuals, about how to present an argument, about the intensity of some fears or convictions, about what issues, according to colleagues, should receive priority… plus an array of other things that you will never find in a book or on the net. Both types of knowledge are complementary and necessary to be successful in one’s institute or project.
Another way to put it is that, surprisingly, a Resource Bank meeting saves time and money! True, travelling costs both time and money, but surfing the internet or writing to friends for information is also costly at least in terms of time, and this is reason why people sometimes postpone the search… indefinitely! In Borovets, on the contrary, everyone came to share information – in a way, it was freely available!
But that is not all! When people go to a Resource Bank meeting, they have to expect some surprise. Looking on the Internet or in a book for a piece of information known to be available somewhere is one thing, but making a true discovery is something different. It is the kind of thing which is common in a Resource Bank…
The second event was organised by the Lithuanian Free Market Institute (LFMI). LFMI originated the idea to hold the first European think-tank school from the need that the institute as well as many of its partners had experienced during more than ten years of work, the need to deepen the knowledge, and to improve the skills, of think tanks and their staff.
In Europe and in the United States one can find many books and manuals about the management and fundraising of non-profit organizations, among which public policy institutes belong. However, during various meetings and events leaders and staff members of non-profits continuously point to a lack of practical knowledge and experience as well as a lack of time to acquire such know-how.
Due to intense activities of think-tanks and peculiarities of non-profit activity (voluntary work), members of non-profit organizations lack time to take long theoretical courses that educational establishments offer, while consultancy services are for many unaffordable.
These assumptions urged LFMI to offer a unique form of exchanging practical knowledge among public policy institutes, a think-tank school. The first think-tank school in EU member-states was organized on November 11-14 in the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius. This was a several-day seminar during which representatives of think-tanks taught one another drawing on their own experience and practice.
Topics for the seminar had been offered and announced in advance. At the seminar these topics were introduced by organizations that are prominent and acknowledged leaders in the given areas. This form of sharing experience was not only effective in terms of time costs. More importantly, it allowed representatives of think-tanks to better familiarise with their counterparts and provided a possibility for a more effective cooperation.
The first think-tank school brought together twenty-two representatives of various public policy institutes from twelve countries. Participants were selected based on their needs to enhance skills and their possibilities to share experience. The invitees included not only public policy institutes from the EU member states and acceding countries but also representatives of neighbouring countries. This was meant to create conditions to share more diverse experience and to advance cooperation among think-tanks in a broader region. The first think-tank school gathered together mainly leaders of public policy institutes.
A smooth course of the seminar, coverage of all planned topics and active participation of the representatives of public policy institutes in the discussions made it possible to achieve the objectives of the project. The participants acquired new knowledge about think-tank activities from various organizations and countries, and the chosen form of training and exchange of know-how fully justified itself.
Alberto Mingardi from the Bruno Leoni Institute, Italy, who was among the seminar participants and speakers, said about the school: “Among the many events organized for advancing cooperation among free market think tanks, the think tank school stands alone as far as quality is concerned. It was very exciting to stay in a group of people highly determined to change the world for the better, and eager about improving the quality of their work in shaping the public opinion. If some others can follow your path, all over Europe, perhaps our battle is not lost.”
The participants of the first think-tank school not only supported the LFMI‘s initiative to hold more think-tank schools in the future. They also announced their plans to hold such events themselves.