Understanding think-tanks and their role in Turkmenistan

You asked, we answered. Here are your questions regarding think tanks and their work. Plus, we tell you about Progres Foundation, the Turkmen think tank, and why we do what we do.

What is a “think tank”?

A think tank is an analytical hub of knowledgeable experts who offer guidance and ideas concerning particular social or economic issues to the government and broader society. Today, there are more than 11,000 think tanks around the world according to the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, which examined public policy research organizations around the world until 2021. Majority of these think tanks are based in the USA, China and India.

Progres Foundation is a non-profit think tank that provides public education and develops evidence-based research and analysis concerning topics such as social, economic, cultural, digital, and environmental policies in Turkmenistan.

Why are think tanks important?

The number of think tanks has dramatically increased throughout the 20th century as the world has become more complex with globalization and technological progresses. Think tanks are essential to understand the intricacies of geopolitics (wars), high-end technologies (AI and semiconductors), public health (pandemics) and social inequality (racism). They provide nuanced understanding of such topics and help the government and the public make informed decisions.

Progres Foundation promotes non-violent communication, strategic planning and solidarity that is based on diversity of thought and respectful participation. At Progres Foundation we believe that complex policy challenges facing Turkmenistan can be resolved through evidence-based research, innovative ideas, and active and constructive engagement of the public, private and social sectors. We do not merely pinpoint the existing challenges in the Turkmen society but also lay out clear and actionable steps to resolving these issues in a sustainable manner taking the best interest of the country and the people into account.

What do think tanks produce?

Think tanks provide knowledge, expertise, and analysis to society by developing and promoting an open access to data, and transparent research and publications.

Progres Foundation produces reports, policy briefs, topical summaries, explainers, and other publications to communicate our findings and recommendations, and to educate and engage with the public. We collaborate both with Turkmen and international experts who specialize in economics, international relations, environment, energy, healthcare, technology, and more.

Who uses the reports produced by think tanks and why?

The analytical reports produced by think tanks provide in-depth insights and analysis on important yet often overlooked subjects to both the general public and the government. They can be easily accessed in easy-to-understand language through think tank websites or social media channels. Individuals ranging from 11th grade students to district mayors can peruse these reports, potentially learning something new on issues affecting them directly.

While it is difficult to know the extent of our reach with certainty, the work produced by Progres Foundation is regularly used by Turkmen readers, news outlets, international organizations, foreign and national governments. We strive to influence public policy and public discourse in Turkmenistan by providing data-driven information and tailored recommendations to address complex challenges facing the Turkmen society.

How are think tanks funded?

Think tank operations are usually funded by individual or institutional donors and government grants. Depending on their set up and the funding sources, think tanks might take an ideological angle (e.g. when funded by a political party) or maintain an objective/neutral approach.

Progres Foundation is not affiliated with any political party, movement or government. It does not receive funding from the government of Turkmenistan. Its major funding sources are international organizations, foundations and individual donors. You can learn more and support our work by donating here.

Are there think tanks in Turkmenistan?

Most think tanks are new in Central Asia. According to the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, there are 94 think tanks in the region with the largest number in Kazakhstan (43) followed by Kyrgyzstan (29), Uzbekistan (13) and Tajikistan (9). However, Turkmenistan was omitted possibly due to lack of of think tanks in general. Given the absence of a comprehensive centralized repository of all think tanks, some may not have been accounted for in the report.

Central Asia boasts several influential government-backed think tanks, including the Economic Research Institute in Kazakhstan, the Center for Social and Economic Research in Kyrgyzstan, the Center for Economic Research in Uzbekistan, and the Free Market Centre in Tajikistan. These research institutions provide valuable insights to their respective governments across a spectrum of issues, from fostering economic growth and alleviating poverty to addressing governance and security concerns.

Non-government think tanks in Central Asia include PaperLab, Central Asian Policy Studies and Zertteu Research Institute in Kazakhstan and Crossroads Central Asia, Esimde and Central Asia Barometer based in Kyrgyzstan.

In Turkmenistan, the activities of non-governmental organizations and nonprofits face severe restrictions, both legally (the Law on Public Associations adopted in 2003 sets unnecessary obstacles to establishing NGOs) and operationally. The government maintains a monopoly on research and development. To our knowledge, there are no independent think tanks inside the country. The Science Academy and the Technology Center, though not officially referred to as think tanks, serve a similar purpose as they conduct research and develop state programs of scientific and technological development. However, their findings are not always easily and openly accessible to the public.

Given the difficulties to register and operate a think tank inside the country, Progres Foundation is based outside of Turkmenistan. Nonetheless, we bring a Turkmen perspective while taking into account international dynamics. Our researchers, mostly from Turkmenistan and with experience of studying and living abroad, blend these perspectives to give tailored insights. We prioritize the well-being of Turkmen people in our analysis and recommendations.

Challenges and Opportunities for Turkmen think tanks

In Turkmenistan, the emergence and operation of of think tanks is hindered by the following major factors:

Political constraints: the political environment in Turkmenistan is tightly controlled where freedom of expression and dissent is limited. Think tanks may face restrictions on the topics they can research or discuss openly, leading to self-censorship and the avoidance of sensitive subjects to avoid government scrutiny or backlash.

Limited financial and human resources: government grants are one of the largest funding sources for many think tanks around the world which are not available in Turkmenistan. Donors and foreign aid funds are the only sources of funding for think tanks focused on Turkmenistan. Meanwhile, very few donors work on Turkmenistan.

Another challenge is recruiting skilled and experienced staff who are committed to research and analytical writing on Turkmenistan. Potential candidates may shy away due to the fear of harassment or reprisal, seeing this area as politically sensitive.

Access to credible data: Turkmenistan has limited transparency in sharing information, making it difficult for think tanks to access credible data for their research and analysis. This lack of data can hinder the depth and accuracy of their reports and policy recommendations.

Limited civic engagement: there are limited avenues for public engagement and collaboration due to restrictions on civil society activities in Turkmenistan. Think tanks cannot gather diverse opinions or connect with many people, which affects the usefulness and credibility of their research. The ongoing internet blockade by the government and development of the national Internet not connected to the global Internet makes this issue even worse.

Navigating these challenges requires fostering partnerships with Turkmen diaspora abroad, utilizing the remaining not-yet-blocked online channels to disseminate information, obtaining data from social media and focusing on less contentious topics while gradually expanding the scope of research. Advocating for more openness in data sharing and engaging with international researchers and policymakers could help mitigate some of these challenges.

How can the Turkmen government work with think tanks?

The geopolitical landscape in Central Asia is in flux, presenting both uncertainties and possibilities for Turkmenistan’s development. Think tanks can help the government analyze these geopolitical shifts, offer insights and strategic foresight to navigate potential implications on Turkmenistan’s socio-political and economic spheres.

Here are a few specific examples where the government of Turkmenistan could benefit from collaboration with think tanks:

  • The accession of Turkmenistan to the World Trade Organization presents both challenges and opportunities of globalization for Turkmenistan. Think tanks can help analyze the impact of global and regional integration on local industries and devise policy frameworks that align with the nation’s interests.
  • The country’s unsustainable reliance on its hydrocarbons is juxtaposed against the global conversation around long-term transition towards renewable energy. Think tanks can foster discussion on diversification strategies and sustainable energy models offering pathways for Turkmenistan’s economic resilience.
  • Global warming poses a critical challenge to the economy of Turkmenistan. Think tanks can digest the research on the regional implications of climate change and offer policy recommendations to mitigate its adverse effects on agriculture, water resources, human health and overall ecological stability.
  • Turkmen think tanks can play a significant role in advocating for gender equality, recognizing its importance in fostering inclusive and just development and positively transforming the relationships that bind us all together as a society.
  • With a growing population in Turkmenistan, there is a pressing need for comprehensive strategies in various sectors, including education, healthcare, and employment. Think tanks can serve as think-and-do tanks, by generating ideas and partnering with governmental and non-governmental bodies to implement pragmatic solutions tailored to the evolving needs of Turkmen society.

At Progres Foundation we aim to decode, deconstruct these complexities and to provide actionable insights and strategies that can propel Turkmenistan toward a more resilient, progressive and prosperous future. If you share this vision, continue reading and engaging with our content, fund our research and collaborate with us to produce visionary writing.

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