Ten years later a much larger group of friends, from across a much larger Europe, comes together in Istanbul to discuss the lessons of the past decade (1999-2009) and how new ideas might shape the next decade of Europe’s evolution (2009-2019).
We come together in a colourful building full of modern art, which reflects both the diverse composition of our staff and our eclectic approach to research methodologies, but built solidly on Byzantine foundations, in the heart of the old town.
Our first debate is, not surprisingly, on Turkey: how much have things really changed in the largest EU candidate country during the past decade? And what is likely to happen in the coming years?
Nigar Goksel (Turkey), ESI senior analyst for Turkey and the Caucasus, moderates and watches as Amberin Zaman (Turkey), correspondent of the Economist and columnist in Taraf, explains what it was like to work in Turkey’s South East as a journalist in the mid 1990s … and how much has changed since then. In fact, dramatic change is continuing as we meet, she notes, refering to the most recent legal changes affecting military and civilian courts …
Barcin Yinanc (Turkey), editor in chief of Hurriyet Daily News(previously Turkish Daily News) explains why she, too, is an optimist concerning developments in her country … and why she is both a strong believer in EU soft power and in the power of Turkish civil society, including women’s organisations.
Our next debate is on the new contested neigbourhood and the Southern Caucasus. What is the likely future of EU – Russia rivalry and/or cooperation in this region? Does the EU have any soft power here?
… while the co-author of one of the most interesting recent texts on the EU and its neighbourhood, Nicu Popescu (Moldova), explains the dangers should Europe continue to pay too little attention to its Eastern neighbourhood. Keti Tsikhelashvili (Georgia), presenting ESI’s ongoing research in Georgia, agrees. There and then the idea is also born for ESI to establish a program looking at Moldova sometime in 2010. Of course, first funding must be found, but such details cannot spoil the visionary mood …
Hungry for new ideas the group moves a few steps down the road to have lunch, overlooking Topkapi Palace and the Golden Horn: here you see your Rumeli Observer (Austria), Rakel Dink (Turkey), Minna Jarvenpaa (Finland), Eggert Hardten (Germany), Marcus Cox (Australia) and Emanuela del Re (Italy) discussing the future of the world over Kebab.
After lunch Verena Knaus (Austria), ESI senior analyst based in Kosovo, talks about the EU and Kosovo, a topic of inexhaustible complexity, while ….
… ESI friend Arbi Mazniku (Albania) listens and recovers from an intense national election campaign in Albania.
Here Kristof Bender (Austria) and Alex Stiglmayer (Germany) listen carefully as Besa Shahini (Kosovo/Canada) explains the European future of the Balkans and what ESI should do about it …
The last discussion is about the future and impact of think tanks. Jordi Vaquer (Spain), director of Cidob in Barcelona, explains the plans of the Spanish EU presidency, the outlook of the policy elite in Madrid, and the possible role of think tanks in influencing the Spanish policy debate.
Kristof (Austria), Goran Buldioski (Macedonia), director of the OSI Think Tank Fund based in Budapest, and your Rumeli Observer listen, wondering why Spanish foreign policy is so peculiar.
When all is said about Turkey, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the role of think tanks participants gather for a group picture in the garden of the conference venue, next to a sculpture which expresses well the complex nature of EU foreign policy ….
At this stage a happy Rumeli Observer realises that with the ideas generated by this one day of brainstorming another two dozen ESI reports could be written. At least …!
The next agenda item is continued debate, now focusing on the Istanbul urban experience, and furious networking, this time on a boat: here Alida Vracic (Bosnia), Marcus Cox (Australia), Kristof Bender, Piotr Zalewski (Poland), Yana Zabanova (Russia), Engjellushe Morina (Kosovo) and Gerda Vogl (Austria) contemplate an uncertain future.
Once these new questions have been exhaustively discussed, some can no longer sit still …
… and start moving uncontrollably to the rythm of Turkish music…
This continues until the CD-player breaks down and serious conversation about the state of Europe becomes possible again, this time in Rumeli Hisari …
… overlooking the narrowest point of the Bosporus. Over some food, raki and wine new plans are hatched, networks are woven and conspiracies developed which future historians of ideas will find hard to disentangle …
… until, at the end of the day, even the most energetic members of the ESI family are exhausted, including Yana Zabanova (Russia) …
… Robin Gosejohann (Germany), who used to run ESI’s administration from Istanbul and is now project manager at Erste Stiftung in Vienna, Besa Shahini (Kosovo) and the youngest ESI analyst of them all, all dreaming of an even more democratic and self-confident Europe in 2019.
Boris Marte, Chairman of Erste Foundation, one of ESI’s largest donors
This is a time of reckoning. As one year draws to a close and another one rears its head donors of think tanks want to know what has actually been achieved in the period that has passed. So the end of the year is always also a time for writing donor reports.
Perhaps such reports are read with more anxiety at a time like this. Wider developments remind people of the fragility of all institutions. A colleague recently told me about institutional troubles at two of Turkey’s best known think tanks, Asam in Ankara and Tesev in Istanbul. Indeed: if world companies such as Citibank, Fortis and Ford can get into real trouble, if even international foundations, art galleries and museums around the world are shaken to the core by the effects of a financial crisis, one is reminded of the fact that few human institutions are built for ever.
The economic crisis has even hit Rumeli Hisari already, my mahala on the European side of Istanbul. A few days ago I wrote that my favourite spot in 2008 was a certain cafe on the shores of the Bosporus. Then I noticed that since the beginning of this year my cafe has ceased to exist. Now its furniture and lots of personal memories have been packed away into lorries. This is not a crisis, of course, except for this Observer. It was not even a very old cafe. But it is hardly the only institution that will meet this fate in the coming months, so I see it as an omen.
On the other hand: the good news for ESI is that it remains very much alive. We are looking forward to celebrate our 10th anniversary as an institution in June 2009. And we have facts to prove our vitality to donors: here is the life of a European think tank, reduced to a few numbers:
ESI is bigger than ever. At the beginning of the new year, we have 25 researchers and supporting staff, most of them full time.
ESI is more spread out than ever. Our staff is dispersed across 10 countries in Europe, from London to Baku.
ESI is more international than ever. Our team holds the following passports: Albanian, American, Armenian, Australian, Austrian, Azeri, British, French, Georgian, German, Greek, Kosovar, Polish and Turkish.
2008 has been an exiting year: Gerald and Chris filming in Rome (April 2008)
If you are a subscriber to the ESI newsletter, you are today one of 29,500. This compares to 12,000 in 2006.
Of course, none of these numbers are spectacular; and you certainly learn more about ESI by reading any one of the 61 reports or discussion papers on our website than by numbers like these. There are many other think tanks in Europe (and in the US) which are much bigger and much more visible in the public debate. But at least we can claim that, as ESI approaches its 10th anniversary, it is – cautiously – growing in its outreach. Under today’s conditions that is not little.
How about the output of this page, the Rumeli Observer?
In 2008 I posted 20 new articles, missing my ambitious target of one article a week on average by quite a margin.
On the other hand, I wrote no less than 31 articles which, for now, remain in the category “drafts”: in Paris, where I spent a month in the Marais in February (When Heads Role); in Sofia, where I went three times in 2008 working on a film (Are Bulgarians Happy?); in Athens, interviewing Greek intellectuals trying to find out how much Greece has changed in the past decade (The two faces of Greece); in Sweden, where I travelled for two weeks during the summer (A Swedish Saint); and most recently in Pristina, where I spent a week in December to see how things were going (Stuck).
I will try to edit and post these articles in the coming weeks.
I will also try to be more productive this year.
That is another New Year’s resolution. Hold me to it, before the next reckoning, which will certainly come … at the latest 12 months from now.
I assume most everybody who finds his or her way to this website will have read one of my favourite books: The Tipping Point by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. If you have not, do. If you have, and liked it, consider getting the latest book by the same author: Outliers – the Story of Success. I just finished reading it and it is fabulously inspiring.
Of course, there is something ironic about recommending an author such as Gladwell: it is as if, for a moment, one steps into the world of his books and performs one of the roles that he explains there: to contribute to another “social epidemic”. And since many people do this, the outcome is, indeed, epidemic (see a recent article in the Guardian, In Praise of Malcom Gladwell). But this is not hype: any praise for Gladwell’s work is fully deserved.
In his first book Gladwell sets out what he calls the rules of social epidemics. The basic idea: ideas, products and messages spread like viruses. Any epidemic has a tipping point, when it spreads exponentially. So do ideas. Certain individuals – connectors, mavens and salesmen – play a key role in this. Mavens are people who collect information, who read newspapers and magazines obsessively, who share news: information brokers, data banks, people who provide messages. Connectors spread messages. Connectors are those who have a very large and diverse circle of acquaintances: people who know lots of people, who have a foot in many different worlds and can thus bring these worlds together. Salesmen persuade people who remain unconvinced of what they are hearing. As Gladwell describes a salesman: “it’s energy, it’s enthusiasm, it’s charm, it’s likability.”
One of my favourite passages from Gladwell’s first book – which I have used many times during ESI capacity building seminars, trying to explain how we at ESI think about our own writing – is taken from the US TV series Sesame Street. It seeks to explain a concept dear to anyone engaged in the business of producing stories for a (hopefully) large audience: “stickiness”.
The makers of Sesame Street succeeded in making their TV series for children ‘sticky”: their insight was that if you can hold the attention of children, they can be educated. They went about this systematically: devising tests such as running shows on TV screens while giving young children toys to play with. Children were quite sophisticated when to turn away from their toys to watch the screen and when to ignore the show: “they looked at what were for them the most informative parts of the program.”
The head of research for Sesame street then developed what he called a distractor: playing one episode of the show on one TV and running a slide show on another. When would children turn from the TV and watch the slide show? What episodes would hold children’s attention? Often the difference between a message that is sticky – and thus likely to turn into a social epidemic through the efforts of mavens, connectors and salesmen – and one that is not sticky consists in small but critical adjustments. People did not like it when two or three people talked at the same time. Etc:
“The Distractor showed that no single segment of the Sesame street format should go beyond four minutes, and that three minutes was probably optimal. He forced the producers to simplify dialogue and abandon certain techniques they had taken from adult television.”
(This is also a central idea in ESI’s writing: whenever something can be explained in a more simple way, do it. If we can find a simple word instead of a complex one, use it. Cut out any superfluous sentences. Insert no table whose message cannot be grasped at one glance – a rule most international organisations seem to delight in breaking. Make a report sticky. We call this internally our “Ahtisaari test”: every report should be written in such a way that when we get it to Martti Ahtisaari – a very busy man who nonetheless appreciates our work and is interested in the issues we care about – he should never get bored. Thus, no report must be longer than 30 pages, no discussion paper longer than 10. The few times we broke this rule we paid a price, and even well-researched reports failed to have any impact).
Gladwell’s writing can be applied to many different situations. In fact, his own success is an almost perfect illustration of his theory: his messages are certainly sticky. People who read a lot – like myself – feel compelled to recommend him. And when he appears on television, he radiates optimism and enthusiasm and draws attention (a perfect salesman).
So this is what happened to me: I had set up my own distractor in my hotel room in Boston, working on my laptop to prepare a presentation on the Balkans for the Kennedy School, with the hotel TV on in the background. Occasionally I paid attention to the program (CNN). Until Gladwell appeared and talked about his new book to Anderson Cooper. Then I stopped working on my presentation.
Now, three days later, I can still recall what Gladwell and Cooper talked about. The 10,000 hour rule. The fact that it therefore takes ten years of practice to be very good at anything. That this was as much true for Mozart as it was for the Beatles. That when we think about success as individual achievement – admiring a genius and a self-made man/woman – we miss what is essential about the social opportunities that any outlier (exceptionally successful) person requires. As Gladwell puts it: “When outliers become outliers it is not only just because of their own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances.”
So the inevitable happens: two days later, now back in NY, I buy the book. I start and read it almost in one go. And now I spread the news. Get the book! And then let me know what you think!
If you need one more push to be convinced, let me give you one more example from Gladwell’s book: a test undertaken by psychologist K. Naders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music. The school’s violinists were all divided into three groups: the stars, students with the potential to become world class; the merely good; and those unlikely ever to play professionally, preparing instead to become music teachers in public schools. Then all were asked how many hours they had practiced in their youth. The finding was striking:
“… by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours. … once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.” (p. 39)
To reach ten thousand hours of practice, however, is almost impossible if you are all by yourself as a young adult. It requires support and encouragement. Families, or societies, where this support is widespread will produce many more people who can turn innate ability into top performance. Without support, even a high IQ or an inherited talent will not be sufficient.
I immediately think of the Kosovo villages we have researched in Cutting the Lifeline (and which appear in our Kosovo film): how many of the young there, in particular how many of the young women, get anything remotely resembling the support they need to develop their talents? How many young women do so in Eastern Turkey? Does the “Matthew effect” Gladwell refers to (“unto everyone that hath shall be given”) not also hold for 2nd generation Turkish migrants in Berlin? And the story of the NY garment industry and who it generated skills useful in financial markets within one generation: does it not fit perfectly into our analysis of textile towns in the Balkans? A good book leadsto countless further ideas …
However, there is one additional lesson from the Tipping point: remember, “no sequence of Sesame street” should be longer than 3 minutes. Perhaps this is a good lesson also for this blog? To read more … come back soon.
PS: And if you want to get more information about Gladwell go to www.gladwell.com.
For the past seven years I have come to Brussels every few weeks. These trips are all similar: walking between the buildings which surround Schuman square, the Charlemagne (home to DG enlargement), Justus Lipsius (home to the European Council), the Berlaymont (the refurbished headquarter of the Commission) and the Residence Palace (home to the European Policy Centre, EPC, and to many NGOs and international media); entering various cubicle offices, spending time between meetings in the Greek cafe behind Charlemagne, giving power point presentations.
This three-day trip (Monday to Thursday) was no different. However, having promised to describe how a think tank works in practice let me share the impressions of these days: an ordinary week in the life of a peddler of ideas.
I came to Brussels to give a briefing to Coweb (see below); to participate in a brainstorming organised by the European Policy Centre, an NGO; to meet EU officials to find out more about policy towards Turkey and the Balkans; to set up meetings with Olli Rehn and Javier Solana; and to work with Alex, my Brussels-based colleague, on the upcoming – and likely controversial – ESI report on the German debate on Turkey.
Presenting, brainstorming, persuading, interviewing, drafting: this is the bread and butter of a think-tanker.
Coweb and the Balkan Ghetto
Coweb is a group where representatives of the 27-EU member states come together to discuss and harmonise policies towards the Western Balkans. Officials meet once a week in the Justus Lipsius building, currently decorated with photographs of Slovenia. Meetings are chaired by the country holding the EU presidency, currently Slovenia.
I had been invited to Coweb before; in fact, this was my sixth presentation since 2001. The goal this time was make a case for progress towards visa-free travel for citizens of the Western Balkans. It is a cause which Slovenian officials want to see advance during their presidency. It is also one which ESI has pushed for some years. Now it looked like there was momentum for a real breakthrough.
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament had published an opinion in October 2007 where it had used harsh words to describe the “draconian visa regime” imposed by the EU on the Western Balkans:
“Rather than serving its original purpose, notably that of preventing local criminal networks from extending their activities outside the region, it has prevented honest students, academics, researchers and businessmen from developing close contacts with partners in the EU countries. A sense of isolation, of undeserved discrimination, of ghettoisation has prevailed, particularly amongst the youngest, which has undermined their European identity. Europe is a prosperous society to which they would like to belong but from which they feel rejected.”
The text goes on to “question the very foundations of the visa policy which the Union has hitherto applied towards the countries of south-eastern Europe” and concludes:
“The European Parliament, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs in particular, strongly advocate lifting as soon as technically possible the visa requirements for citizens of the region. In our view this should be a tangible sign that their countries belong to Europe ….”
The European Commission has also become bolder in calling for change. In its enlargement strategy paper in November 2007 it had announced that it wanted to start a dialogue with each country with a view to establishing road-maps defining the precise conditions to be met for lifting the visa requirement.
In a confidential draft of a “Communication on the Western Balkans” (to be published at the end of March), which it had circulated among member states, DG enlargement proposed to begin a dialogue on visa liberalisation with each of the Western Balkan states right away, to conclude these talks by July 2008. These talks were to lead to specific road-maps:
“They will set out benchmarks for the countries to meet requirements in areas such as border management, document security, and the fight against corruption and organised crime … the speed of movement towards visa liberalisation will depend on each country’s progress in fulfilling the benchmarks. … Once the conditions for each country are fulfilled, the Commission will propose to the Council the lifting of the visa obligation for the citizens of the country in question, through amending of Council Regulation 539/2001″
Adopting such a resolution would be an important step forward. However, the proposal remained controversial, both within the Commission and due to opposition from some member states, notably Germany. For these member states even cautious steps forward – such as setting out more clearly what countries in the region needed to do - went too far. Spelling out the conditions in EU conditionality appeared to them too generous a concession.
So what, under these conditions, was the point of my presentation in Coweb? I saw it as providing support for the argument that there was indeed an urgency for the EU to act. We have long argued that it was in the EU’s own interest to give a “tangible sign to the region” that it belonged to Europe. The recent (and not surprising) turn of events in Serbia adds urgency to the message.
I first set out that the Balkans in 2007 was indeed a very different region from the Balkans in 1997, making arguments familiar from ESI reports: that there is no evidence that a country like Bosnia is ”at the centre” of transnational organised crime, as is sometimes argued. That most outsider’s images about anarchy in Albania are outdated. That introducing visa-free travel for Macedonians (2 million people), Montenegrins (600,000), Bosnians (less than 4 million people) or 3 million Albanians was taking a small risk indeed compared to granting it to Romania and Bulgaria in 2001 (which together have some 30 million inhabitants) … and that in the latter cases the importance of this step for their overall (successful) transformation cannot be exaggerated. As Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, founder of the Romanian think tank SAR, once noted:
“It was the lifting of the visa regime rather than the beginning of the accession negotiations that made it possible for the EU to earn the hearts of the citizens of the Eastern Balkans.”
Compare this to the experience of most people in the Western Balkans trying to “reach Europe”: while Albanian citizens could watch the celebrations surrounding the elimination of the Schengen border between Germany and Poland and Austria and Slovenia in December 2007 on their TV screens, they were then told in January 2008 that one of the very few countries in the world to which they could still travel without too many problems – Macedonia – was planning to introduce a tougher visa regime, in the name of preparing itself for the EU! In fact the Western Balkans are today one of the most isolated regions on earth in terms of travel restrictions.
“Finnish citizens can travel to 130 countries without visa (2006). Belgians to 127. Austrians to 125. Hungarians to 101. Romanians to 73. Serbs to 32. Bosnians to 25.”
What signal does this send to the region, to Bosnia 12 years after the end of war, to Serbia 7 years after the fall of Milosevic? Nor will visa faciliation - which entered into force in January 2008 – change the fact that half of all applicants for a visa in Albania in 2006 were in fact rejected and that the process of obtaining a visa remains burdensome and expensive for citizens across the region. For this I could refer to an excellent analysis done by the Tirana-based think-tank Agenda.
At the same time, while some things are better than they appear from the outside, other problems - including the dramatic erosion of EU soft power in Serbia and the unchanged social and economic crisis in Kosovo – are worse than they look.
Few EU policies have done more to undermine the attractiveness of the EU model of society than its visa-policy: both directly (few people from the Western Balkans can actually go and see how EU countries, including new member states, develop) and indirectly (by increasing frustrations and cynicism about the rhetoric of “steady progress towards integration”). The political price for this can be witnessed in Serbia. Unless something is done it is likely to rise across the region. There is also a high economic price: compare the development just in the past few years in two very similar cities, Novi Sad in Northern Serbia and Timisoara in Western Romania; or look at the economic fortunes of two groups of people living next to each other in Central Bosnia (Bosnian Croats, who usually have a Croatian passport and need not aquire a visa to travel, vs. their Bosniac neighbours, who do not). In Central Bosnia most of the businesses are set up by Croats. Having interviewed many of these entrepreneurs it is obvious that their ability to travel freely to Europe is a key to their success.
In conclusion I suggested to put all countries of the Western Balkans on the “white Schengen list” immediately with an asterix (*). The same was done for Romania in 2001. Under this proposal the asterix would indicate that once conditions defined in country-specific road maps were met visa free travel would follow.
This would send a powerful political message at a moment when the EU needs maximum leverage in the region (and risked loosing it). It would support those (in the Commission and among member states) who call for precise roadmaps to be drawn up soon. It would increase the incentives for Western Balkan governments to implement reforms that reduce crime. It would provide civil society in the region with a tool to push their own governments to address specific shortcoming (such as the lack of a credible civil registy in Albania!). It is a win-win proposal which costs little.
The presentation was followed by 30 minutes of comments and questions. There was quite a lively exchange of opinion (which I cannot quote). Overall, however, there was broad support among a majority of member states to do something. There was also resistance from a few others. By the time Alex and myself left Coweb we could hope to have added a small pebble to the pyramide of arguments needed to change opinions on this matter.
A few months ago in Novi Sad (October 2007) ESI had co-organised a brainstorming with think tanks from across the region on how to mount a campaign on the visa issue, bringing together institutions working on this across the region. Now we are getting ready to launch this campaign. Coweb is a good way to start, even if the intellectual and political battle is certain to continue.
People like to talk about their own success, although it is not polite to do so too often, is never a good way to make friends and is often bad manners. Indeed, as the style book of the Economist notes: “Do not be too pleased with yourself”: you are more likely to bore or irritate rather than to impress.
It is much better, then, to be invited to talk about the success of an institution one identifies with: then if one bores or irritates it is not entirely one’s fault. It was a pleasant assignment to travel from Vienna to Budapest in mid December at the invitation of the Central European University to give a presentation about ESI. It seemed like a good idea to go afterwards to some excellent Hungarian restaurant and answer questions from a student who is writing her thesis on ESI. I also owe Central European University a debt: it is thanks to CEU that I am an Open Society Fellow, travel around the world giving presentations for 12 months and maintain this blog. If you read this, and derive any pleasure from it, it is due to CEU.
The sad reality is, however, sometimes different from what one expects. I have rarely enjoyed any of my presentations less than the one I gave in Budapest. This had nothing to do with the hospitality of the CEU, which was excellent (my colleague Kristof and myself were picked up at the train station, the hotel was wonderful), or with the audience, which asked very good questions, or indeed with the city, Budapest, which appears to be getting prettier (and richer) every time I come to visit.
It had to do with my head, where a drum was beating without interruption from the moment we arrived in Keleti station, getting louder as I got up to speak, reaching a crescendo at the moment when it came to questions. By the time one student came up to me after the talk to ask something about Turkey (whether Kayseri was typical or an exception) I could hardly stand any more and was afraid of fainting. I found it hard even to think straight and struggled to answer. The most stressful two months of the year (indeed, it seemed at times, of my whole ESI experience) had preceeded this talk, and a week without much sleep was beginning to take its toll as well. In the end, dinner (without alcohol) became bearable due to a lot of aspirin. What a pity, I thought afterwards.
The irony was that – I assume – few people noticed the state I was in, and that the one reaction I most remember was from the woman writing about ESI: she told me that “it all seems too easy”. Standing there, my head bursting with headache, the first grey hair a legacy of a few stressful months, I almost laughed when I heared this. I could see her point: seen from the outside the story we were telling did appear too easy. But this, I told her, was exactly the point of any success.
Let me digress a little. There is a wonderful line in one of the best films I ever saw about successful story-telling: The Making of Nemo (yes, that Nemo, the clown fish): “it takes a lot of effort to make something look effortless”. In the film this line refers to efforts by a large team of creative people at Pixar to portray fishes moving around, to capture different states of light under water, and to communicate deep emotions, such as the desperation of Dori, the friend of Nemo’s father, and her recurrent amnesia. But it might just as well refer to any ESI product: our reports, our discussion papers, now our documentaries. Sometimes it even refers to public presentations (I rarely sleep much before giving one, however often I do it).
To use another image: I once read somewhere that when a swan swims it is actually a major effort for this animal to move, and that underneath the surface there is a huge invisible exertion, hectic activity by its small feet. This obviously contrasts with what one sees: a silent, proud and unphased bird, the very symbol of elegance. I know nothing about swans, and whether this is true for them, but this picture stuck with me as a metaphor: to look like a swan is not to reveal the enormous effort it takes for something to, well, appear effortless. This is of course a normal feature of much human activity. Let me explain what looking like a swan might mean for a think tank like ESI.
The story we told our audience in Budapest was a deceptively simple one: it is the story seen from the outside. A group of friends sits in Sarajevo in 1999 and discusses the political situation in Bosnia. It then decides to create a virtual organisation and begins to write reports. The group does not have money, it is not even an “institution” in any formal sense for another year. Then the first reports quickly attract attention. The Financial Times, the Economist, Die Welt, write about ESI as a “think tank changing thinking on the Balkans”. One year after the group decided to come into existence it has a staff of four, a bit of funding, and works in Montenegro as well. That same year it receives a call from the NSC (National Security Council) in the White House and is asked to brief Leon Furth, vice-president Al Gore’s National Security Advisor, about developments in Montenegro. Other governments across Europe invite ESI to provide input to their internal policy debates: Sweden, Germany, they UK, Greece. Five years later ESI has a staff of more than 10, and works across the whole Balkans, trying to influence debates on Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and EU policy towards the region.
This early part of the story is told in Budapest by Kristof, who was the very first ESI researcher setting up a field office in 2000 in Podgorica. I tell part II, the story of ESI in Turkey. Two foreigners arrive there in the summer of 2004. We look for some young Turks to join us. We set out to introduce our plans to Turkish institutions. We try to raise funding for research in Turkey. Wherever we turn we notice polite skepticism. Why would 2 foreigners, who do not even speak the language, and three young Turkish analyst, who are unknown in Turkey, possibly have any impact on the European debate on this large and complex country? This is a country of more than 70 million people, Istanbul alone has 20 universities, there are a huge number of media and experts and public intellectuals: why would anybody even notice ESI here? One potential donor we meet is particularly honest about this. After we explain what we intend to do he says: “why should we pay for your education?” The “education” was our field research in Central Anatolia that led to our very first report.
In the end, however, this story has a happy ending. We publish our first report, Islamic Calvinists, in 2005. It explodes on the Turkish media-scene like a fire-work: there are more than twenty op-eds about it in Hurriyet, one of the most read dailies, alone, more than a hundred articles in quality media across Europe and the US. There are discussions of the report on 10 different occasions on Turkish TV. The BBC, PBS from the US, German ARD and other TV stations go to Kayseri and report on Islamic Calvinists. The foreign minister (and now president) declares that “I am an Islamic Calvinist.”
While this debate continues, and we are invited from across the world to speak about our Turkey research (even Chinese media want an interview about Kayseri), we publish a second report: Sex and Power in Turkey. It had taken a few months for the debate on Islamic Calvinists to take off. The reaction to Sex and Power is even more immediate. It is the main topic in an article in the Economist in the week before the 2007 elections. It is discussed favourably in Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the BBC and other media across Europe and the US. Leading Turkish commentators (Alpay, Akyol, Ozel) write about it. We notice a record number of visits to our website: more than 100,000 people download the report in four months. We also notice the interest in other ways, as we receive a large number of invitations to speak about gender and Turkey: in Berlin and Vienna, Baku and Tbilisi, at Yale, in New York and at the Wilson centre in DC. In December 2007 Hurriyet writes another long article about Sex and Power, and in January a long interview about it will be broadcast on CNN Turk: it looks likely that this debate too will continue for a while. This, in a nutshell, is the 3-year story of ESI in Turkey: pick a country, create a small team of young researchers, chose a topic, write a report, send it out, wait for reactions. Any questions?
“I do not believe you, it cannot be so easy” was the reaction of the student who writes about ESI. She is right, of course. As we walk to dinner through wintry Budapest, and as she looks for the “true story” of ESI and our impact, I realise, however, that she might be looking for the “true story” in the wrong place.
Her questions focus on how we disseminate our reports. How do we get people, especially influential people, to read them? What are our networks? As I try to answer, I realise that this is like looking into the telescope from the wrong end. One person at the CEU had asked about our “legitimacy” making public policy recommendations: what gives us the right to recommend policy? It is a good question, but our answer was – I hope – convincing too: it is the simplest thing in the world to ignore us! We offer no money and no votes, there is no reward other than the information contained in the report itself. It is the easiest thing in the world not to read our reports, and if more people decide this we might as well not exist. So the real question is: why do people want to read them?
People do not read ESI reports because they know us. People know ESI because they read our reports. Of course dissemination is easier once one is known, has a website and a newsletter. However, in 1999 nobody knew me, or Kristof, or any other ESI analyst in any European foreign ministry or news room. Certainly nobody in Turkey knew us in 2004 or would have expected us to have anything worthwile or interesting to say. It is not the creation of networks, but the production of reports, which holds the secret of any impact. Dissemination is like eating desert: producing a gripping analysis (or documentary) is like preparing, cooking and digesting the whole rest of a 6 course meal. And it is only because people expect a certain type of menu that they return to this particular restaurant and might even recommend it.
But what is the secret of production? I tell the questioning student (Anna) that in our case it is a very simple principle, adopted in summer 1999, to which we have stuck until today: unless we are convinced that a report is truly excellent, and that we would still like to read it one year later without embarassment, we will not send it out. As a result, at least three people (usually many more) in ESI read every report in great detail. And as a result of this, we are often incredibly slow.
This sounds simple, again, but it has a lot of real life consequences. It explains 90 percent of all negative stress inside ESI. October and November 2007 were terribly stressful and sleepless months because of pressures on us that had all to do with production while upholding this principle.
It means, for instance, that when we receive funding from a donor and are committed to produce a report by a deadline and do not succeed in getting a report to be of the quality we believe is needed, we will not send it out. This then requires an effort of diplomacy, to explain, present excuses, give reasons, win a few more weeks, sometimes months, and in the worse (thankfully very rare) case even to risk a quarrel. What it must never mean is to break our principle and send out a semi-finished product early! In the worst case we even return money (we have done so).
This principle also means that when we put our logo on a product, we must be able to identify with it fully. Now take the case of an ambitious film project, that costs more than 1.2 million Euro, involving one production company, two large TV stations, five directors, another script writer, all working under huge time constraints to produce 10 films that are to be “based on ESI research.” In this real life example from 2007 there is a large number of creative and ambitious people who need to be convinced of our own ideas of quality (in terms of content). This requires intense interaction, and can sometimes lead to tensions and arguments. For everybody in this constellation time is money: for us this is also true, but, if need be, we will simply work longer to ensure we are content with the final output. This is at the heart of our institutional identity.
This core principle also means that what we write often (usually) takes more effort (and time) than we had planned or budgeted for at first. For a consultancy company, where time is literally money, this cannot be its working assumption: it must submit as good a product as possible, but within the time allowed (and paid for). For us, however, meeting our internal standards often requires researching, writing and editing until we are done. As a result, we often fall behind. We use up rare core funding quickly. We face recurrent cash flow problems (about once a year). We then have three (or more) things to finish at the same time, requiring us to work long nights for weeks on end, until that drum in our heads calls upon us to slow down. There were many evenings in November when I would see five ESI analysts on skype working at 11 pm, not once, but every night in the week and on the weekend.
If there is a “secret” to our impact on public debates it lies here, and only here: in our methodology of producing reports and the commitment by a team to work as required. Nobody unwilling to work like this will enjoy being part of our team for long. This methodology has also developed for many years now. In the process we created our own working vocabulary and habits, something we notice every time there is a new staff member. In fact, none of this is a business secret: it can be observed, described and (perhaps) also taught. This is what we try with our capacity building efforts. But it cannot be taught in the abstract, just as a team sport can only be taught by actually playing it. It also requires training: you can read about how to run a marathon as much as you like, in the end you need to put on your running shoes.
It also never gets easier: as we say internally, to get a report read by elites (decision and opinion makers) in any country is like playing football in the Champions League, not for pleasure in the gym: it does not matter what games you won in the past, if you play bad once or twice today you get relegated. And since it is a team sport, it requires a lot of attention to be paid to the whole dynamics of what creates winning teams, again and again. As Katzenbach and Smith describe high-performance teams in their classic (The Wisdom of Teams): “extreme commitment to one another as well as to their team’s purpose and performance, out of which blossoms an incredible ethic of work and fun, complementary and interchangeable skills, shared leadership and dramatic results.” And as they also note: “high performance teams are extremely rare”.
In the end, I am happy I came to Budapest. The questions by Anna, the student writing about ESI, remain in my head. I wonder whether it might not be worthwhile to try to explain in more detail how we actually work in practice: the inside story of a European think-tank. It might be impolite to talk too much about ourselves, but in this case there might even be an interest in our story? Perhaps there are other students fascinated by the idea of think-tanking, interested in this example of an interaction between ideas and policies; students who write papers and reports and wonder what it is that increases the impact of ideas.
Here, then, is my little plan for the new year (and this blog): to tell the inside story of a successful small think tank, in installments. To describe how we actually work, from chosing a topic to editing the final version and presenting it to the wider world. This breaks the rule in the Style guide referred to at the beginning of this entry. But then again: the Economist felt confident enough to sell its style guide to the rest of the world.
I have only one request for you, dear reader, in return. If you are interested in this question, please do let me know, and spare a moment to share your thoughts and questions. I do not know who reads this blog. This creates a funny sense of speaking from a chair on a small stage looking into a dark room. This would make it easier for me to respond to precise questions.
I thought about this question more on my way back from Budapest the next morning, sketching out this and other entries for this Observer. By now I looked forward to Christmas. Until the new year then, and the first installment of Inside a think-tank. Otherwise, may your life in 2008 be like that of a swan!