March 11, 2019

The Tobacconomics Approach to Think Tank Capacity-Building: The ‘Who,’ ‘Where,’ and ‘How’

Last week, we released the first blog in this series about Tobacconomics’ approach to think tank capacity-building describing the “why” and the “what.” This week, we will be discussing our scoping process, and how we found the right partners. In other words, the “who” “where” and “how.”  But first, a bit more about the aims of our project.

Although the project is focused on capacity building, it is decidedly issue-specific: Significant increases in cigarette and other tobacco product taxes are the most effective and cost-effective policy for reducing the death, disease, and economic consequences of tobacco use. Extensive evidence from numerous countries around the world demonstrates that increases in taxes which increase prices lead current users to quit; are particularly effective in preventing uptake among young people; and reduce consumption among continuing users, while at the same time generate substantial increases in tobacco tax revenues.

Despite this evidence, however, policy makers in many countries, and particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), have inadequately addressed the threat tobacco poses to health and development. In many LMICs, cigarettes continue to become more affordable over time, and the share of excise tax in retail price of tobacco products in many countries is far below the WHO recommended level of 70%. Concerns about economic consequences from tax increases are often fueled by tobacco industry rhetoric.

At the same time, there is an under‐appreciation of the economic costs of tobacco use and the economic benefits that result from reduced tobacco use and increase tobacco tax revenues. Furthermore, while the above context is accepted in the public health community, it is often still incorrectly contested in economic policy circles. For this reason, our team set out to support the efforts of economic and fiscal policy think tanks in LMICs to establish evidence-based tobacco tax systems. The overall scoping effort—how we found those partners—is detailed below:

Step One—The Where: Before finding the right partners, we needed to narrow down the countries and regions in which we would work. At the outset, we focused on LMICs, and as partners of the Bloomberg Initiative To Reduce Tobacco Use, we steered toward the ten Bloomberg Initiative priority countries—Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, The Philippines, Ukraine, and Vietnam—all countries with high numbers and percentages of tobacco users. However, there were other factors we considered in narrowing the field, including: the health and economic burden from tobacco use; lack of local evidence on tobacco taxation and influence of the tobacco industry in the country; and thus, the need for evidence to counter the arguments and misinformation of the industry. With this rationale, our team decided to scope for suitable partners in four different regions: South Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Southeastern Europe.

Step Two—The How: Each region was assigned a ‘Site Lead,’ who would be the Lead Economist for each partnership within his/her region. The Site Leads on our team have extensive knowledge of the region in which s/he works; and in most cases it is their land of origin. As noted by Datta et al, this is often an asset in understanding the local context and cultural sensitivities at play in the capacity building relationship. Along with the Site Lead, the Director and Deputy Director of the project also joined in the process. Short-listed think tanks were evaluated on the criteria of motivation, capacity, impact, and independence.

 Motivation: Although most of the potential partners had not previously worked on the economics of tobacco control, it was essential that the partners displayed an interest in not only the research, but also integration into the knowledge to policy process of tobacco tax reform. Motivation is probably the most important criteria for success in a grant relationship, yet, it can often be the most difficult to assess—especially in cross-cultural situations. Motivation is key because ultimately, the most productive and sustainable partnerships are those that are mutually beneficial.

With this in mind, our team employed several strategies to deal with this challenge, including: involving multiple members of the team in the scoping and interview process; traveling to each site to observe the institution and its researchers in action; embedding extra time and a separate proposal phase into the pre-contract period; and clearly communicating the capacity building and policy driven nature of the partnership. We also decided to partner with multiple institutions within the same country to diversify partnership risk. These strategies required higher investments of human and financial resources as well as time, with the aim of finding the right partners at the outset. Though not fool proof, going into the next two-year grant period, we have been able to continue partnerships with over half of the initial partners as we expand to new partnerships with four other institutions. Taking on more partners in the initial phase has allowed us to approach the second grant phase with more focus on the sustainability of existing partnerships.

Capacity: We also wanted to work with think tanks which had sufficient organizational capacity and accountability mechanisms in place, especially since the grant funds were restricted to the research and dissemination activities. Thus, previous experience working with international organizations was an advantage. Other capacity indicators we looked for were economic researchers in the organization with previous publications in scientific journals, and communications capacity within the organization to ensure the research was translated into briefings and key messages which could reach the intended audiences.

Impact. Next, we evaluated whether the organization’s research had an impact on policy processes, indirectly measured through media coverage of the research, policy changes subsequent to the research, participation of researchers on economic advisory panels, awards and other formal recognition of research, etc. We appreciated the fact that often, it is difficult to trace ‘policy impact,’ especially of researchers, whose role is more behind the scenes in generating objective evidence rather than advocacy. We understood that, more often than not, it ‘takes a village’ to move policy in any given country and research is only one component of an array of stakeholders necessary to create better tobacco tax policies. However, we were also cognizant of the fact that tax policy in many countries is devised by technocrats who rely on and respect quality and locally-generated evidence.

Independence. Finally, it was absolutely necessary that any potential partner be vetted for tobacco industry influence and affiliation. This line in the sand made our job exponentially harder given the tobacco industry has long funded think tanks to produce misinformation on tobacco in general, and specifically to counter tobacco tax increases, which directly affect the industry’s profitability.

Step Three—The Who: After several months of discussion, partnerships with think tanks were established through grant agreements. In all, the Tobacconomics team developed the capacity of 22 think tanks to conduct research on discrete topics in tobacco economics through grants with nine institutions in four countries: Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh; and two regional networks: Latin America and Southeastern Europe. Their work is featured on the Tobacconomics website and the majority of these partners are continuing to research new topics in tobacco taxation. A few of these groups have even begun additional research through projects funded by other donors, which is a great sign of sustainability and a great plus for tobacco control!

Stay tuned for next week’s blog, where we will dive deeper into our research process and discuss how we identified evidence gaps and research needs, delivered technical assistance and training to our partners, and worked to ensure quality research and timely delivery.

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