The think tank: An endangered species in Turkey
As a former think-tanker, I already knew that a think tank is more precious in Turkey than snow on the Sahara. But I could not compare the country to peers until I got a hold of the University of Pennsylvania’s 2012 Global Go-To Think Tank Report.
Among the G-20, only Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have less think tanks than Turkey. You could argue that most G-20 members are more populous and larger economies, and so I divided overall and per capita gross domestic product as well as population by the number of think tanks in each country. Turkey ranked fourth from last in each instance.
You could also argue that most G-20 countries are developed economies with firm traditions of democracy and civil society, and so comparing Turkey with that group would not be fair. However, with 27 think tanks, Turkey ranks 51st globally. Worse still, only three or four of these institutions work on economic policy. Luckily, those few are doing an excellent job.
Bahçeşehir University’s Betam recently celebrated its fifth anniversary by publishing a selected collection of its research notes. The book’s title, “Growth and Structural Problems in the Turkish Economy,” hugely understates the variety of the studies inside. The seven chapters cover growth, exports and the exchange rate, the labor market, education, women’s labor force participation, political economy and the environment.
Anyone who has been following the Turkish economy, or been reading my columns for that matter, would know that these are key issues. In fact, a rough count revealed that I referred to Betam in around 10 percent of my columns during the past year – if we had a less ambitious central bank that didn’t need explaining, that figure would probably have been much higher. I am grateful to Betam for making my job much easier.
But a think tank is considered successful if it has policy, not columnist, impact. Unfortunately, none of the Turkish think tanks fare well in this regard. This is because real reform is costly. The ruling Justice and Development Party still lacks the political will for economic reform despite having been in power for more than a decade. For example, the government’s plan for severance pay reform was similar to Betam’s, but the issue got shelved when unions vehemently opposed it.
At the Q&A session following his presentation at the book’s launch, Betam director Seyfettin Gürsel answered a question I get whenever I write about lack of reforms. What happens if these reforms are not implemented? Is Turkey going to end up with another major crisis? I agree with Gürsel that those days are over, but the country will be stuck with a low growth rate.
Gürsel argued that Turkey had in fact entered a low-growth path after 2005. The global crisis prevented us from seeing this shift, as the economy almost did not grow in 2008, contracted nearly 5 percent in 2009 and then grew around 9 percent for the next two years. If he is right, last year’s 2.2 percent may be the rule rather than the exception.