Thoughts on think tanks
The author is the head of the Center for American Studies at the Sejong Institute.
Controversy over donations to the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and the former chair Yoon Mee-hyang is growing. The case reminds me of the donation culture in the United States. The superpower has many things that other countries do not have, and one of the notable characteristics is think tanks. The think tanks and the policy ecosystem from them create a system unique to the United States. The American think tanks make a system that only exists in the United States because of its unique operation. Most think tanks in the United States are funded by donations.
Of course, there are think tanks in Korea as well. The Korea Institute for Defense Analyses and the Korea Institute for National Unification are think tanks funded by the government. The Sejong Institute, where I am employed, and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies are private organizations. Private think tanks are operated differently from the ones funded by the government as they run on the funding they raise as well as donations from key benefactors.
In the United States, many think tanks raise operation funds through various channels. Of course, there may be a major donation from a philanthropic foundation. But as time goes, most organizations generate their own funds, and this is the characteristic of the United States.
Countless foundations in the United States support various projects according to their founding visions. These projects are for public purposes that are hard to be provided appropriately when left to the private sector.
Think tanks are only one of the examples of many projects for public interest. Projects for the underprivileged people, environmental issues, arts and culture have high value and social contribution, but the market does not produce enough. So they have to rely solely on the funding from foundations and citizens supporting the cause. Donations, foundations and public projects are closely tied.
When I was invited to a meeting, I received the least expensive flight ticket. It is very exceptional for organizations relying on donations to provide business-class tickets. After the meeting, the host explained that the dinner menu was restricted to be $30 per person, and alcoholic beverages could not be purchase with donations, so those who wished to drink beer or wine should pay their tabs.
The meeting budget was 50 million won ($40,000), but every dollar has to be included in the expense, so even a 50-cent beer could not be included. No one complained. Everyone agreed that the funding should not be used for entertainment.
In the United States, there is a social consensus that a greater responsibility comes with money not earned but given by others. Based on the social consensus and trust, donations are actively made. Organizations offer various public goods through donations. NGOs relying on donations strictly and transparently release their accounting books.
To create and maintain the good cycle of donation and production of public goods, there are responsibilities that everyone needs to keep. I am envious that that’s one of the reasons America runs well.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 21, Page 33