American University of Beirut

Inclusivity and Think Tanks in the Arab World: What Needs to Change?

​Event Summary

By Jamal Daou and Hiba Jabbour, Interns at IFI

The AUB Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), in partnership with Chatham House (CH), the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP), and BASIC, and with the support of UN Women, organized a webinar titled “Inclusivity and think tanks in the Arab world: What needs to change?” on Thursday, November 4, 2021. The event was an occasion to present and launch the Arabic version of Chatham House’s “Gender, think-tanks, and international affairs: a toolkit”. A practical guide constructed to assist think-tanks and the research community across the Arab world in integrating a gender-based initiative into their structure, staff, and career lifestyle. The toolkit is fundamentally a roadmap to producing knowledge and inclusive policy recommendations. The event is organized in the light of IFI’s research initiative on “Democratizing the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda in the MENA region​”.

In his opening remarks, Joseph Bahout, Director of the Issam Fares Institute, highlighted the importance of the discussion on inclusivity and think tanks in the Arab world, as attached to the greater objective of achieving gender equality, particularly within research institutions and centers in the region. 

“The institute is committed to promoting the toolkit’s guidelines and is honored to partner with the authors of such an inclusive and welcoming initiative. Moving forward, IFI will only host gender balanced panels as well,” Bahout said.
WPS advisor at the UN Women Regional Office for Arab States Aleksandra Dier, shared the excitement of having the inclusive toolkit available in the Arabic language.
“The initiative is part of a wider relationship with UN Women and the promotion of women leadership, inclusion, and peace-building in the region,” Dier said. 

She explained that in a world stricken with violent altercations and crises, there is a need for an inclusive environment that produces cutting edge research and welcomes policy solutions that can directly deliver results. With the number of think tanks increasing in the region, efforts to foster change, development, and inclusion of all peoples is necessary. 

“We are committed to cooperation with research institutes and think tanks in facing these challenges and in hope of leaving none behind… on behalf of UN Women, I would like to thank IFI for organizing this event,” Dier added. 

Following the opening words of Bahout and Dier, the event proceeded with an introduction to the toolkit, which was presented by the toolkit authors: Laura Dunkley, former Research Partnerships and Inclusion Officer at Chatham House; Marissa Conway, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP); and Marion Messmer, Co-Director of BASIC. Presenting the toolkit in its Arab context was Karma Ekmekji, Senior Policy Fellow and Lead Advisor on the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Research Initiative at IFI.

How did the toolkit begin? 
Dunkley explained that the idea came about through a shared frustration, concern, and interest between colleagues at Chatham House to explore the lack of awareness and inclusion in the think tank community. The questions they raised were: What does this mean and what impact does it have? What policy events are taking place, and who is speaking at them? Also internally, who works in a think tank, who has access, and who is being excluded? Who is a think tanker, and is there a particular perception of who that person is or who that person should be?

“We strongly believe that think tanks really have an opportunity to become leaders and drive change across international affairs and beyond that. A change that would be both transformational and equitable if done correctly,” Dunkley said.

Dunkley explained that these thoughts and concerns became the driving force to formulate the toolkit, where the members of Chatham House begun thinking about ways they can challenge gender imbalances within think tanks and address wider discrimination. The outcome was a tangible and practical resource that can become a facilitator for concrete action and change. 

“It is pretty incredible to see that what we have been working on for such a long time is now being picked up around the world and translated to other languages,” Messmer said. “The English language toolkit launched in February 2021, and the reception we have had to the toolkit so far has been absolutely fantastic. We have been impressed and blown away by the willingness of the different institutes around the world that wanted to implement this toolkit.”

Messmer emphasized that institutions could really start from anywhere, stressing that different organizations will evidently have different starting points from the toolkit. Some may have already done significant work on gender, diversity, and inclusion in their organization, whereas for others this might be a completely new conversation. What is important is that while there are a lot of different elements in a toolkit, it can be used in a “modular way,” such that centers and institutes could begin with the elements that most fit with their development journey and move from there.

“If you are a leader of a think tank or a research institute, then the most important first step you can do is to make sure you take the time to hear from everyone from your organization, and to keep coming back to them regularly as you embark on this journey,” Messmer said, highlighting that peer reports can be gathered through surveys, employee forms, or any method of interacting with people and getting their feedback on the work being done.

She continued to stress the importance of individual commitment among staff members, regardless of the position they hold in the institution. The work does not have to be a top to bottom change, but individual efforts to build networks, champion inclusive work, and educating fellow colleagues on the importance of gender inclusion and diversity is a good place to start.
Top tips to the implementation of the toolkit:
  1. ​Involve everyone in the organization to any changes you want to make, because everyone needs to be brought along and be included in different opportunities.
  2. Gender equality is everyone’s responsibility, this means any staff/employee member can be of great help to making a more welcoming and inclusive environment.
  3. Intersectionality – identities do not exist in a vacuum.
  4. It can be a long and challenging road, remain consistent and be persistent. A positive outcome is bound to occur.
  5. Collect data and share practice, it is really easy to underestimate how much other people can learn from you.

In her turn, Conway acknowledged decades and decades of feminist activism that have been accumulated to reach a point where such a toolkit is accessible, and how this project is truly something that stands on the shoulders of giants that came before them. 

“I am so glad that we can be part of that history and make this world a more welcoming and equitable place,” Conway said. 

Following the authors presentation, Ekmekji explained that until this day, Women in the Arab World remain under-represented in research think tanks and research centers. Rarely do these institutions clarify their efforts on promoting inclusivity and gender-based equality when they select women as staff and board members. There are only 14 think tanks that are led, managed, or established by women. In addition, a gender-based equality approach is very limited in our region due to numerous reasons: Lack of finance policies, lack of gender responsive approaches, and inclusivity.

Therefore, she stressed on the need for think tanks to improve their policies and improve their structuring with a gender-based approach for equality in all their levels.

Ekmekji then discussed inclusivity in think tanks in the Arab world, and how this toolkit can be a roadmap, a comprehensive work plan, which any working team in any research institute or think tank can implement very easily. She also stressed on the importance of seeing how the studies made in these institutions can be changed and how a gender-based approach to their research, findings, and publications can be included. She considered that think tanks hold very influential positions in society as they tackle policy issues and matters that relate to international affairs, hence the idea of a top to bottom implementation of the Chatham House’s roadmap would be very beneficial to think tanks that are looking to promote diversity, inclusion, and take on a more gender-based approach at any stage of their inclusive development. Through such an implementation the external aspects of publication, communication, and conducted research will be adequately refined, as well as the internal elements of staffing, conduct, and inclusion will be taken into account when discussing the organization’s structuring and core values.

Ekmekji highlighted the need to account for specific variables in the implementation of inclusion strategies: (1) Contextual concerns, (2) the extent of inclusivity, (3) gender promotions, and (4) the means of research dissemination. A few tips were hence given: (1) Think tanks and the entirety of employees and staff must be involved, (2) intersectionality needs to be accounted for, (3) consistency must be maintained, and (4) information concerning the best practices needs to be accumulated and spread out. 

What are the challenges faced when working on the promotion of gender-based equality?
Following the presentation of the toolkit, a panel discussion was held and hosted Nadim Houry, Executive Director at the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) and Maha Yahya, Director at the Carnegie Middle East Centre. The discussion was moderated by Karma Ekmekji.
After acknowledging the toolkit’s value, Houry underlined the importance of using gender analyses and power structure considerations in identifying challenges and consequently producing relevant knowledge in think tanks. 

He identified the study of social class and background as essential in gender and identity research. When discussing gender equality challenges, the issue of parental leaves also arises. The speaker accordingly proposed the adoption of an intersectional approach in screening the number of male and female staff to better provide them with comprehensive gender-neutral services and benefits. Houry also mentioned another prominent challenge whereby socio-economic backgrounds for women are not taken into consideration. Educational gaps according to which some female researchers did not attend Ivy League institutions compared with their male counterparts fail to consider contextual socio-economic factors. It is hence crucial to grant women a voice while giving them access to participate in decision-making processes and peacebuilding. 

In her turn, Yehya highlighted the prevalence of gender parity and the need to promote employed women while empowering them in the development of their communication skills. The latter would allow them to express concerns more freely. The speaker also explained how research institutions must make unheard voices heard rather than only focusing on the publishing of documents. The prior ought to be coupled with gender-inclusive events that are never restricted to men only. It is hence appropriate to have a gender lens that better frames contextual factors. 

How can cooperation and collaboration among research institutions promote the reach of the toolkit to various institutions?
According to Houry, in order to enlarge the scope of the toolkit, discussions about representation, inclusion, diversity, and gender analysis to promote the creation of gender-based research is vital. The contextualization of a toolkit within a regional framework also allows better implementation of policy recommendations in our area. The toolkit must also be used to carry the voices of marginalized individuals that have been discriminated against based on ethnicity, gender, or race. This should also be coupled with project-appropriate funding through financial donors.
Acknowledging the prevalence of authoritarian rule in Arab communities due to religious laws and norms, alongside other factors, Houry expanded on the need for the promotion of inclusivity in decision-making and education. This would hence leave room for affected communities and local talents to give a more grounded approach and contribute to the number of languages in which a policy paper is published. 
Yehya stressed the importance of open-mindedness in the implementations of any step in the Arab world, as embodied in the toolkit. She also stressed on the need to cater for irreplaceable fundamental Arab values by ensuring representation and presence of women in the meeting. 

How can the toolkit be useful for community-based organizations?
  • Listening to the members of the organization and the community;
  • Being concise and focusing on what is important and useful while leaving out what might be of less importance;
  • Increased focus on fundraising mechanisms that fit different regions and project plans in terms of financing;
  • Starting a conversation on all levels while serving as a reference point for resources and implementation ideas; 
  • Networking and establishing connections through communication;
  • Through reform of education curricula, deconstructing preconceived gender roles whereby a young boy is painted as a hero and a woman is always attributed the role of a housewife;
  • Filling data collection gaps as Arab world research centers and think tanks lack necessary data. 

​(Re)watch the webinar​

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