Economics flourishing
Discovery
Nov 29, 2023

Fostering Discoveries: The Impact of the Economics and Human Flourishing Research Fund

A groundbreaking summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia helped make strides toward the goal of advancing human flourishing by supporting economic research.

By Templeton Staff

A groundbreaking new summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia helped make strides toward the goal of advancing human flourishing by supporting economic research. 

The 2023 Freedom’s Champions’ Summit, sponsored by the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) and facilitated by Atlas Network’s Innovation Lab, gathered 22 researchers from 11 countries (Vietnam, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia), and 13 different think tank organizations. 

The group spent the day working to improve research capabilities in the region, identify opportunities for collaboration, and create new research talent pipelines.

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Inspired by the vision of TWCF’s founder, Sir John Templeton, the EHF has supported groundbreaking research in economics and related disciplines for the last three years. 

“Sir John Templeton believed that fair and effective competition of ideas and in markets, combined with personal freedom, would lead to progress,” says Michael Bloom, Principal Advisor at TWCF. “He believed it was one of the best ways to alleviate poverty. He believed that people should be able to have their voices heard, he believed in freedom, democracy, human rights, and choice.” 

The EHF aims to identify grantees in historically underfunded regions, such as Southeast Asia and Latin America. 

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Bloom says. He points to India, which has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the workplace for any large economy, as an important region to study. The country still has many laws on the books that limit where and how women can work, and women are required to be closely supervised by male managers. Now those laws are beginning to change, Bloom says — but at different rates across the country. One of the organizations that TWCF supports is tracking those changes along with things like life satisfaction and wellbeing

“It’s an amazing natural experiment,” Bloom says. “What they're probably going to show is that when you change these laws, the economy flourishes and family life improves. But there are also countless real stories of people whose lives are being impacted along the way.” The EHF is dedicated to making sure those populations aren’t ignored. 

The EHF uses a special approach to finding grantees in historically underfunded regions. “We find our ‘Champions’ first,” explains Tracey Farquharson, Senior Program Officer at TWCF. “These are people who live and work in those regions of the world, and who are already well-known researchers or NGO leaders with deep networks.” 

Those Champions then help the EHF identify up-and-coming grantees. TWCF President, Andrew Serazin, pioneered this champion process. Bloom and Farquharson say the fund has supported more than two dozen such projects so far, by researchers TWCF likely would have never found it on its own. 

The September summit brought together Champions, existing grantees, and potential future participants. Their research topics included dismantling barriers to women’s employment, liberalizing public transport systems, studying the relationship between land ownership and intergenerational wealth, exploring the connection between open trade and public health, and understanding the benefits and challenges of embracing free-market principles in particular countries. 

“We had a great mix of individuals,” Farquharson says. “Our goal was always to have participants take ownership of the conversation and see themselves as the movers and shakers of whatever type of community emerged.” She and Bloom agree that the day was incredibly successful in this regard. 

“For a lot of them, it was one of the first opportunities to meet like-minded researchers from other regions,” Bloom says. “They just had the opportunity to really come together and share a lot of good ideas. The level of enthusiasm and excitement in the room was incredible.”

Bloom recalled one example of important idea sharing at the summit. Many participants work in countries where economic statistics are spotty or unreliable due to a lack of government transparency. Summit participants discussed their workarounds for tracking economic development. 

“One group pointed out that you could look at satellite imagery of the nighttime sky and track which areas were getting more lit up over time,” Bloom says. “That makes a good surrogate measure for economic development, because it shows the population is growing and business is increasing. Other groups looked at that and realized they could potentially do the same thing in their regions. Everyone really seemed to share freely and to get a lot out of it.”

“Attendees really took the initiative to identify opportunities to help one another,” Farquharson says. 

Grantees say they’ll be using the connections made at the summit to foster new research initiatives. “It is very helpful to know people who work in other Asian think tanks personally. Once you have been in touch, it becomes easier to reach out, discuss certain challenges, or sound out opportunities to cooperate,” says TWCF grantee Rainer Heufers, the co-founder and former Executive Director of the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia. Heufers’ grant aims to understand how the transition from domestic to international trade in developing markets impacts gender, labor markets, environment, income and public health. 

The event also helped attract new potential grantees.

“Unlike other conferences, this particular one gathered freedom champions in Asia. This is rare because most classical liberal conferences have a Western focus for a Western audience,” says summit participant Bryan Cheang, Founder of the Adam Smith Center, Singapore's first and only pro-market organization, and a Research Fellow at King's College London. Cheang, who is not yet an EHF grantee, says he met a potential contributor for one of his ongoing projects at the summit. He now plans to apply for funding from TWCF for future work. 

The group identified nine strategies to foster collaboration across the region, from enhancing the linkages between think tanks and universities to exploring the development of externships and exchange programs. 

“We accomplished so much in the span of a day,” says Farquharson. “The participants really had to drill down and coalesce around the initiatives they identified as being most important. It was great to see them take ownership of those issues.”

Rainer says that he and his fellow summit alums are already starting to work on seeing the initiatives through, and plan to meet virtually to maintain momentum. 

Bloom hopes to make more in-person events happen, too. 

“It’s great that we’re all more connected digitally,” he said, “But I think this event shows there’s still a lot of value in breaking bread together.”