News that Fred Bergsten, founding director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, will step down at the end 2012, after 30 years of service, will unleash many accolades related to his accomplishments in creating what is widely regarded as the leading think tank in the field of international economics. Many people will note the Institute’s remarkable influence on the policy process, and with good reason.
A less well-known but important part of Fred’s legacy is his role in helping to launch the Center for Global Development. When Ed Scott, CGD’s founding chair, came to Washington in 2000 looking for ways to have an impact on solving what was then called the third world debt crisis, Fred was among the people Ed sought out for advice. Fred and others suggested that he talk to me and soon the three of us were hatching plans for a new think tank – what is today the Center for Global Development.
In November, 2001, CGD opened temporary offices in the Massachusetts Avenue building of what was then called the Institute for International Economics. We spent almost six months at IIE before moving to our own premises in a building next door. This early association to IIE helped me recruit straightaway the first crop of best-in-class senior fellows. Fred worked with me to set up a memorable launch event in the beautiful conference room at IIE, and together we sponsored several major joint events there in our first year – which without a doubt helped put CGD on the map in Washington and beyond. The first CGD book, on debt relief, was a joint publication, which I co-authored with Peterson senior fellow John Williamson. Sometimes I think Fred has more ideas and convening power than he alone can effectively exploit; his enthusiasm and generosity were a huge help to me in getting CGD off to a strong start.
More importantly, I imbibed much about Fred’s think tank model: a small organization (a dozen fellows), with a single shared mission and expertise, grounded in original and solid research, reflected in evidence-based accessible publications, with a point – namely better policy and practice. The Peterson Institute’s DNA is reflected in our weekly no-holds-barred staff luncheon seminars, a bureaucracy-light administrative structure, and a devotion to saying the right thing in the right time at the right place. Today the two organizations are about the same size, with about 50 staff and an annual budget of roughly $10 million.
I picked up from Fred the benefits of bragging about my colleagues’ work and influence – not only to raise money but to advance our agenda. Fred is better than I am at raising money – no surprise to those of you who know him -- I have to rely far more on my excellent colleagues on that score. And he is better than anybody I know at spotting the policy question that needs research now because it is bound to be on the global agenda later.
There continue to be important synergies between our organizations, especially where macro and micro so often meet in the emerging market economies – for example with Peterson likely to be “watching” the IMF while we are “watching” the World Bank and the regional development banks. We also have a history of employing senior fellows with joint appointments (Kim Elliott, Bill Cline, Arvind Subramanian). And we even have a quasi-legal tie: the bylaws of our two organizations stipulate that the president of CGD serves ex officio on Peterson’s board and the director of Peterson ex officio on CGD’s board.
Luckily for me personally Fred will stay on at the Peterson Institute as senior fellow. I count on him to help me ensure the ties between our two organizations remain strong. Still I am going to miss having Fred as my counterpart at Peterson. This is my reminder to him that I hope he won’t be shy (not really a worry) about continuing to keep me on my toes from his new perch.