Economic and Social Development in the Middle East

One key component of my research agenda focuses on the roots of distinct economic and social development trajectories in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This line of research builds on some of my previous work, notably a book and a chapter on the political economy of development in the Middle East, and aims to generate insights for social science debates on development pathways in post-colonial contexts. At present, I am working with Gabriel Koehler-Derrick on a paper that aims to explain variation in social investment and development in the non-oil economies of the MENA region and with Gabriel Koehler-Derrick and Allison Hartnett on another paper that focuses on distinct economic development trajectories in the region. I am also in the preliminary stages of research for a new book manuscript that examines how distinct approaches to managing ethnoreligious diversity in the colonial and post-independence periods shaped welfare regimes in the Middle East. In addition to archival sources, a key component of the data for the book and associated article-length manuscript is the MENAHDA database.


The Middle East/North Africa Historical Data Archive (MENAHDA)

(with Gabriel Koehler-Derrick)

The Middle East/North Africa Historical Data Archive (MENAHDA) is a major data collection effort that I have launched with Gabriel Koehler-Derrick with technical support from the Institute For Quantitative Social Science at Harvard and with participation from Allison Hartnett. Hosted on Dataverse, the website and companion database will be a permanent online repository for the tables of more than 1,000 statistical yearbooks from the MENA region, which were published by the Ottoman state, European colonial powers and post-independence governments in more than sixteen countries in the region. These publications report a wide range of statistics at the national and sub-national levels, such as monthly temperature and precipitation data, price indices for key commodities, national and municipal budgets, census figures, public infrastructure, and agricultural statistics, to name a few examples. When data collection is complete, the MENAHDA will become publicly accessible to promote research by and collaboration among scholars around the world.


Resource Wealth and Private Sector Development in the Middle East

(With Ishac Diwan)

In this paper, Ishac Diwan and I investigate the incentives of autocratic rulers in oil-producing countries to support private sector development. In particular, we argue that the size of oil rents per capita has an important effect on ruler support for the rule of law, respect for private property rights, and other factors that promote private investment. However, the effect is not linear, but instead resembles a U-curve: Only in countries with middle levels of per capita oil wealth would we expect the state to repress the private sector. At both low and high levels of oil wealth, autocrats interested in regime preservation would support and promote the private sector. Descriptive analyses of governance measures in Arab oil producers offer empirical support for these propositions. These arguments and findings contradict some of the key claims in the resource curse literature but also differ from opposing arguments that offer historically grounded explanations for political and economic development among oil exporters. While our framework aims to present a systematic, incentive-based account of variation in private sector development among oil producers, we acknowledge that arguments based on historical specificities are needed to explain why some countries, and not others, are able to become large per capita oil producers when oil is first discovered.


 The Politics of Service Delivery: The Lebanon Facility-Level Study (FLS)

(With Aytuğ Şaşmaz, Carmel Salhi, Lara Jirmanus, and Pierre Zalloua)

In many developing countries, welfare regimes are characterized by a hybrid mix of public and private providers, particularly in the context of declining or underdeveloped public welfare functions. In these settings, a diverse array of non-state actors – such as for-profit and not-for-profit groups; local, national and international actors; formal and informal organizations; and groups affiliated with different political, ethnic, religious and/or regional movements – are important sources of basic social services. How well do diverse types of public and non-state providers supply social services? Do some organizations exhibit a “welfare advantage,” or a demonstrated superiority in the quality of social services? How, if at all, do individual and community-level social identities, political characteristics, and social ties affect the quality of and access to social services at welfare agencies run by different types of providers? What then are the implications of non-state provision for well-being in the communities where such providers operate?

Building on my prior work on non-state service provision, this project assesses the quality of primary health care provision by diverse charitable public and non-state providers in Lebanon. The primary health sector is an appropriate arena for examining whether different types of organizations exhibit a welfare advantage because many non-state providers are involved in the delivery of medical services, access to health care is important to well-being, and the provision of health care, like other social services, can intersect with politics in both direct and indirect ways. Data collection for the project, which took place during spring and summer 2017, was carried out at 69 randomly selected, nationally representative health centers in the primary health care network of the Ministry of Public Health in Lebanon. Six different modes of data collection were carried out at each center, including a chief medical officer survey, a physician general survey, a physician medical knowledge test, direct observation of clinical examinations, patient exit interviews, and administrative data collection. Data collection for this project was supported by the Emirates Leadership Initiative at the Middle East Initiative of the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School and was coordinated by Sawsan Allam, the project manager for the research. The pre-analysis plan registering the hypotheses for the experimental components of the project was pre-registered at EGAP and is available here.

At present, I am working on two separate streams of scholarly papers based on this research. The first, co-authored with Aytuğ Şaşmaz, address debates in the social sciences. First, in conversation with the literature on diversity and public goods provision, we analyze the effects of social and political identities at the individual and community levels on the quality of service delivery among Lebanese and Syrian patients. Second, we contribute to a nascent literature on the ways in which the political context and organizational mission affect service delivery, focusing on the ways in political and organizational contexts affects the intrinsic motivation of health care professionals in different types of health care providers. In a series of planned papers aimed at public health journals and policy audiences, I am working with Carmel Salhi, Lara Jirmanus, Sawsan Allam and other collaborators to focus on a variety of technical and non-technical determinants on the quality of primary health care for Lebanese and Syrian patients.


Identity and the Politics of Fear in Divided Societies: Assessing the Foundations of Political Behavior in Lebanon

(With Dominika Kruszewska and Sami Atallah at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies with support from the European Union)

Much contemporary research on political behavior in the Middle East and other developing regions emphasizes the role of clientelism in structuring elections and politics. Yet there is good reason to think that other factors beyond clientelist transactions shape political behavior in important ways. In the context of instability, violence and the erosion of political order, millions of Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis and Lebanese, among others, live under conditions of insecurity. What impact does this state of affairs have on political attitudes and behavior? At the same time, new political movements and initiatives indicate that citizens across the Middle East are craving an alternative to clientelist and sectarian politics.

In this research, we move beyond the current prevailing conceptualization of politics in developing countries as short-term clientelist transactions to consider a range of alternative or additional material and nonmaterial factors that may affect political behavior in Lebanon. We compare the relative importance of fear and promises of protection against threats by violent extremists to a range of other possible motivations driving support for politicians, including the receipt of distinct levels and types of clientelist handouts and programmatic policy preferences, among other factors. The data collection, which was carried out in fall 2017, is based on a nationally representative sample of approximately 2,400 households in Lebanon and includes two experimental components, including a conjoint survey experiment and a priming experiment. The findings promise to contribute to diverse bodies of research on political behavior, the dynamics of clientelism, and political violence that resonate far beyond Lebanon and the Middle East and help to build a growing research agenda on the role of insecurity in driving political behavior in developing countries. At present, we are currently working on two separate papers based on this research, including one that focuses on the nature of patronage and clientelism and a second that interrogates the effects of co-ethnicity and sectarian rhetoric on political behavior. The EGAP pre-analysis plan 20170907AA for this project is available here.


Diversity and Accountability: Intergroup Relations and Sanitation in Delhi, India

(With Poulomi Chakrabarti and David Romney)

This project focuses on the conditions under which people living in slum communities cooperate across communal lines in public goods provision. In particular, my collaborators and I aim to assess whether and how informal mechanisms of accountability at the very local level affect cooperation across religious lines in improving drainage and sewage in slum areas in Delhi, India. The poor quality of sanitation, garbage disposal, water supply, electricity, and drainage in these settlements have severe consequences for the health of their residents, and India has the highest incidence of open defecation in the world, which is often cited as the one of the main reasons for its disproportionate rates of mortality due to preventable diseases like diarrhea among children. The research combines insights from political science, public policy, and psychology to explore the dynamics of cooperation around public goods provision and, ultimately, aspires to identify factors that can improve sanitation in urban slum communities in India and in other developing countries. Support for this project comes from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute and the Asia Center at Harvard University.


Citizens and Security Threats in the Middle East: Perceptions and Consequences

(With Ishac Diwan in collaboration with Alexei Abrahams, Andrew Leber and Irina Vartanova)

Concerns by citizens about security threats seem to be at an all-time high in many countries of the Middle East, exacerbated by the rise of extremism, the more frequent occurrence of terrorist acts, the spread of wars and civil wars, and massive displacements of people. Research on other regions has started to look at how insecurity affects individual preferences in more detail, establishing that a threatened public tends to favor authoritarianism and intolerance in Europe and the United States. To date, however, there has been little work on the measurement and consequences of security threats in the Middle East. This project aims to start filling this gap. At present, citizens across the region seem to express a heightened yearning for security, which has important potential implications for future socio-economic and political development in the region. For example, insecurity may dampen the demand for political opening and may explain the rise in extremism and in social polarization around particular values and issues. The resulting fall in social activism, and the concomitant rise in identity- and class-based cleavages, are likely to further inhibit economic and political reform. This research aims to test these and other propositions through analyses of public opinion and social media data and to explore the theoretical and policy implications of the findings in scholarly publications and policy reports. This project is supported by the Middle East Initiative of the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School.


Deconsolidating Democracy: The Politics of Turkey’s Social Spending Under AKP Rule

(With Davide Luca and Ernest Sergenti)

This project explores patterns of central government spending on a range of social and economic sectors in Turkey from 2004 through 2014, when the ruling Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), gained and consolidated its hold on power. We aim to contribute to research on distributive politics by assessing a variety of hypotheses about the nature of patronage politics in Turkey. We examine the degree to which the AKP shifted its outreach strategy over time in response to electoral performance, cross-sectoral variation in patronage and developmental efforts, and geographic variation in social and economic expenditures in response to electoral performance.


Voices of Arab Youth: Challenges and the Consequences of Exclusion

(With the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies with support from the International Development Research Centre)

The Arab uprisings exposed a myriad of political and socioeconomic grievances afflicting the region’s citizens and highlighted the challenges they face in meeting their expectations. In particular, analysts point to the dashed hopes of Arab youth, who face grimmer prospects for social mobility than their parents and have come of age in a time of increased inequality of opportunity. While depictions of the Arab uprisings as a “youth-quake” are likely exaggerated, we need to know more about the aspirations and forms of engagement of Arab youth. After all, they are the leaders of the future and comprise such a large proportion of population pyramids across the region.

This project centers on two interrelated sets of research questions related to youth social identities and political engagement: 1) Who are the “youth”? What categories of youth exist and how do they cluster together in terms of social and political attitudes, socioeconomic status, and other related factors? To what degree do youth from different categories or sub-cultures share a commitment to a national political community, tolerate members of different ethnoreligious communities and/or supporters of different political leaders and movements?; and 2) What kinds of youth are more likely to take part in civic and political organizations – whether NGOs, other CSOs or political parties – and which kinds of organizations? Why do some youth want to be engaged with the state and political institutions while others engage with non-state organizations and actors or are politically disengaged? What makes youth want to be more involved in politics and in promoting political change or reform? What visions do different young people have for their own futures and for the futures of their societies and how, if at all, are they working to pursue these visions?