5 ways US scholars can support the Arab Spring

A demonstration in Tunisia in January 2011. How are research institutes and their students collaborating to foster political and social change in North Africa? Photo by: Amine Ghrabi / CC BY-NC

Promoting democracy and good governance round the world is a long and winding road. So the blooming of the Arab Spring in 2011 was, at the time, welcome news. Although progress since then has failed to live up to expectations, awarding the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet for supporting democracy was both an acknowledgement and an encouragement to keep up the momentum.

Academic exchange is a confidence-building measure in building political and social change, and was an aspect of the United States-Middle East Partnership Initiative set up in 2002. U.S. students help bolster change through participating in U.S.-North African scholarship programs, as there is a need to build up scholarly interchange from its current very low level.

Data from the International Institute of Education shows that only 1,700 U.S. students study in North Africa — less than 1 percent of the total studying abroad each year — while the annual total for North African students in the U.S. stands at just 6,250 — 0.7 percent of all overseas students in the U.S.

U.S. academics interested in Maghreb studies are working to reverse this. One such organization building academic bridges between the U.S. and North Africa is the U.S.-based American Institute for Maghreb Studies, which runs research institutes in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Devex spoke to the directors of the institute in Algeria — Centre d'études maghrébines en Algerie, or CEMAT — and Tunisia — Centre d’Etudes Maghrébines en Tunisie, or CEMA — to find out the ways these research institutes and their students are fostering intercultural exchange.

1. Provide grants and practical training in methodology.

Each year AIMS provides short- and long-term grants for U.S. students enrolled in M.A. or Ph.D. programs to conduct research in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco or Tunisia. Grants range from $2,250 to $4,500 for short-term study, up to $15,000 for long-term study. AIMS also offers travel awards for U.S. students researching in North Africa.

This exchange is also two-way as CEMAT provides fellowships for Tunisian scholars to conduct short-term research in the U.S., and CEMAT and CEMA are involved in programs that offer support to North African academics, such as regular workshops on social science methodology and research design.

2. Provide policymakers with in-depth knowledge about the country.

Another function AIMS and its students can play to build greater understanding is to provide policymakers with in-depth knowledge about these countries. Dr. Robert Parks, CEMA director, said that CEMA scholars provide information for U.S. and European policymakers: “Before the Arab Spring there was a massive dearth of knowledge in the English-language literature about North Africa, particularly in Algeria. Now interest in what’s happening in Algeria is growing, and policymakers often ask for, and appreciate our expertise in giving them a general background about the region.”

In the United States and elsewhere, he said, policymakers and the larger international development community use AIMS research findings to nuance, or frame larger debates on development. For example, research in the social sciences and humanities grounded in the field can explain counterintuitive findings in developmental economics, Parks explained, or make sense of some developmental “enigmas.”

3. Provide research that offers the bedrock for civil society participation.

In Tunisia, CEMAT scholars’ research topics have been strongly influenced by the 2011 “Tunisian Revolution.” The new emphasis is on “citizen power” and much of the Center’s research helps to underpin development, especially related to democracy-building, as Dr. Laryssa Chomiak, the Center’s director, explained.

“Before 2011 the center’s work was purely academic, but now 70 percent of our work links academic research to the civil society and public policy field,” she said. Since 2011, the center has worked hard to link the flow of international assistance to boost academic skills relevant to academic and educational needs in Tunisia, through cooperating with development organizations, governments and foundations.

4. Provide donors with a research base to support development work.

CEMAT is often asked by potential donors to Tunisia to provide a research base, such as public opinion surveys, to give a solid base for development programs built on their research.

Said Chomiak: “Often an outside organization wants to develop a project, for example, improving the Tunisian media sector, but needs a scoping study, to find out the local situation and show potential funders the value of the project. CEMAT is regularly asked to work with teams of scholars, or to serve in an advisory capacity to give necessary background and contextual knowledge.”

“We also find existing research can inform the baseline level and guide how the project should develop, strengthening the funding application. Linking up with those with local knowledge provides a far stronger case for developing a project than it would by bringing in a research team, which has to start from scratch.

“Collaborating with an Institute means that agencies are working with academics based in the country as well as international scholars who regularly come through Tunisia, and who know what types of projects are feasible,” said Chomiak.

5. Provide invaluable local practical knowledge.

Scholars at CEMAT also provide practical advice for development practitioners once a project is underway. “We have good links with the government, which wants to be consulted about what is happening,” said Chomiak. “Development agencies work best when they have cooperative arrangements with the host government so they can understand local needs, and this is where our knowledge can help.”

According to Dr. Hezi Brosh, associate professor of Arabic at the U.S. Naval Academy, “pressures on colleges and universities to install or augment Middle Eastern studies in the U.S. have come from all directions.” As the political and economic influence of the Middle East and North Africa region continues to expand globally, scholars will be in the vanguard of those contributing to intercultural scholarship between the U.S. and the MENA region.

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About the author

  • Daphne davies profile

    Daphne Davies

    Daphne Davies is a London-based freelance journalist and consultant with more than 30 years' experience in international development. She has worked with the U.N., the European Union, national governments and global civil society organizations, including Amnesty, WWF and LDC Watch. Her expertise is in monitoring government policies in relation to international cooperation. Her interests are in sustainability, social and economic matters, women and least developed countries.