Exclusive: Carnegie Corporation funding to support Middle East public policy research

Students at a university in Iraq. Photo by: Adelita Mead / U.S. Army / CC BY-NC-ND

ABU DHABI — The Carnegie Corporation of New York on Tuesday announced eight new grants funding 12 projects and totaling $4.15 million in support of “problem-solving analysis and action” in the Middle East and North Africa. The funding aims to boost social science education and resources, while building a stronger evidence base for public policies.

Forty applicants competed for the two-year grants, which go to a combination of Middle East and U.S.-based universities and think tanks.

The grants are aimed at supporting and accelerating an emerging group of social scientists who are looking in new ways at some of the primary challenges facing their societies and economies today.

“We’re looking at the region behind the headlines, and we can see that there are economic issues, issues of political inclusion, rights issues, issues around municipal governance, and social service provision that are underlying a lot of what’s happening in the region right now,” Hillary Wiesner, Carnegie Corporation of New York’s program director of Transnational Movements and the Arab Region, told Devex. “We’re putting a lot of our attention and focus on that.”

These grants will specifically support think tanks and universities that are “doing cutting edge work [in] applying their data, their methods, their research” to these root issues, she said.

The grants come at a time when social sciences in the region are undergoing something of a transformation. From just 43 research centers in the region in 1980, today there are 463, according to a 2016 study from the Arab Council for Social Studies, a Carnegie grantee. Still, “the social science disciplines continue to face notable obstacles due to institutional fragmentation, high levels of bureaucracy, and political restrictions,” it finds.

Among the grantees is Nudge Lebanon, a think tank aimed at bringing the insights of behavioral economics into academia and government. A $500,000 grant will specifically allow Nudge to introduce the field into Lebanese universities and to set up a Consumer Citizen Lab, which will test policy “nudges” in randomized controlled trials. Focus areas include education, healthy lifestyle, anti-corruption, compliance and rule of law, and improving humanitarian support.

Another grant of $400,000 was awarded to the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq, which aims to improve social science methods in Iraqi universities and create a network among institutions. The project will also undertake “an evaluation of the current state of undergraduate education” focusing on five universities, including Mosul University — which has a long history of excellence, but it served as a headquarters for Islamic State occupation of the city until its liberation this summer.

Other recipients include the American University in Cairo, the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese-American University, the University of Minnesota, Friends of the British Council, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Civil society is playing a growing role in addressing governance and service challenges, said Wiesner. Policymakers are “often coming right to these think tanks with specific requests” or challenges to solve. New funding will boost these researchers’ ability to engage and contribute.

The Middle East is a particularly important region in which to join academic research and policy, according to Nudge Lebanon founder Fadi Makki. Elsewhere, government leaders including former Prime Minister David Cameron in the U.K. and former President Barack Obama in the U.S. both set up behavioral economics shops to inform policy. But few Middle East and North African governments have methodically incorporated this sort of research into policy making.

“Most of the problems and challenges we are facing here in this region have strong behavioral routes, so approaching them with the traditional tools of public policy … would simply not work,” he told Devex. “A ‘nudge’ is exactly what’s needed to complement those existing policy tools.”

Humanitarian intervention is another area ripe for “really testing and piloting what works to channel better the funding,” he said. Relief work is among the handful of sectors the Consumer Citizen Lab will target. It is currently conducting one experiment on education interventions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Funding from sources such as Carnegie is particularly important, because it links academic knowledge and policy in the region, said Makki. Many grants are segmented, for example supporting either economic research or humanitarian aid. This project, by contrast, is “bringing the real world to the university, and bringing the university to the real world,” he said.

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.