State Machinery | MIT News

In Mai Hassan’s studies of Kenya, she documented the emergence of a sprawling administrative network officially described as promoting economic development, policing the populace, and strengthening democracy. But Hassan’s field interviews and archival research revealed a more sinister purpose for the hundreds of administrative and security offices scattered across the country: “They were there to fulfill the president’s orders, which often included coercing their own countrymen.”

That research served as a catalyst for Hassan, who joined MIT in July as an associate professor of political science, to examine what she calls the “politicized management of bureaucracy and the state.” She set out to “understand the motivations, skills, and roles of people who manage government programs and social functions,” she says. “I realized that the state is not a faceless entity, but consists of bureaucrats who carry out tasks on behalf of the state and the regime that runs it.”

Today, Hassan’s portfolio includes not only the bureaucratic state, but also democratization efforts in Kenya and elsewhere in the East African region, including her home country of Sudan. Her research sheds light on the difficulties of democratization. “I think the conditions under which people come together to overthrow an autocratic regime are really important because those conditions can actually prevent a nation from achieving democracy,” she says.

A coordinated bureaucracy

Hassan’s academic involvement with the government machinery began while in graduate school at Harvard University, where she earned her master’s and doctorate in government. While working with a community garbage and sanitation program in some Kenyan Maasai communities, Hassan recalls, “I went from office to office and met with different bureaucrats to get the same permits but for different jurisdictions.” The Kenyan state had recently set up hundreds of new local government units, motivated by alleged efficiency gains.

But in Hassan’s eyes, “the administrative network wasn’t well organized, seemed costly to maintain, and seemed to hinder — not encourage — development,” she says. So what, she wondered, was “the political logic behind such a state restructuring”?

Hassan began researching this bureaucratic transformation of Kenya by speaking to administrators in communities large and small who were charged with running the affairs of state. These studies provided a wealth of insights for her dissertation and for several journals.

But after completing this tranche of research, Hassan realized that simply studying the structure of the state was not enough. “Basically, to understand the role of new administrative structures in politics, development and governance, we need to understand who the government has made responsible for them,” she says. About her findings:

“The Office of the President knows many of these administrators and thinks about their strengths, limitations and suitability for a community,” says Hassan. Some administrators served central government purposes by establishing water irrigation projects or building a new school. But in other villages, the state chose administrators who “could act much more forcefully, ignore development needs, jail youth who supported the opposition, and devote resources exclusively to the police.”

Hassan’s work showed that in communities characterized by strong political opposition, “local government has always been tighter, regardless of an elected or autocratic president,” she says. Remarkably, the tenures of such officials turned out to be shorter than those of their peers. “Once administrators get to know a community—going to church and the market with residents—it’s difficult to force them to do it,” Hassan explains.

These brief hires come at a cost, she notes: “Spending a significant amount of time in a station is useful for development because if you want to build a school or get something done efficiently, you know exactly who to hire.” Politicization of these tasks undermines efforts at service delivery and, more broadly, economic improvement across the country. “Regimes that are more intent on retaining power must devote resources to establishing and maintaining control, resources that could otherwise be used for the development and well-being of citizens,” she says.

Hassan weaved her research on three presidents over a 50-year period in Regime Threats and State Solutions: Bureaucratic Loyalty and Embeddedness in Kenya (2020, Cambridge University Press), which won Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2020.

Sudanese roots

The role of the state in meeting the needs of its citizens has long fascinated Hassan. Her grandfather, who had served as Sudan’s ambassador to the USSR, spoke to her about the benefits of a centralized government “that allocates resources to reduce inequality,” she says.

Politics often dominated the conversations at Hassan’s family and friends gatherings. Her parents immigrated to Northern Virginia when she was very young, and they were joined by many relatives who were part of a steady stream of Sudanese fleeing political unrest and oppression.

“Many people expected more from the Sudanese state after independence and didn’t get it,” she says. “People had hopes for what the government could and should do.”

Hassan’s Sudanese roots and her enduring connection to the Sudanese community have shaped her academic interests and goals. At the University of Virginia, she was interested in history and economics. But it was her time at the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute that perhaps proved key in her journey. This five-week intensive program is offered by the American Political Science Association to introduce underrepresented students to doctoral studies. “It was really compelling in this program to think about all the political ideas I heard growing up and find ways to empirically challenge some of the claims,” ​​she says.

Regime change and civil society

At Harvard, Hassan initially focused on Sudan in her doctoral program. “There wasn’t much scholarship about the country, and what was there lacked rigor,” she says. “It was something that had to change.” But she decided to put off that goal after realizing that as a student conducting fieldwork there, she could be vulnerable. She ended up in Kenya instead, where she honed her interviewing and data collection skills.

Today she has returned to Sudan strengthened by her previous work. “I felt that the popular uprising in Sudan and the fall of the Islamist regime in 2019 should be documented and analyzed,” she says. “It was unbelievable that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, would come together against a dictator in the face of brutal state violence.”

But “democracy is still uncertain there,” says Hassan. The broad coalition behind the regime change “doesn’t know how to govern because different people and different sectors of society have different ideas about what democratic Sudan should look like,” she says. “To overthrow an autocratic regime and to bring civil society together to figure out what to replace it takes several things, and it’s unclear whether a movement that achieves the first will suit the second.”

Hassan believes that creating lasting democratization requires “the hard work of building organizations, devising ways for members to learn to compromise among themselves, and making decisions and rules for how to proceed.”

Hassan is enjoying the fall semester teaching courses on autocracy and authoritarian regimes. She is also looking forward to developing her work on African efforts at democratic mobilization in a political science department that she describes as ‘policy-forward’.

Over time, she hopes to connect with scientists at the institute in the hard sciences to reflect on other challenges facing these nations, such as climate change. “It’s really hot in Sudan and it could be one of the first countries to become completely uninhabitable,” she says. “I want to examine strategies for cultivating crops differently, dealing with the extremely scarce resource of water, and what kind of political discussions are needed to implement changes. It’s really important to think about these issues in an interdisciplinary way.”


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