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Evan Lieberman: Southern Africa as a lens on ethnicity, governance, and citizenship

Evan Lieberman, the Total Chair on Contemporary Africa and a professor of political science at MIT.
Evan Lieberman, the Total Chair on Contemporary Africa and a professor of political science at MIT.
Photo: Stuart Darsch

As a high school student in the 1980s, Evan Lieberman developed an interest in South Africa. It was the height of the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S., and Lieberman wrote an article for his school newspaper on the pros and cons of institutions divesting their South Africa-related holdings. The article prompted the private school’s board of directors to divest. As a junior at Princeton, Lieberman attended a seminar on post-apartheid South Africa in the country and remained there for the summer researching his senior thesis. The trip cemented what would become a lifelong fascination with the country and sub-Saharan Africa in general.

After 12 years on the faculty at Princeton, Lieberman is the newly appointed Total Chair on Contemporary Africa and a professor in MIT’s Department of Political Science. With sub-Saharan African countries as his primary subjects, Lieberman has studied the causes and consequences of ethnic conflict and the determinants of good governance and policy-making, including how countries have responded to the AIDS crisis. He also teaches methodology, including strategies for multi-method causal inference.

Lieberman initiated two ongoing research efforts, the Institutionalized Ethnicity project and the Governance of Infectious Disease project. The Institutionalized Ethnicity project studies how state institutions use ethnic categories, including race, religion, caste, language, and indigenous status, and looks at patterns of institutionalized ethnicity across countries and regions. The Governance of Infectious Disease project studies how governments respond to the threat of diseases like HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and the social, political, and economic factors involved in public health policymaking and implementation. Work from both projects informed Lieberman’s second book, "Boundaries of Contagion: How Ethnic Politics Have Shaped Government Responses to AIDS," which won the 2010 Giovanni Sartori Book Prize from the American Political Science Association.

Though new to the MIT faculty, Lieberman has had an ongoing collaboration with his Total Chair predecessor, Daniel Posner (now at UCLA) and MIT Associate Professor Lily Tsai. The three researchers are conducting a long-term study of how information dissemination campaigns can lead to more active citizenship. The study focuses on Twaweza, a large nongovernmental organization that educates citizens in Kenya and Tanzania with the aim of holding government accountable.

In addition to his scholarship, Lieberman contributes to democratic practice in South Africa as a board member of the Southern African Legal Services Foundation, which supports the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), a South Africa legal aid service. The LRC was founded during the apartheid era by leading South African human rights activists, and continues to wield the law as an instrument of justice.

“My interest in global politics and development really got started with a focus on South Africa and I haven’t been able to shake that,” said Lieberman. “I just find South Africa and Southern Africa to be incredibly fascinating places,” he says. “They are beautiful, with really interesting and exciting histories of both conflict but also cooperation — groups of people really organizing and fighting for their interests and often for the greater good.”

At MIT, Lieberman will continue his study of the relationship between democratic practice and government service delivery. These include how the quality of service delivery affects political attitudes and behaviors, and how providing different types of information affects how citizens come to participate in the political arena. A key question is the relationship between democratic practices such as voting and improving human welfare, particularly in health and education, says Lieberman.

“One of my big goals in the next couple of years is to write a book on the politics of democratic governance in southern Africa to try to understand the practice and experience of multiracial democracy, to understand if and how democracy has worked to improve the lives of citizens in the ways all of us would have hoped,” he says.

Lieberman is looking forward to working at MIT because the Institute promotes interesting new types of collaborations across disciplines, he says. It’s also the right place to explore the nexus of technology, politics, and development, a longtime interest of Lieberman’s. “As a political scientist, I continuously recognize that even when great new ideas come up … unfortunately, various sorts of political obstacles get in the way,” he says. “On the other hand, sometimes politics can really enhance how particular technologies get used.”

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