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Machinery of the state

Associate Professor Mai Hassan documents bureaucratic systems in Eastern Africa set up for coercion, as well as roadblocks to democratic government.
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headshot of Professor Mai Hassan
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Associate Professor of Political Science Mai Hassan
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Photo: Gretchen Ertl

In Mai Hassan’s studies of Kenya, she documented the emergence of a sprawling administrative network officially billed as encouraging economic development, overseeing the population, and bolstering democracy. But Hassan’s field interviews and archival research revealed a more sinister purpose for the hundreds of administrative and security offices dotting the nation: “They were there to do the presidents’ bidding, which often involved coercing their own countrymen.”

This research served as a catalyst for Hassan, who joined MIT as an associate professor of political science in July, to investigate what she calls the “politicized management of bureaucracy and the state.” She set out to “understand the motivations, capacities, and roles of people administering state programs and social functions,” she says. “I realized the state is not a faceless being, but instead comprised of bureaucrats carrying out functions on behalf of the state and the regime that runs it.”

Today, Hassan’s portfolio encompasses not just the bureaucratic state but democratization efforts in Kenya and elsewhere in the East Africa region, including her native Sudan. Her research highlights the difficulties of democratization. “I’m finding that the conditions under which people come together for overthrowing an autocratic regime really matter, because those conditions may actually impede a nation from achieving democracy,” she says.

A coordinated bureaucracy

Hassan’s academic engagement with the state’s administrative machinery began during graduate school at Harvard University, where she earned her master’s and doctorate in government. While working with a community trash and sanitation program in some Kenyan Maasai communities, Hassan recalls “shepherding myself from office to office, meeting different bureaucrats to obtain the same approvals but for different jurisdictions.” The Kenyan state had recently set up hundreds of new local administrative units, motivated by what it claimed was the need for greater efficiency.
 
But to Hassan’s eyes, “the administrative network was not well organized, seemed costly to maintain, and seemed to hinder — not bolster — development,” she says. What then, she wondered, was “the political logic behind such state restructuring?”

Hassan began researching this bureaucratic transformation of Kenya, speaking with administrators in communities large and small who were charged with handling the business of the state. These studies yielded a wealth of findings for her dissertation, and for multiple journals.

But upon finishing this tranche of research, Hassan realized that it was insufficient simply to study the structure of the state. “Understanding the role of new administrative structures for politics, development, and governance fundamentally requires that we understand who the government has put in charge of them,” she says. Among her insights:

“The president’s office knows a lot of these administrators, and thinks about their strengths, limitations, and fit within a community,” says Hassan. Some administrators served the purposes of the central government by setting up water irrigation projects or building a new school. But in other villages, the state chose administrators who could act “much more coercively, ignoring development needs, throwing youth who supported the opposition into jail, and spending resources exclusively on policing.”

Hassan’s work showed that in communities characterized by strong political opposition, “the local administration was always more coercive, regardless of an elected or autocratic president,” she says. Notably, the tenures of such officials proved shorter than those of their peers. “Once administrators get to know a community — going to church and the market with residents — it’s hard to coerce them,” explains Hassan.

These short tenures come with costs, she notes: “Spending significant time in a station is useful for development, because you know exactly whom to hire if you want to build a school or get something done efficiently.” Politicizing these assignments undermines efforts at delivery of services and, more broadly, economic improvement nationwide. “Regimes that are more invested in retaining power must devote resources to establishing and maintaining control, resources that could otherwise be used for development and the welfare of citizens,” she says.

Hassan wove together her research covering three presidents over a 50-year period, in the book, “Regime Threats and State Solutions: Bureaucratic Loyalty and Embeddedness in Kenya” (2020, Cambridge University Press), named a Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2020.

Sudanese roots

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

Politics often dominated the conversation in gatherings of Hassan’s family and friends. Her parents immigrated to northern Virginia when she was very young, and many relatives joined them, part of a steady flow of Sudanese fleeing political turmoil and oppression.

“A lot of people had 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 ongoing connection to the Sudanese community have shaped her academic interests and goals. At the University of Virginia, she gravitated toward history and economics classes. But it was her time at the Ralph Bunche Summer institute that perhaps proved most pivotal in her journey. This five-week intensive program is offered by the American Political Science Association to introduce underrepresented undergraduate students to doctoral studies. “It was really compelling in this program to think rigorously about all the political ideas I’d heard as I was growing up, and find ways to challenge some assertions empirically,” she says.

Regime change and civil society

At Harvard, Hassan first set out to focus on Sudan for her doctoral program. “There wasn’t much scholarship on the country, and what there was lacked rigor,” she says. “That was something that needed to change.” But she decided to postpone this goal after realizing that she might be vulnerable as a student conducting field research there. She landed instead in Kenya, where she honed her interviewing and data collection skills.

Today, empowered by her prior work, she has returned to Sudan. “I felt that the popular uprising in Sudan and ousting of the Islamist regime in 2019 should be documented and analyzed,” she says. “It was incredible that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, acted collectively to uproot a dictator, in the face of brutal violence from the state.”

But “democracy is still uncertain there,” says Hassan. The broad coalition behind 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. “Overthrowing an autocratic regime and having civil society come together to figure out what’s going to replace it require different things, and it’s unclear if a movement that accomplishes the first is well-suited to do the second.”

Hassan believes that in order to create lasting democratization, “you need the hard work of building organizations, developing ways in which members learn to compromise among themselves, and make decisions and rules for how to move forward.”

Hassan is enjoying the fall semester and teaching courses on autocracy and authoritarian regimes. She is excited as well about developing her work on African efforts at democratic mobilization in a political science department she describes as “policy-forward.”

Over time, she hopes to connect with Institute scholars in the hard sciences to think about other challenges these nations are facing, such as climate change. “It’s really hot in Sudan, and it may be one of the first countries to become completely uninhabitable,” she says. “I’d like to explore strategies for growing crops differently or managing the exceedingly scarce resource of water, and figure out what kind of political discussions will be necessary to implement any changes. It is really critical to think about these problems in an interdisciplinary way.”

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