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Podcast: Curiosity Unbounded, Episode 2 — Bureaucracies, dictatorships, and the power of Africa's people


In this episode, MIT President Sally Kornbluth sits down with associate professor of political science and faculty co-director of MIT-Africa, Mai Hassan. Her work looks at bureaucracy, public administration, and the state in Africa, and more recently, how people mobilize against repressive dictatorships.


Sally Kornbluth: Hello, I'm Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT, and I'm thrilled to welcome you to this MIT community podcast, Curiosity Unbounded. In my first few months at MIT, I've been particularly inspired by talking with members of our faculty who recently earned tenure. Like their colleagues, they are pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Their passion and brilliance, their boundless curiosity, offer a wonderful glimpse of the future of MIT.

Today, my guest is Mai Hassan, associate professor of political science and faculty co-director of MIT-Africa. Mai's work looks at bureaucracy, public administration, and the state in Africa, and more recently, how people mobilize against repressive dictatorships.

Mai and her family came to the United States from Sudan when she was young. Shortly after this podcast was originally recorded, violence broke out in Sudan. We invited Mai back into the studio to offer insight on the situation. Stay tuned to the end of our conversation to hear what Mai has to say about the current situation in Sudan.

Mai, I'm really pleased to meet you. What led you to this field of study, either personally or professionally?

Mai Hassan: Thanks so much for that question and thanks so much for having me. I started getting really interested in African politics in part because of my background. My family immigrated from Sudan back in the 1990s. We kept visiting Sudan even though we lived in the States. But as I got older and I was starting to read more newspaper accounts of politics on the continent — and as I got into college, reading more academic accounts of how academics talked about politics on the continent — I just started noticing a disconnect, almost, between how Africa was portrayed in popular and academic accounts, on one hand, then on the other, how I experienced Africa and how I thought many processes were happening on the ground that a lot of academic and popular accounts really missed.

Sally Kornbluth: How old were you when your family came to the U.S.?

Mai Hassan: I was almost five. I was about four and a half.

Sally Kornbluth: When you think about how Africa is portrayed in the public consciousness, what struck you as you came to learn more about the reality versus the depiction?

Mai Hassan: One of the ideas that really stuck with me and that ended up becoming a focal point of my book is the idea of how strong or weak the African state was. We always get these depictions about how the African state is so weak. That it can't provide for its people, that it can't provide basic goods and services, that it can't govern over the country's territory. That's something that stuck with me because at the same time — based off of my reading and my understanding of how the African state operated on the ground — in many cases, it was able to do quite a bit. It was able to do a lot of things that many of its leaders really pushed it to do. That was a disconnect that really pushed me [toward], especially political science, and thinking about public administration and bureaucracy and the administrative state in Africa.

Sally Kornbluth: One thing I think is interesting as a layperson approaching this — my last direct touch on political science was as a major at Williams a long time ago, and I see some of your scholarship is thinking about repressive regimes — is the extent to which the populace will accept — and obviously, sometimes it's not in their power to accept or not accept — the governance of a repressive regime if the services and daily lives are served by those regimes. Then, as things progress, how that comes in conflict with their wanting more self-governance. We see this in countries around the world: the emergence to try to have a democracy but that sometimes succeeds, sometimes is re-repressed. I'm just wondering how you think about those dynamics in general and with respect to what you see in Africa.

Mai Hassan: It's a really interesting question, Sally. One of the things that I keep thinking about is, there's a base level of public goods and services that people need to subsist to survive. Many governments, if they can even come close to meeting that bare minimum during regular times, then they can fend off lots of popular protests, can fend off calls for democratization. But then you have these really, really tense moments where maybe there's an economic crisis or maybe there's an oil crisis. Thinking back to the 1970 oil crisis or what happened very recently with Covid.

Sally Kornbluth: Yes.

Mai Hassan: That really stretches people to the breaking point. At that point, people start to connect that, "Yes, I have all these economic problems and maybe I could go and start protesting or start demanding higher salary. Or I could start demanding that the government actually provide the water services that they said that they were going to.” Or, and this is what generally happens in these moments of crisis, people start connecting the dots and recognizing, "Well, the reason why we're not getting all the services that we need is because the government is really corrupt." Because it's dictatorial and all of the money and all the resources are not spent on providing for its people, but are instead spent on keeping leaders in power, fattening up their wallets, helping them buy seventh or eighth mansions in Dubai or Paris. These moments of crisis, I think, are really important focal points for helping push people out onto the streets.

Sally Kornbluth: One thing that's always been fascinating to me is how people can get behind someone in a cult of personality. In other words, many of the countries where there are oppressive regimes, people are aware of what you're talking about. The leaders living in a mansion when they're scrambling for food. But then, as you say, when it comes to a real crisis point, there's some kind of ignition and the tide can turn pretty quickly even if people have learned to live under these conditions for a very long time.

Mai Hassan: Yes, definitely. There are some sparks for popular protests or for uprisings that are more salient in a country's consciousness than others. For instance, in a lot of academic literature on popular protests or collective action, we think about how there might be protests around really big important anniversaries of a country. Important founding moments. Maybe the country's independence day, or maybe if there was an uprising against a dictator in the past then the anniversary of those riots. Or if there is a funeral of a really important martyr of the movement, for instance. Then those often become focal points that people don't even have to really discuss beforehand and say, "Hey, I'm thinking about protesting." You don't really do that because you just know, "I have a sense that stuff is really bad." You get a sense from seeing people out on the streets. I remember one of my neighbors, last time I was in Sudan, was like, "Stuff in Sudan is really bad and you can tell because the soldiers in our neighborhood are no longer buying meat." That means that they don't have enough money, that the regime isn't paying them well enough such that they can buy meat. These people will start picking up on these cues and then when it's like, "Okay, I feel like things are bad enough that people are going to go out into the street." Sometimes you don't even have to coordinate on a specific day. You just know which big anniversaries are coming up.

Sally Kornbluth: It's almost as if the big anniversaries are emblematic of the idealism in which countries or governments may have been formed, versus the reality. In other words, it’s emblematic of the conflict between what people thought, and the reality as you see things getting really bad on the streets.

Mai Hassan: I really, really like that point. What are the ideals that our government should be living up to? You see a lot of protests on independence days and so much hope around the birth of many postcolonial countries. When it doesn't come to fruition, it really comes in stark contrast on certain days more than others.

Sally Kornbluth: Is there a critical goal now that you're striving for in your work? What impact do you hope to have? Tell us a little bit about some of your current projects.

Mai Hassan: I have a really big interest in bureaucracy and the administrative state in Africa. I think part of the reason for that is because the African state has always been shunned off, precisely because people are like, "It's too weak to do anything so we shouldn't even study it." I think that's a real mistake. I think that we should give the African state just as much understanding and research as the administrative state here in the U.S.

Sally Kornbluth: Tell me a little bit about the nature of the bureaucracy in a place like Sudan or other places in sub-Saharan Africa. Are there issues in terms of resources? Efficiency? Is it, as you say, corruption coming in and are they, it's funny to say, "under-bureaucratized"? — It's probably not that, but are there key points in terms of the efficiency of their bureaucracies that you think could really make a difference in the lives of the citizens?

Mai Hassan: This is a question, Sally, that I think about a lot. What would make bureaucracy in many African countries better? I'm going to talk a little bit more about the Kenyan bureaucracy, which was the focus of my first book. What I found really interesting there is — like in many countries in the continent and quite honestly around the world — the executives, so the president of the country, wields a lot of control over bureaucratic agencies. Agencies fall under the executive and so can wield them as he — often he — wants.

Going back to that idea that I was saying at the beginning, that each agency or each state has some fixed amount of capacity, what I find really interesting is where that limited capacity is being channeled and how it's being channeled. In many Kenyan bureaucracies, or in the Kenyan bureaucracies that I studied, something that I found interesting was that bureaucrats were managed in such a way as to incentivize them to engage in certain types of behaviors over others.

If you think about personnel management, you as president at MIT, or a CEO of an organization tries to affect the culture of that place and tries to put into place different types of incentives and constraints for the workers, so that perhaps they move towards the larger goal of the organization. We can think about African leaders doing the same thing in bureaucracies.

In some cases, and some particular parts of the countries — particularly leaders' stronghold areas, their core bases of support — bureaucrats were really incentivized so that they personally had interests in providing the best goods and services. In many cases, providing part of their own salaries to help their communities build a new irrigation well or to help with bursaries for school scholarships for some of the students there.

But those really good bureaucratic incentives weren't always in place around the country. In particular, in many places that presidents feared, that presidents saw as opposition zones or were core basis of support for the opposition — those places saw bureaucrats incentivized to, in a sense, do the exact opposite: provide fewer goods and services, and in some cases, creating the conditions so that bureaucrats, if they were asked to engage in violence or engage in some kind of coercion or oppression against these area citizens, were more likely to do so.

Sally Kornbluth: One thing you said that I hadn't really thought about before, is a bureaucracy could be subverted for the enrichment of a president or dictator — and in a concrete way, part of it's being corrupt and siphoning things from the bureaucracy, part of it's letting the bureaucracy serve them and their compatriots directly — but the other thing, I think, the bureaucracy [can be] an avenue to make sure that they stay in power. In other words, [state leaders are] providing goods and services in a very targeted way to continue to empower them. Even if it's not money in their pocket, it's another interesting way that things can be subverted.

Mai Hassan: For sure. If bureaucrats are doing a good job and helping some citizens procure the goods and services that they are entitled to and that they expect, then if the president, if a leader, asks for shows of support, for instance, they will be there. Or if there's an upcoming election, then no need to even rig the polls. These people are just going to go out and turn out for the leader anyways because the president has served them.

Sally Kornbluth: I often wonder if people start out idealistic and actually intending to serve their country, and "the power corrupts" kind of thing. I mean country presidents, not university presidents! Let me make that crystal clear.

Mai Hassan: I didn't really interview Kenyan presidents for this project. But I talked to a whole host of bureaucrats. I remember bureaucrats, either they would start off their conversation with me or they would end their conversation with me by saying, "You know, Mai, we serve Kenya. We got into this job because we want to serve Kenya." These bureaucrats are very idealistic, very patriotic, and very much care about their country. But then you can see how some elements of agency culture can either wear them down or they recognize the political maneuverings that are happening. They recognize how political their job can be and how engaging in certain actions might be politicized. Or engaging in certain actions might not be as well-rewarded for their own bureaucratic progression as other ones.

Sally Kornbluth: I think there may well be some lessons for the United States there, too, when we think about politicians taking actions to honestly serve the community versus trying to ensure their own re-election and secure power or retain power. That's quite interesting.

Mai Hassan: That's something that I think about a lot because growing up, my grandfather was in politics in Sudan. I remember the way that he would talk about the state and the state's responsibilities. It was always so neutral. That the state should do this. It can do this so it should. Without thinking too hard about what it actually does. To his credit, he only served in government for a few years before he was kicked out by one of the Sudanese dictators. His politics didn't gel with the dictator for too long. His idealistic approach didn't really match the dictator's ideas about how to stay in power. I think that's telling. Those of us who, when we think about what government should do, it's very distinct from what it actually ends up doing if those in power aren't properly constrained. I think that's a lesson that's relevant for Sudan, Kenya, and the U.S.

Sally Kornbluth: Very interesting. As a political scientist, what drew you to come to MIT?

Mai Hassan: So many things. One, the amount of resources here is just beyond belief. I'm not just talking about monetary resources to do my field research abroad, but the political science department is, in my view, the best in the country. It's really doing cutting-edge work. The people that it's cultivated and its vision for what political science should be is something that has been really attractive to me ever since I started my academic career.

I also really appreciate the policy focus that MIT has. To see so many scientists working on some of the biggest issues of our age. This is an engineering school, so a lot of people are working on the engineering of climate change. There are parallels within the social sciences as well. How is it that we can better engineer democracy? How is it that we can better engineer administrative states in sub-Saharan Africa? These are ideas that I'm hoping to draw from. This is only my first year at MIT, but [they are] ideas that I'm hoping to draw on given the culture and the ethos of this place.

Sally Kornbluth: I think it's great. Every corner I turn around, there's something brilliant going on, in all areas. It's kind of mind-blowing. It's interesting, too, I think, something you said about policy impact. MIT can impact the world in many different ways. If the MIT political science department has things to say, for instance, about nuclear energy or about emerging genetic engineering technologies etc. in the regulatory domain, there’s sort of the scientific underpinning that informs it and a kind of virtuous circle where the policy can then inform the further development of the science and technology. It really is quite something and this is only my first year too and I've really seen that.

Was there a road not taken? In other words, was there some other area you were interested in before you decided to become a political scientist?

Mai Hassan: I was actually an econ undergrad RA [research assistant]. I remember talking to different economists, or people who had gotten PhDs in econ, and asking them about what that profession was like. It didn't seem as though they actually did as much field research on the ground talking to people as I thought was important. I think political science is a much better fit for me.

Sally Kornbluth: It's so interesting because I think there's such a robust culture here of undergraduates doing research. It's so important in terms of them really thinking about what their future is going to be like. I think about this. I was a political science major before I got into biology. I think if I had understood political science as a research area — in other words, you can ask important questions and you can do the sort of field research you're talking about to find the answers — I probably would have viewed it very differently than I did in the end when I went into biology. It was very clear. You ask questions, you do experiments, you get answers, you ask new questions. I think it's great that at a place like MIT students in all areas of interests can get early exposure to research and understand these fields as they may ask different questions or maybe different methodologies, but fundamentally there are ways to think about how you understand the world and how you impact the world.

Mai Hassan: That's something that I really appreciate, that sentiment. [It’s] something that, at MIT-Africa, we're really hoping to channel to a lot of these undergrads. As you were saying, a lot of students here at MIT do get really practical research experience. But they get practical research experience in Kendall Square high-tech biotech in many OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] Western countries. To give MIT undergrads the opportunity to use their skills somewhere on the continent, I think, gives them new ideas about what engineering can do all across the world, and hopefully maybe inspire them to spend some time or spend their mental capacity to work on problems that are more relevant to the continent than elsewhere.

Sally Kornbluth: Being new here, I don't know the dimensions of this, I assume there are various programs for students to actually travel to Africa, work there, work with local communities and NGOs?

Mai Hassan: For sure. At MIT-Africa, I'm the co-faculty director with Evan Lieberman and then Ari Jacobovits is the managing director. It's a really fabulous team. MIT undergrads have the opportunity to do internships either during IAP term, for three or four weeks in January, or during the summer. There are programs all across the continent. The biggest countries that we send students to are South Africa, Ghana, and Kenya, but there are other countries, too. This year, we sent some to Botswana, to Cote d'Ivoire. I think in the past, students have gone to Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda.

Sally Kornbluth: It's an amazing opportunity.

Mai Hassan: For sure.

Sally Kornbluth: I'm sure it's great, too, in-country, because the students are so incredibly smart and hard-working. It's a nice synergy. What kind of things do you like to do outside of work, outside of the world of political science?

Mai Hassan: I just gave birth to my new daughter, Nadeen. But before Nadeen came into this world, when I had a little bit more free time, one of the things that I really liked to do was read a lot of African fiction. Before she was born, I was finishing up a book actually by Nadine Gordimer, “The Conservationist,” one of her earlier pieces. I really got into reading African fiction while I was doing my field research. It sounds kind of silly, but discovering this huge and beautiful literary world of African fiction that's really been taking off, I feel like, in the past decade or two. Though, obviously, Nadine Gordimer's work dates to much longer than that. So I'm finishing up a book by Nadine Gordimer and I also just started a book by Abdulrazak Gurnah, who won the Nobel Prize a few years ago. This was also a book on Obama's must-read list of 2022, “Afterlives.” Very much enjoying that.

Sally Kornbluth: Excellent, excellent. Don't worry, it'll be like 20 years and you'll have more reading time again. That's great. Congratulations.

Mai Hassan: Thank you.

Sally Kornbluth: Then there's the whole era of doing things that your child or children will enjoy and then it opens up a whole other vista of things you hadn't thought about.

Mai Hassan: I will really be enjoying literature works of Llama Llama in a few years.

Sally Kornbluth: Yes, you got it. You got it, absolutely. Actually, it's funny. Just as a digression, I was thinking about that the other day. It was just a hard day. I remembered I used to be my kids a book called, something like, “Alexander and the No Good, Very Bad Day.” I thought, "I need to open up that book again."

If you think about your aspirations, are you thinking that you'll continue to — I know it's early — to pursue the lines of investigation? Do you foresee opening up new areas you might pursue? Or are you just going to follow the breadcrumbs and see where they lead?

Mai Hassan: Something I'm really excited about doing moving forward is letting the research interests of my graduate students really shape the kind of research that I end up doing. Graduate students are much better plugged in to what's happening in the world and they're on the ground to a much larger degree than I [am]. They're the ones who are actually able to spend months in the field or can spend a lot of time in the nitty gritty of research in a way that, given the increased responsibilities of an associate professor, I'm not able to do as much anymore. So, following their lead: I'm really excited about that.

Sally Kornbluth: That's actually, I think, a big secret ingredient of MIT. Which is that the students are so brilliant and they come up with so many great ideas. I look back at my own scientific career, and some of the best lines of investigation that we pursued weren't my ideas. They were the student's ideas. You have to recognize the good idea and encourage it, but beyond that, really smart people can do fantastic things as long as you give them the environment to flourish.

Mai Hassan: Yes. I'm really looking forward to growing into that element of my role.

Sally Kornbluth: That's terrific. What's the best advice you've ever been given?

Mai Hassan: There is a political scientist that I know, a more senior political scientist. One piece of advice that she gave me is from RBG [Ruth Bader Ginsburg]. When you are at work, you should just be fully present at work, and when you're at home, be fully present at home. It's something that I've been trying to do a bit more of: to really, really enjoy my maternity leave and recognizing that these moments with my daughter are precious and they're fleeting; then be rejuvenated for when I'm back in the office and get to really think about these problems that have been motivating me for so much of my life.

Sally Kornbluth: It's funny because on another podcast interview, we were talking about how that can be so difficult to do and how many of us live our lives completely intertwined. Whereas the work and the play are — and the family life and the friendships — are really together. I think both strategies can work. But I still remember being in my office in between students showing me experimental data and trying to get the summer camp booked, or whatever. Sometimes the world will not cooperate with your trying to keep it neat. Particularly in this era of the continual onslaught of email and text messages and everything else, it can be so hard to disaggregate that. But it is true.

Mai Hassan: You can turn them off.

Sally Kornbluth: You can turn them off, that's right. Oh, right, you can turn them off. I forgot about that.

Mai Hassan: Maybe you can't, Sally.

Sally Kornbluth: Yes, right, exactly, exactly. I really enjoyed our conversation, Mai. Getting to know you a little bit, getting to hear about the fantastic work that you do, and opening my eyes to some things that I really just didn't know about. You have helped to "unbound" my curiosity. That's really been terrific.

Mai Hassan: I've really enjoyed this conversation. Thanks so much for having me, Sally.


Sally Kornbluth: Mai, can you give us any insight on the current violence in Sudan and what that may mean for the country and its people?

Mai Hassan: Yes, Sally. The situation in Sudan right now is really tragic. Hostility and conflict broke out on April 15th. On the one hand, we have the Sudan Armed Forces, the conventional army. It's led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Then on the other side, we have a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces, or the RSF, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, but everyone calls him Hemetti.

What I was talking about in our prior podcast — what my research had been focused on — was thinking about the role of popular uprising and how people can come together to overthrow these repressive dictatorships. That's what happened in Sudan. They overthrew this 30-year-old military dictatorship. You can imagine in the democratic transition that ensued, there's a lot of uncertainty and a lot of instability about what the new democratic — hopefully — country is going to look like. What the new rules of the game are. Who is in? Who is out? What do the political institutions look like?

You can imagine a situation in which a post-democratic Sudan probably doesn't have a place for military leaders, especially ones that are in charge of forces that have committed atrocities to the population. Both men had very strong political ambitions and wanted to run the country and probably weren't going to get there through democratic means. As negotiations were coming to a head, to actually transition power over to civilians, that really brought up the temperature and then really brought things to a head.

On top of that, one of the things that was supposed to happen with the civilian transition is security sector reform, in which their armed forces, SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] and the RSF were both supposed to be placed under civilian rule. As you can imagine, both men didn't want to give up that power.

Sally Kornbluth: It's interesting, in our earlier conversation, you discussed how often people who are actually part of the bureaucracy really do want what's best for the country. Then the leaders can come in and basically try to co-opt the bureaucracy and not really want what's best for the country, really want to consolidate their own power. This is an extreme version of this, where it's using the whole security or military system as an instrument not to protect the country against external aggressors, but really to consolidate power in their own camp.

Mai Hassan: 100%. Something that's so upsetting is that so many young Sudanese men have joined these forces in part because there aren't that many opportunities. There's so much unemployment in the country. These forces, especially at the lower ranks, the enlistees is really representative of the Sudanese population. Many of these men join precisely because they want a better life for their families. Now they're being pitted against each other for the egos, pretty much, of their two generals. It's something that's deeply, deeply tragic.

Sally Kornbluth: It sounds like they have no remorse about destroying the country in pursuit of their own personal gain.

Mai Hassan: It's so upsetting to see how quickly the country has fallen. I know Khartoum best, the capital city. It was this thriving city that so many refugees and IDPs [internally displaced persons] had migrated to because of all the conflicts in neighboring countries and all the conflicts in Sudan internally in the peripheries of the country. That hostility has been strongest in Khartoum. It's a really sad reversal where people are just fleeing the capital city. All the reports that I'm getting are that it's a complete ghost town, that people are traveling hundreds of kilometers north to the border with Egypt. Other people are fleeing to Chad, going to Port Sudan so that they can cross over to Saudi Arabia.

Sally Kornbluth: I think we've been in a very long-established democracy. It's hard for us to think back to the origins of our own democracy and all the struggles that went on in terms of establishing norms and writing the rules. Now we fast forward to other democracies which are trying to emerge, which are in a much more fragile world in many ways. Layer on top of that news coverage, the influence of external forces, that can lead to outcomes that would potentially be very much against what the majority of the population wants. How do you see that in the context of what's happening now in Sudan?

Mai Hassan: Definitely, in the case of the United States as you were referring to. But something that your comments made me think about is that Sudan wasn't a democracy yet. We were just still in the process of writing the rules of the game. We forget how important this rule-making and this institution-making is. That the fighting broke out precisely because they wanted to shape what the institutions would look like, means that institutions do matter. That they wanted to make sure that the institutions and the rules were set up in such a way that it would favor them. I think it really places power on these institutions. But at the same time it makes the creation of these institutions a really, really important process as well.

The hope that I have is that when this conflict does start abating and new rules are starting to be written and Sudan gets back on the democratization process, that everyone is going to be really, really insistent that democratic groups, that civilian groups, are the ones who are placed in charge of writing these rules. We've seen what happens when we have these military men writing these institutions. They're going to write it in such a way that will benefit them. Or they're not actually going to be staunch supporters of the process. Or they're going to pull the rug out from everyone's feet when the rules are about to be signed in a way that they don't like. How is it that we can get actual civilian groups into this process and empower them so that we don't have this type of situation again?

Sally Kornbluth: Your comment about empowering them does make me think, though, that a lot of the population must feel sort of hopeless at this point. In other words, you're about to tip into a better society and, again, you can see how fragile it is and how easy it is to reverse the course, even with the will of the vast majority of the people moving the opposite direction.

Mai Hassan: For sure. In my mind, it just cements how important security sector reform is. In that the men with guns at these institutions are actually placed under civilian rule. Because they are very, very powerful. As soon as the fighting starts, then talking stops. How do we place these guns in the hands of responsible people? That sounds so naive, but it's important.

Sally Kornbluth: As soon as you have no control over military, then when things don't go the way they want and they can do whatever they like, the individuals who have the physical force are going to prevail. I really appreciate your insight into this. I think we've all seen the news in the newspaper. In fact, it was only a few days after we taped the original podcast that I saw this and thought it would really be helpful to our listeners to have an update from you that gave us a little insight onto what's going on. I really appreciate that. Thank you again, and I hope we'll have a chance to talk further.

Mai Hassan: Thanks so much, Sally.

Sally Kornbluth: To our audience, thanks again for listening to Curiosity Unbounded. I very much hope you will all join us again. I'm Sally Kornbluth. Stay curious.

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