Democracy in Hard Places

The Ash Center's Democracy in Hard Places research initiative goes beyond current theory on the empirical evidence of democracy's value to look at the structural relationships in democratic practices in the developed and developing world. With a focus on Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Middle East, the program explores potential trade-offs between political and human rights on one hand, and economic development on the other. By leveraging research expertise from across the Ash Center, Democracy in Hard Places seeks to understand why democratic institutions thrive in some countries while failing in others.

The Middle East and North Africa is a central component of the Center's work on Democracy in Hard Places. Tarek Masoud, Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at Harvard Kennedy School oversees much of the Center's work on issues related to democracy and authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa. He is working on a book manuscript on the roots of the electoral success of Islamic parties in the Arab world, and is also engaged in research projects on legislative and voting behavior in Muslim countries.

Professor Masoud’s most recent book Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt endeavors to answer the question as to why Islam seems to dominate Egyptian politics, especially when the country's endemic poverty and deep economic inequality would seem to render it promising terrain for a politics of radical redistribution rather than one of religious conservativism. Professor Masoud’s research suggests that the answer lies not in the political unsophistication of voters, the subordination of economic interests to spiritual ones, or the ineptitude of secular and leftist politicians, but in organizational and social factors that shape the opportunities of parties in authoritarian and democratizing systems to reach potential voters. Tracing the performance of Islamists and their rivals in Egyptian elections over the course of almost forty years, Professor Masoud also illuminates the possibilities for the emergence in Egypt of the kind of political pluralism that is at the heart of what we expect from democracy.

The Harvard University Carnegie Corporation Centennial Fellowship Program is also an important component of the Democracy in Hard Places work. Carnegie fellowships are awarded to Arab social scientists who are working on the region’s most pressing public problems – particularly in the realms of education, health, social welfare, and political and economic reform. Detailed information about the Harvard University Carnegie Corporation Centennial Fellowship program can be found here.  

The Ash Center's Myanmar Program seeks to broaden and deepen the understanding of the development and democratic governance challenges facing Myanmar. The Myanmar Program moves beyond technical economics to understand the broader political economy of reform and explore the connections between politics and institutional development to better address the country’s social and economic problems. 

The Myanmar Program is engaged in producing informed and opinionated research for those who want to transform Myanmar from a poor, conflict-ridden, authoritarian state to a democratic, united, and thriving nation. This is as complicated as Myanmar’s history and current situation, in which many groups have been oppressed and marginalized. Such research requires the deep knowledge and connections which Proximity offers and requires contacts with government, legislative, ethnic, opposition, business, and other groups. By generating ideas from interviews, testing them in presentations, and getting feedback on papers that are published, translated, and available to all, the aim is to provide stakeholders with honest analysis and a range of potential approaches to solving pressing problems.

The HKS Indonesia Program develops research projects on key policy challenges facing the country. Building upon the Ash Center’s intellectual capital – with faculty who conduct cutting-edge research on democracy, governance, and development – the HKS Indonesia Program explores both how Indonesia can serve as a model to other democratizing countries and how its political and economic institutions can be reformed to ensure that its fledgling democracy endures and thrives. The Program works closely with Indonesian scholars, policymakers, and business leaders to strengthen policy education and research in Indonesia and to link Indonesia to regional and global knowledge networks.