The Arab uprisings demonstrated the weakness of states in the Arab world. The message was not entirely unpredictable. In the past, scholars and policymakers had simultaneously recognized the weakness of Arab states while ascribing to it dominance, understood the varied reach of state and social institutions while focusing on the center, and been concerned with the welfare of everyday citizens yet emphasized ‘high politics.’
In part, this was not surprising. The dominant paradigm in the social sciences ascribed to states dominance over social organizations. According to this view, the state was more organized, technologically savvy, and capable of extending its power than social counterparts. It also had a moral imperative to extend its reach. The state was to provide security and protection from predation, allocate scarce resources, and arbitrate values and interests in society. Social organizations were on the defensive, and the state would be inevitably triumphant. Aberrations from this perceived “norm” were viewed as particularly disturbing.
This state-oriented, center-focused approach to governance in the Middle East and North Africa risks blinding policymakers and scholars to realities on the ground. The tendency to overlook the nature and strength of social structures has led to a failure to understand the local dynamics of governance. Critical differences in the local dynamics of governance are often ignored, and attempts to improve governance become focused on the state mechanisms and institutions. (To the extent that civil society and other social forces are examined, it is in their role to shape and pressure the state). As a result, policy recommendations (e.g., decentralization, electoral institutions, etc.) are often advocated with little consideration of how the implications of these policies may vary both within and across countries.
The conference aims to reconsider these assumptions in an attempt to improve both policymaking and scholarship. It will bring together policymakers and scholars to reconsider the variation in local governance, both within and across countries in the Arab world. For scholars, the interdisciplinary conference aims to advance new theoretical and empirical understandings of state and non-state interactions, defining research and design solutions that assume a central place for local governance in the Middle East and North Africa. For policymakers, it aims to consider relevant tools for mapping local governance, and to examine the implications of such variation on policy implementation and outcomes.