Economist Hamid Ali believes that good evidence can move public policy. Ali’s research on the severe economic impact of war is pushing for peace in his Sudanese homeland of Darfur.
Ali, MS ’00, PhD ’04, is an assistant professor at the American University of Cairo. In July he published an analysis of the war in Darfur, which since 2003 has killed an estimated 300,000 people, displaced 3 million, and resulted in the torching of 3,000 Darfuri villages.
Ali estimates the cost of armed conflict in Darfur at $24 billion, including $10 billion in direct military costs, $7.2 in lost productivity costs by those displaced, $4.1 billion in infrastructure damage, and $2.6 billion in the lost wages of those killed in the war.
The study became part of the public-policy debate in his nation, which he left in 2000 to begin graduate school in Austin. He currently fears arrest if he were to return.
“Too often when discussing the war, there’s only talk of the casualties,” Ali says. “But the economic impact is tremendous.”
According to Ali’s research, the Sudanese government spends 23 percent of the nation’s GDP on war efforts. Combined spending on public health and education comprise just 2.5 percent of total government spending.
“I’m hoping this puts pressure on our leaders to want to put an end to the conflict,” he says. “We are a poor country, but very generous when it comes to war.”
Ali’s report stands as one part of his effort to bring peace to Darfur, which is in Sudan’s western region. Earlier this year, he presented the Darfuri case to the U.S. envoy to Sudan. The professor helped bring together disparate opposition forces at a meeting in Chad. He hosted a workshop at AUC’s downtown Cairo campus with Darfuri technocrats about strategies to boost economic development in the region. And he also initiated the process that led to establishment of the Darfuri Development Advisory Group, which brought together hundreds of groups to help to help jump-start the peace process.
The world’s attention in the past year has focused on creation of the nation of South Sudan, which became sovereign this summer. The turmoil in Darfur, meanwhile, has continued.
“Darfur has been on the back burner for too long,” says Ali. “Our country is in real trouble.”
The son of an appliance merchant in the city of Elfasher, Ali earned his bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Khartoum. He earned his PhD in public policy at UT in 2004, taught at Southern Methodist University, and then spent two years with the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
There he reviewed spending by the Department of Defense. It was an eye-opening experience, during which time he says he observed both the department’s laudatory investments in training and its spending practices in the acquisition and maintenance of armament systems.
“In human development, the department does a good job—in education training and social mobility,” he says. “But when we looked in the area of armaments, we found wasteful spending.”
Until now, Ali says Mideast graduate programs for government decision-makers have focused on public administration. These programs train workers on how to better manage the sprawling bureaucracies throughout the region.
At AUC, he played a major role in setting up the school’s new masters’ in public policy program, which will train the next generation of leaders to work in the region’s fledgling democracies. Ali wants to instill the evidence-based practices he first learned in Austin at the program—the Middle East’s first master’s in public policy.
He’s developed curricula for courses in policy analysis, program evaluation, public finance, quantitative analysis, and research methods.
“For too long, the governments here have made decisions without evidence,” says Ali. “We want to train policy practitioners in methods that use hard evidence to justify their new policies.”
Those policies, says Ali, can help reform the bureaucracies that have grown up around the dictatorial regimes that have now been vanquished in the Arab Spring.
“We need new policies to carry out the democracy that everyone has fought for,” he says. “It’s all about reforming the bureaucracies and setting new agendas. It’s about evaluating the bureaucracies to see if they are delivering the services that need to be delivered, holding people accountable, and figuring out how to pay for it all. That’s what lies at the heart of public policy.”