The breadth of research in the social sciences at NYU Abu Dhabi uses data to help historians, economists, NGOs, and governments better understand human behavior — and improve people’s lives.
Robert Allen, global distinguished professor of economic history at NYUAD, heads a research project that collects and analyzes historical data on wages and prices in the Middle East. The initiative’s goal is to understand how Middle Eastern economies have developed.
Allen is one of many NYUAD scholars working to increase our understanding of issues in development and globalization. From African villages to the Athens subway to rural China, NYUAD researchers are improving our knowledge of the dense mesh of connections that determines how societies change.
It's no small goal, trying to assemble a wage and price history of the world. Allen first started this work three decades ago, and while he has worked intermittently at it, many others have been doing similar work. The idea is to build an online database, "so that people anywhere in the world can the study the economic history of the Middle East."
A prime source for the regional data Allen is seeking will be "reports written by British, French, and German consuls stationed in major cities of the Ottoman and Persian empires,” because these officials regularly reported on prices, trade, and shipping. Business newspapers and corporate archives should prove useful. Then there are Russian archives — "the Russians had a lot of trade with Persia" — and more.
As data collection proliferates, Allen has already applied some statistics. "I'm now writing a paper about cotton mills in the Middle East before the First World War." It assesses the role of input prices, interest rates, the import of machinery, and other market factors on the rate of development.
Allen, who divides his time between Abu Dhabi and the UK, says that the UAE is the right place for this project to be based. "Being here is just evocative," he said. "For me it really matters, if I'm working on the history of someplace, to be there and look at it and feel it and see it. I pick up lots of stuff almost subliminally. Being here matters."
Research That Could Save Lives
While Allen studies the economics of the past, Peter van der Windt, another NYUAD social scientist, is working on the health care of the future. Van der Windt, an assistant professor of political science, is examining the role of local institutions in decision-making in West Africa, where more than 11,000 people have died of Ebola disease since 2014.
His project is designed to document the outbreak, analyze the data, and improve response capacity, especially in Sierra Leone.
When the disease began spreading, van der Windt said, "the whole NGO world was jumping up and down, rushing into Sierra Leone's villages. It was very much top-down. But the government is largely absent in rural areas. Sierra Leone is really 149 little kingdoms, and if a king is against something, the government can say whatever it wants, but it doesn't happen. NGOs don't always take into account the local power structures and customs."
Example: "Safe burial is a big issue with Ebola, but village people would not call the NGOs to come and conduct safe burials. It turns out the NGOs were using black body bags, and given the local customs, culture, and religion, you can't do that, you can't bury people in black. When they started wrapping the bodies first in a white blanket, and then the black bag, it was OK."
With a colleague from the Netherlands, van der Windt is cooperating with anthropologists from Njala University, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to consult chiefs, traditional healers, and other local leaders about such issues. What they're learning could save lives in the next medical emergency.
He's also assembling data. "All the NGOs were collecting data and we know when quarantines took place, where cases were diagnosed, where people died. But a lot of organizations don't have the capacity to evaluate their data. And sometimes people don't want to share. It's all understandable, but it’s not so good for learning.
"Once [we] unearth a really large data set, we'll be able to answer so many important questions: Do quarantines work? Is it because of trade that Ebola spread? Particularly the rice trade, as some suspect? Do treatment centers work better in ethnically-homogenous areas, or ethnically-diverse ones?"
This aspect of the work is a more traditional type of political science: studying how national governments can best work with community power structures. For example, "we may want to test the best way to get people vaccinated. It won't work to just go to a village and announce 'be at this clinic at 2 p.m.' because only 10 per cent show up. Maybe it would be better to sit down with the community chief and win his trust. Many questions like that we can test with very small tweaks to the things NGOs are already doing."
Nikos Nikiforakis, associate professor of economics, specializes in experimental economics. He commissioned deliberate littering in the main Athens subway station, Syntagma, and in stations in Cologne, Germany. The project discovered clear cultural differences in commuters' reactions to this mild form of vandalism.
One of the big themes across academic disciplines ... is how cooperation has evolved. It's hard to explain the cooperation among strangers that we observe in daily life.
"One of the big themes across academic disciplines, in biology, economics, and anthropology, is how cooperation has evolved," he said. "It's hard to explain the cooperation among strangers that we observe in daily life."
Specifically, he's looking into "altruistic punishment" — the propensity to object when others violate social norms, even when there's no concrete benefit to the "punisher."
Will people go out of their way to punish those who litter, with words or a gesture of reprimand? Will the punishment respond to the severity of the offense — say, the quantity of the discarded trash? Does fear of verbal or physical retaliation increase with the scale of the violation?
"We know from all sorts of measures," Nikiforakis said, "that Germany has strong norms of civic cooperation." When his team tossed empty drink containers and larger paper bags of trash, people were "much more upset" by more blatant littering, but "we found absolutely no difference in their willingness to punish" the more serious offenders.
Nikiforakis also found "the fear of retaliation increases with the severity of the violation. It's kind of intuitive," he said, that someone willing to litter more severely might also be willing to retaliate more strongly when reprimanded.
So, is cooperation in general linked to fear of punishment? "Together with the idea that people are afraid of counter-punishment — retaliation — this actually suggests that the best mechanisms for supporting co-operation may be mechanisms that prevent counter-punishment, such as police."
This implies, he said, that society needs "laws to reinforce certain desirable behaviours" – laws against littering, for example.
And what of the cultural differences? A litterer in Germany, he found, is much more likely to be "punished" than one in Greece. But while the rate of punishment for littering males is the same in both places, "Germans are five times more likely to punish a female violator." Is this connected with different social views of women? There are still many questions to answer.
Improving Programs and Systems
While Nikiforakis works with concepts, J. Lawrence Aber is right on the interface between research and applied social policy. Aber is co-director of Global TIES for Children, an initiative to improve young lives in low-income and conflict-afflicted countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lebanon, Chile, Ghana, and Niger.
Global TIES aims, Aber said, to cooperate with the government of the UAE, to help inform its foreign aid policy. "The Ministry for International Cooperation and Development (MICAD) has been making investments in improving primary education in sub-Saharan Africa," he noted, "and providing humanitarian relief in areas affected by conflict. And that overlaps with our mission and activities.
"Both MICAD and Dubai Cares, the largest national private philanthropy, are devoted to evidence-based policies and programs," Aber said. "So we're trying to generate the evidence."
"Think of us as the smart chip," Aber continued, "a little thing that we hope makes our strategic partners and government ministries more effective. Our modus operandi is to work with hands-on organizations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has, for example 1,000 people on the ground in Ghana."
Aber cited a Congolese example. "We discovered that it's possible to help children feel safer in schools, in conflict-afflicted regions, by changing teacher practices away from punitive and rote procedures. Children learn math and reading better when other methods are used.
"The IRC, our strategic partner, developed an intervention program called Learning in Healing Classrooms (LHC). We conducted a 350-school field experiment in the DRC, with teachers relying less on physical punishment and shame as discipline techniques, and more on positive techniques." Teachers were taught that "their job is to help the kids feel safe and supported."
Meanwhile, "in Ghana we're helping authorities to train 27,000 pre-school teachers who now have no training." This is, Aber concluded, "a highly strategic form of research, in the service of improving programs and systems."