I was inspired to write this after hearing Rob Wiblin say that as the obvious funding areas become saturated, the EA community needs to look at more unusual areas for grants. I have a very unusual but potentially high-impact area.
Promoting EA ideas and writing on political economy in the Middle East
This summer I hope to move to Saudi Arabia to promote EA and political economy ideas in gulf newspapers. EA ideas are poorly represented in the Arab world, despite large aid and charity flows from the region. Below I provide a list of topics, which include classic EA pieces like the cost of saving a life, promoting policy innoviations such as prediction markets, and communicating political economy findings from outside the region. Below I include a tentative description of proposed activities and expenses.
I would love advice to improve the pitch and what funders might be interested. I plan to apply to the forecasting newsletter microgrants and emergent ventures. But I need more ideas and potential sources.
I also welcome advice about how to improve the proposal. What would make me look more qualified? How should I pitch differently?
Why this is valuable
Both EA ideas and modern political economy are surprisingly neglected in the Middle East. It seems that EA concepts or core cannon have neither been promoted much in the MENA region nor translated into Arabic. There is a small EA community in Dubai but it seems mainly western or Indian in membership. The gains from EA ideas in the MENA region are potentially large. The gulf countries have large state development agencies, with the UAE disbursing 12 billion annually, Qatar 2 billion, and Saudi 1.5 billion. However, the Arab aid agencies tend to focus on large infrastructure projects (e.g. (Arab Fund](https://www.arabfund.org/Default.aspx?nid=656&pageId=487)), which are saturated and low-yield in the Middle East. The Saudis and Emiratis are also engaged in a major statebuilding project in South Yemen. Private charity funding is large, but I did not find data on that.
By political economy, I broadly mean the application of economic tools like game theory and econometrics to the study of politics. Despite the obsession with political news in the MENA, modern political economy is not part of the conversation. I have never seen game theory or any modern political studies discussed in the Jordan Times or AlSharq AlAwsat, between reams on the latest great power infighting. One reason for this is that western academics who focus on the Middle East tend to be less mathy than the rest of the world.
Meanwhile studies on autocratic politics have exploded in the past decade. To take one piece, Russianists found divided government in Russian oblasts increased the resource curse. That piece has direct consequences for the Saudi statebuilding project in Yemen: uncertainty about who will expropriate whom in post-war South Yemen leads to underinvestment in productive assets. I see large added-value in describing foreign research for the Arab audience.
Sample Topic List
I hope to write and have translated one article a week. I will start with the most accessible/popular ones for the Gulf audience to build reputation.
New solutions to ancient problems by Myanmar's rebels: A piece about how Myanmar's largest rebel group convinces ethnic rebels it won't betray them upon victory. Solutions include sending rebels to live among the minorities and receive lectures from minority political officers.
Betting on Wars? How prediction markets became popular in Western Intelligence agencies: An article about why the CIA and MI6 adopted prediction markets. Transition to what prediction markets offer the Kingdom.
How much does it cost to save a life? An accessible intro to the GiveWell story of cost-effective life-saving interventions.
Is cash the best gift? The give directly model compared to other interventions. Especially relevant because giving directly is quite popular in the Middle East.
How the Italian Government Fought corruption in public procurement: The story of Consip in Italy, in which the government centralized procurement of common supplies. It reduced spending on supplies for government agencies by 6%[^2].
I am a PhD student in comparative politics at Georgetown University, where I focus on policy selection in non-democracies. I lived in Jordan for two years after graduating from Uni, where I wrote children's textbook and ran policy studies for international donors and the Jordanian government. I returned to the US in 2018 and started a PhD here. I speak Arabic with a thick Jordanian accent, but my vocabulary has slipped as covid kept me in the US. I can read and write Arabic, though not as fluently as I speak.
Why try such a risky career move? The short answer is that I have to go anyway. My main career paths are academia, government research and political risk consulting, all of which value regional expertise. The problem is that I have been in the US for 3 years now. It's hard to call yourself a MENA expert if you've been outside MENA for 3 years! More specifically, I need to refresh my language skills, scout for research opportunities, and build my personal network.
For a sample of my writing in English, see here.
Implementation and budgeting
Hiring a good translator is a crucial component of the plan. My speaking arabic is quite strong, but I am a weak writer. I therefore need to hire a skilled translator to make each piece publishable. Fortunately, I have enough arabic to engage closely with the translation process and preserve my intent. Translation services will be a major expense. I will likely hire a translator in either Lebanon or Jordan for better wages and skills.
I hope to put out one article a week for 8 weeks from June to late July.
My other expenses are flights (1000 for two months) living expenses 2000$ for tw translation services 2000$ (250$/article for 8 pieces)
Total funding needs: 6000$
I think soliciting small pieces of funding from different sources could work. For example, an EA promoting fund could pay the portion of time devoted to EA ideas. Also if my writing sells I may eventually get to charge the publishers.
If I cannot find funding, I may reduce my expenses by moving to Lebanon. Lebanon is much cheaper due to the favorable exchange rate. I estimate I would spend a third as much there. However, my added value in Lebanon is much lower. Lebanon has more developed connections to the west (large diaspora community) and is an aid darling. Secondly, the consociational system makes implementing any reforms unlikely.
What I need from EA Forum!
Advice! What aspects of this pitch seem least developed? Which assumptions in my theory of change need testing?
[^2}: I have to check the Gulf countries have not already adopted a similar model first. It's much easier to do that in-country.
I still do not understand this effect. Among autocratists like me, statistical methods are extremely popular in China, Russia and Indonesia and modestly popular in African and Latin America. But they are practically unheard of in the Middle East. This is partly a function of data, which is much harder to get in the Middle East. But I am doubtful this is the full story. Every Arab ministry I've visited has the same frustrated reformers happy to share that you find in Russia and Indonesia. And Turkey and Russia run pro-government misinformation campaigns similar to the Arab states. The stock market data is wide open. But I disgress. ↩︎