Daniel Posner comes to MIT with an ambitious research agenda for Africa

"The challenges of development are among the most critical global issues to be tackled by social scientists," says MIT Political Science professor Daniel Posner and newly appointed Total Chair on Contemporary Africa. "You can have the best intentions in the world to provide a public good, but unless your actions are guided by empirically grounded, analytically rigorous research and sound theory, your efforts are likely to fall short."

Political developments in Africa have created tremendous opportunities to study how the formal adoption of democracy impacts social and economic development outcomes. Posner is using his year as a visiting fellow at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences to launch a multi-year research project analyzing public education initiatives and outcomes in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. The project comprises the NGO Uwezo, professors Lily L. Tsai of MIT and Evan S. Lieberman of Princeton, and several graduate students.

Uwezo has been administering literacy and numeracy tests in thousands of villages in eastern Africa, and Posner and his colleagues are evaluating the impact. "The first step is to create and analyze a broad data set on the impact of Uwezo's interventions," says Posner. "In most instances, the tests are showing substandard achievement levels." The project's African partners are using this data to help mobilize local communities and shape education policies from the ground up. When citizens have this kind of information, they are empowered to demand better outcomes from public programs.

This work builds on Posner's already significant body of research that explores the impact of ethnicity and social diversity on politics, policy, and economic development in Africa. His first two books, Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa (2005) and Coethnicity: Diversity and the Dilemmas of Collective Action (with James Habyarimana, Macartan Humphreys, and Jeremy Weinstein, 2009), each received the Luebbert Best Book Award in comparative politics from the American Political Science Association.

Supported by MIT Political Science and a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation, Posner also is expanding the range of the Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE). The group, which Posner cofounded in 2002 and co-leads with UC Berkley economics professor Edward Miguel, will establish an East Coast branch in 2011.

Posner considers MIT to be the ideal place to continue his work. "I'm excited by the wealth of faculty and graduate student expertise we have at the Institute," he says. "Plus we have initiatives like the Poverty Action Lab, the International Development Initiative, D-Lab, and the opportunity to collaborate with economists, psychologists, and other social scientists across the immensely talented Cambridge academic community. Given all the resources we have here, I expect that MIT will emerge as one of the top institutions in the world for the study of problems in the political economy of development."

Daniel Posner recently joined the MIT Political Science faculty. Read more about his research.

Daniel Posner featured on MIT's "In Profile."