For the latest in a new series featuring top alumni, we asked Dr. Zina Nimeh to share her impressions of the PhD programme and how it has shaped her career. Zina speaks of what brought her to Maastricht, the challenges of gathering data in the Middle East, and the poignancy of completing the course during the ‘Arab Spring’.
I joined the world of academia a bit later than the average academic. My professional career in policy making was fulfilling and rewarding, but I somehow felt that it lacked the depth and academic rigour that would make it truly meaningful. This is why when I learned of the launch of a new PhD programme in Maastricht, backed with funding from the Marie Curie Research foundation, I was intrigued!
Set to begin in the fall of 2005, the interdisciplinary programme offered a state-of-the-art curriculum taught by prominent scholars in a wide scope of fields ranging from economics, to sociology to political science. It promised to equip prospective researchers with an all-embracing combination of theoretical education, technical skills and personally tailored areas of knowledge which would be utilized through “evidenced based policy making”.
Galvanizing policy and practice
As someone already working in the realm of policy making, exposed at an early age to the practical aspects of the decision making process at government level, I was first impressed with the name of the institute: the “Maastricht Graduate School of Governance”. I was also aware that the concept of ‘Governance’ was really catching on in Jordan, where discussions were taking place on how to properly translate the term into Arabic.
I was then a member of a team leading the design and implementation of public policy reform in Jordan. I felt however that to make a true contribution to my vocation, I needed to combine my practical experience with academic rigour.
The programme delivered on its promise! The first year was gruelling and intense. Week in and week out, my group of 14 fellows from Albania, Belgium, China, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Mexico and the USA would discuss, debate, attend lectures and seminars on various topics in economics, demographics, policy analysis, risk assessment, policy design, policy monitoring, policy evaluation.
We then moved on to methods and techniques of policy research, and I was introduced to what would become my faithful companion throughout my PhD journey, the one which would make it all come together, the alpha and omega of my empirical work. The STATA programme! STATA… the general-purpose statistical software package created in 1985 by StataCorp (the pronunciation of which still remains a mystery to me).
I used the STATA programme to pursue my “evidence based” PhD on Social Protection Policy. My research topic covered several Arab countries, but ultimately aimed to explain how social policy worked. The ideas were abundant and the areas to explore were endless… but then I faced a monstrous problem [A problem which still exists and is in dire need of a proactive solution, which I aim to personally contribute to!].
Tracking the data, joining the dots
The exact problem was this: How could I do evidence-based research without the evidence, without the data? Anyone who understands the basics of statistics knows that, in order to be useful for research, data should reflect constant and consistent collection processes; it should be timely, relevant and complete, and, naturally, it should be available. Additionally anyone who understands the Middle East can already guess my next point… DATA is simply not available!
Except for random surveys, gathered mainly under the supervision of international organizations (mostly the World Bank or the UN), data is hard to come by. And when (good) data did exist… many times it would be considered a matter of ‘national security’.
Yes it is true that over the last decade, there has been a local and international outcry to require policy makers in the region to base their work on evidence — logically, policy should be based on the facts and data, but researchers are not granted this privilege.
My struggle with data meant that I had to settle for what the data would allow me to do; and while initially I wanted to explore different countries I ended up studying my own country Jordan, even though we were recommended in the first year not to do so, as our emotional bond with it might shade our objectivity). Despite this warning, Jordan was my only option after a few waves of good data became available to me.
I put on my utmost objective hat and, for the years to follow, I ventured into studying social protection, citizenship, and social cohesion in Jordan. After hundreds of revisions, countless edits, and drafts I was able to conclude my study, which in essence looked at social citizenship rights, and examined the conditions of inequality and social exclusion of newly entering groups into a host country’s society based on variations in social policy towards these groups.
I specifically studied the case of Palestinian refugees. I tried to demonstrate through data that an inclusive social citizenship policy targeted at new groups that enter a society can have lasting effects. With regards to Palestinian refugees in Jordan my results explored the groups who were not granted Jordanian nationality and examined the reasons why people remained in refugee camp housing and consistently fared worse than any other social group.
Personal development, turbulent backdrop
The important result that I took away from my PhD was not as much the story that I was able to tell, but rather the aptitude to show its magnitude and potential impact on society by putting numbers in front of the claims.
The completion of my PhD coincided with a turbulent time in the Middle East, a time of uncertainty, change, promise, confusion, anger, fear, hope and anticipation. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ had a profound impact on the region and I believe that its final outcome will not become clear for at least a generation, if not two or three.
It is difficult to decide on the course of one’s career in a time tinted by political turbulence, economic difficulties, and even conflict. I am sure however that the kind of work that I have learnt to do in Maastricht will be essential in the building phases to come in the region; and as its applicability is unfolding before me, I feel that I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to make this detour in my career. I believe that it will play a major role in what I will be doing in the future.
From a professional point of view, my PhD research helped me acquire many skills. It gave a deeper knowledge in the field of social policy and my PhD topic itself; it gave me the merit of doing empirical work while trying to get a message across. But apart from this it gave me a new kind of courage to be able to shift gears and explore other relevant areas of interest in a ‘scientific’ manner.
I now have a structured sense of how to explore a new area, pick it up quickly, understand its nuts and bolts, analyse it and determine if I have something new to contribute to it, even if other people have been exploring this particular area for some time.
Additionally the PhD programme has taught me to question things more than before, to methodically reject the status quo and to contradict conventional
wisdom in a constructive way and not just for the sake of it — although this does prove to be an entertaining activity at times!
by Dr. Zina Nimeh, Assistant Professor / Coordinator Social Protection Policy Design & Financing Specialization. Images: UN Photo / M.Garten; UNU / H.Pijpers.