Assistant Professor of Economics Stephen O’Connell brought his technical expertise in welfare programs straight to the frontlines of the Syrian refugee crisis during his trip to Lebanon in the summer of 2019.

After a brutal government crackdown on public demonstrations in March 2011, violence spread throughout Syria culminating in a civil war. Lebanon currently houses 1.5 million of the 5.7 million refugees that subsequently fled the country.

When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) and the United Nations World Food Programme called for proposals to support the refugees, O’Connell banded together with three other researchers to create a “targeting system” model.

The research team included Bentley University (Mass.) Assistant Professor of Economics Onur Altindag, Harvard University (Mass.) graduate student Aytug Sasmaz and Northeastern University (Mass.) doctoral student Zeynep Balcioglu. Their econometric model predicts household expenditures at a much higher accuracy than previous methods. With the model, cash and food assistance can be more efficiently and fairly distributed to a large population, and vulnerable households can be prioritized.

After their proposal was selected by the UNCHR, the researchers journeyed overseas to directly implement their system. They spent approximately three and a half weeks, split between two separate trips, traveling throughout Lebanon. Primarily stationed in the capital of Beirut, the team stayed in a rented home together, which O’Connell deemed their “research house.”

Altindag noted that Lebanon’s own history of civil war created additional difficulties, stating that “the infrastructure [made] figuring out the logistics of doing business … challenging.”

On a similar note, Sasmaz realized the large volume of elements involved in the crisis created many complex dimensions. Myriad levels of organizations collaborate to distribute aid, from the United Nations (UN) to several local charities.

“I remember … feeling overwhelmed by the complexity [of the crisis],” said Sasmaz, recounting the difficulty of adjusting initially. 

Through working with these nonprofit organizations, O’Connell discovered academic researchers and humanitarian aid professionals often have different priorities and constraints. He noted that professors are generally accustomed to more freedom while conducting research, and organizations are more concerned with practical application than the many nuances of academic research. Nevertheless, both O’Connell and Sasmaz stressed the importance of the UN’s role. 

“I was left thinking several times what the world would be like … with no leading organization to coordinate the efforts and resources of donor countries wanting to help,” said O’Connell.

Throughout the project, the team members specialized in different roles. Sasmaz was responsible for the large-scale data collection used in blind validation tests. Balcioglu lead the qualitative field work to identify and mitigate any existing major problems with the model’s structure. Finally, O’Connell and Altindag were mainly involved in the development and calibration of the model.

Altindag appreciated being exposed to a different side of his area of expertise, stating, “Normally we work with data, but we actually had a chance to observe how that data is collected.”

Stephen O’Connell, Assistant Professor of Economics/ Courtesy of Stephen O’Connell

The team visited many refugees through household visits, whilst collecting data. Sasmaz and O’Connell noted the juxtaposition between the warm personalities of the refugees and the harsh living conditions they endured.

“I was a bit taken away by how much I was moved by the difficult situations that I saw,” O’Connell said. “Some individuals aren’t even living in very solid structures or structures at all.”

Additionally, the researchers held focus groups with refugees and other partners, which consisted of planned discussions to predict consumer perceptions of their system. They also consulted officers working directly on the field and held many meetings with the UNCHR.

While the team’s research can provide the necessary technical expertise to help refugees, O’Connell knows that policy change is crucial to bringing forth tangible impacts.

“I think the challenge naturally is getting researchers and policymakers to speak to each other,” O’Connell said. 

The team hopes to continue working with the UNCHR to expand and improve their model. Currently, they are circulating their ideas through academic circles in search of advice and feedback. Here at Emory, O’Connell presented the model at an Institute for Quantitative Theory and Methods seminar on Sept. 18, 2019.

“We get told of new exciting work that maybe we’re not aware of that we can implement,” O’Connell said. “The goal is just to make it better.”

The team’s next big step is evaluating how cash assistance improves the lives of refugees, with a focus on the children.

O’Connell said he is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the refugee cause so directly while staying true to his area of expertise. He hopes his work serves as an example that the field of economics encapsulates more than just basic economic principles.

“This work really isn’t about me,” O’Connell said. “I’m just lucky that I got … to use what I do to hopefully do a good job … for the refugees.”

He encourages students interested in a similar career path to boldly pursue every possible opportunity, stating, “Go knock on doors. There’s nothing lost to any mail that goes unanswered. There’s nothing lost to a phone call that goes unreturned.”