How Graduate Degrees with a Double Focus in Policy and Administration Make Leaders More Effective in NGOs and Other Organizations

By: Khaldoun AbouAssi, Associate Professor with the American University Department of Public Administration and Policy

The world is in the midst of an unprecedented refugee crisis. As of mid-2022, 32 million people had fled their home countries to find safety in another, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. More than 6 million are housed in camps. 

Khaldoun AbouAssi views the crisis and the camps from two different perspectives. He’s had the personal experience of being internally displaced, as a youth in Lebanon during the civil war. He’s also interested from a scholarly standpoint, as Provost Associate Professor in the Online Master of Public Administration and Policy program at American University. 

“All our theories, concepts, and assumptions as public administration scholars are based on the assumption of  permanent settings,” he says. “But that is not the case of refugee camps. They’re intended to be there for a short period of time, although some  camps have been there for 75 years.”  

“How do public administration concepts apply in such temporary settings? How are services delivered, and by whom?” 

He’s planning to  examine those questions in a research project, analyzing how refugee camps worldwide are being managed. This work builds on his prior experience, of more than 12 years in government and nonprofit organizations in the Middle East. 

Reforming Government to Work

AbouAssi grew up near the fabled cedars of Lebanon, in the mountain town of Maasser el Shouf. The nearby Al-Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve remains his favorite spot, a place he calls “a piece of Heaven on earth.” 

An early interest in public affairs led him to the American University of Beirut. It was a crucial time in Lebanese history — the early 1990s — as the nation rebuilt from 15 years of civil war. To take a role in the reconstruction, he felt drawn to public administration.  

“I was interested in how to make public administration actually work for the benefit of the people, not necessarily the politicians,” he says. 

His  professor at AUB, the late Randa Antoun, became his mentor. While he earned his Master’s degree, she helped him get a job with the Minister of State for Administrative Development. His task was to reclassify every job across the public sector for better  reorganization. 

After four years, however, AbouAssi became frustrated with the slow pace of change in the public sector. After a brief tenure as political advisor at the South Korean Embassy in Lebanon, he accepted a job   at an international nongovernmental organization (NGO), AMIDEAST. 

The Nonprofit World  

AMIDEAST engages in education and cultural exchange in Middle Eastern and North African countries. At its Beirut office, AbouAssi worked on a project that channeled  funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development to local nonprofits, to promote good governance, transparency, and accountability. 

He was hired for a year. He ended up staying for six, overseeing projects that included a guide on dealing with the Ministry of Finance and a Monopoly-like board game about corruption. 

As he worked with local nonprofits, AbouAssi became intrigued by their complicated relationships with the government agencies and donors. When a funder changed priorities, some nonprofits would change their priorities with it, while others would end the relationship. 

He compares their reactions to an African proverb: “If you have your hand in another man’s pocket, you move when he moves.” He wondered why different nonprofits behaved differently. His interest grew into a doctoral education  and took him to the United States, to the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. 

The answer, he found, lay in the intersection of dependence on funding and connections in networks. The more an NGO was dependent and embedded in networks, with other organizations funded by the same donor, the more likely it was to stick with that donor.  

Study of NGOs  

In 2012, AbouAssi received a Ph.D. in Public Administration from the Maxwell School. He taught for three years at Texas A&M University, before coming to American University — not affiliated with American University of Beirut — in 2015.  

American, he says, encourages him to pursue his core research interest: comparing the management of government agencies and nonprofits domestically and internationally. It’s also helpful to be in the nation’s capital. “Here in Washington, D.C., you have the intersection between the two,” he says. 

His research has looked at questions such as  how gender affects government-NGO relationships, in a male-dominated country like Lebanon. In one article, he found that female public officials were less likely to work with nonprofits. However, nonprofits run by women were more likely to collaborate with local governments, particularly on issues like women’s rights.  

For his newest project, on management of refugee camps, AbouAssi hopes to survey a wide range of actors: international and local NGOs providing services in the  camps, governments they work with, donors who fund them, and refugees themselves.  

“I cannot imagine how it feels to be a refugee, deprived of your own home and living in a camp in a different country,” he says. “I would like to hear the experiences of those refugees and how much say they have in the services that are being provided to them or not.” 

Teaching Policy, Teaching Implementation  

Beyond research, AbouAssi carries a full load of teaching. He offers the same courses in person and online, such as Organizational Analysis. 

American, he says, strives to give online students the same opportunities as traditional ones, such as special events and career counseling. The students form online communities, taking the same classes together as they move through the program. 

He enjoys their diversity. In one class, a student in Germany compares perspectives with one in Samoa.  

As he did, 25 years earlier, they’re working full-time while earning degrees. The difference is that they can fit their classes around their schedules, accessing them at any time of day or night. 

By offering a double focus on public policy and public administration, AbouAssi feels, Americans program helps students pursue the same goal that first motivated him: how to make the public administration  work for the benefits of the people.. 

“You cannot make policy without understanding how it’s going to be implemented, and you cannot implement policy without really understanding how to make policy,” he says. “You cannot separate the two.”