Wasta وَاسِطة

Posted on: November 29, 2017 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Jordanian Aid Workers

Its not what you know its who you know

The use of social networking as a tool to navigate both personal and professional life is a time honored cultural universal. Indeed, historically nearly every facet of social life was deeply influenced by (perhaps even determined) one’s family, clan, and tribal connections.  The traditionally accepted norm of using connections to move forward in life both personally and professionally is now simultaneously clashing with and merging into our more modern and bureaucratized world.

“Spreading the hummous of satire over the flatbread of news”, indeed.

Begun in 2002, LinkedIn matured the commodification of this social phenomena, and its corporate reach has grown rapidly. Versions of this platform have been launched in India, China, and Russia, just to name a few.  Two years ago the Middle East version was launched, and now all totaled there are nearly 500 millions users around the world able to connect in 24 different languages.

This post explores the use of wasta. Loosely translated wasta means as ‘connections’ and is roughly analogous to the concept of social networking. I explore questions about wasta as it relates to the lives and activities of humanitarian aid and development workers in the Middle East.

Complicated lives
As I continue researching the aid and development sector, I am constantly reminded that the lives of all humanitarian aid workers are complicated in ways that many outside of the sector likely will never understand. Meeting both material and psychosocial needs -their own, those of their colleagues, and those of the people they ‘serve’- can be hella tricky.

On a typical day professional humanitarians can be confronted with many situations where nuanced cultural understanding is not only helpful but, critically, may mean the difference between life and death -theirs or that of those in the affected communities with which they work.

On top of that onerous charge, they are tasked with functioning within and between large and inherently complex bureaucracies.  Oftentimes they are also involved with brokering communication and coordination between the social/bureaucratic world of their employer and the sociocultural world of the targeted affected communities.

This last task is made all of the more complicated because the affected communities with which they work -lets use the current example of Syrian refugees in Jordan- have a matrix of both formal and informal social structures and, as a further complication, much of this social fabric has been frayed, modified by war, loss, and relocation. A person who may have been a leader in his village back in Syria is now surrounded by many who are not aware of his important social connections, and only see him as an equal, just another refugee.  Further, in the eyes of the NGOs, individuals are seen as, well individual and less so part of a larger social network.  In a previous post I touch on the frustrations that come with this reality.

Vitamin W in Jordan?
For the aid worker, understanding and navigating culturally nuanced social networks and the related networking norms raises many questions, one of which is to what degree does the social capital and wasta that one had accumulated before fleeing Syria carry over to this new life as a refugee?  For my research, there are a series of additional questions that arise, namely

  • To what degree do humanitarian workers have to work both with and around informal networks such as wasta as they go about their jobs?
  • Do Jordanian humanitarian aid workers use their own wasta to get things done?  If so, how is this reconciled with bureaucratic protocols and the, to some extent, the broad anti-corruption policies of their organization?
  • To what degree do demographic variables such as gender, age, and current position impact the use of wasta both within the affected community and between those in the affected community and the people representing the aid sector?
  • How do humanitarian workers differentiate both personally and as agents of their organizations between legitimate and non-legitimate uses of social connections, of wasta?
  • Are there other units of analysis as we probe into wasta?  Can organizational membership bestow wasta?  To what degree are some NGOs more potent in terms of their connections and influence than others, and how does this play into inter and intra organizational interactions?  How do these differing degrees of influence impact the effectiveness of the organizations and the aid workers acting as the faces of the organizations?

Some background on wasta
There is a considerable body of literature on wasta. Here are just a few book-length analyses.

Wasta: The Hidden Force in Middle Eastern Society (1993) by Robert B. Cunningham and Yasin K. Sarayrah was published decades ago but seems as relevant now as ever.  The authors stress how the use of

wasta permeates the Middle Eastern culture but may hamper development since it inherently circumvents the processes and protocols of international organizations and businesses.  They suggest the wasta must be understood and adapted to by outsiders rather than ignored.

In Palestinian Refugees and Identities:  Nationalism, Politics and the Everyday  (2015) Luigi Achilli details issues surrounding wasta and the fine distinction between wasta and fasad.  His book focuses a small group of young men as they navigate their lives as refugees in and out of refugee camps.

In The Political Economy of Wasta: The Use and Abuse of Social Capital Networking (2016) edited byMohamed Ramady takes a global approach to wasta, noting that using one’s social capital to maximize outcome in both personal and professional spheres is a cultural universal, with LinkedIn a modified web version of this phenomena.

The clash playing out in real time
As I noted above, there is an inherent clash between traditional cultural norms and modern bureaucratic protocols and functioning.  To the point, while it may be culturally acceptable and expected behavior to hire one’s nephew for a job, national or international anticorruption laws may prohibit such an action. In some previous research I reported on and offered comment about mostly expat Aid Worker Voices on corruption.  See here for the original post.

Wasta-like power and influence, used for the right reasons and with positive socially accepted values as the driving logic, can be good and efficient under the right circumstances. Abuse of power, though, is as old as our species, and arguably, pre-dates it.  An Iraqi refugee noted to me that,

“You have touched on a very sensitive issue that is hindering development in regions like the Middle East. Wasta always was and is still keeping skilled people from doing their part in developing their countries.”

Indeed there are both positive and very negative impacts of wasta. One thing is certain, though, and that is we can only gain by understanding more clearly this and related cultural realities, and that means addressing the research questions I raise above.

In my next post I’ll present the views on the use and abuse of wasta among local Jordanian aid workers.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, if you would like to contact me, click here.

Post script
I know that it must be hard to enforce anti-wasta type laws, especially related to nepotism, when the President of the United States has appointed immediate family members into official positions of significant influence.  This irony is not lost on many and the impact is far reaching.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' will be out later in 2023.

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