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Smugglers and States

My book project explores the political economy of informal and illegal cross-border trade in North Africa, focusing in particular on the border between Tunisia and Libya, as well as the border between Morocco and Algeria.

Based on 14 months of fieldwork, the project traces the informal institutions that regulate smuggling across the region, and examines their role in the region's power structures through a 'political settlement' framework. I argue that contrary to common assumptions, smuggling rarely occurs 'under the radar' of the state, but is instead embedded in a tight network of institutional regulation in which the regions' states play a key role. Furthermore, rather than subverting states, smuggling is usually a strategically employed element of state-building processes, with heterogeneous effects for different groups.

The first article from this project, "Informal Institutions and the Regulation of Smuggling in North Africa" is available in Perspectives on Politics:


— Bureaucrat, Nador, 04/17

"There are two Moroccos: the Morocco of the day, and the Morocco of the night. They have different realities, and different rules."

Taxation and Informality

Together with Vanessa van den Boogaard, I am heading the research on taxation and informality at the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD). Our research aims to map the extent, composition and experiences of informal taxation and understand its implications for livelihoods,  and to better understand the intersection between informal economies, taxation and politics. Ongoing projects include work on Zakat in Egypt, Pakistan and Morocco, research on armed group taxation in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups (CSAG) and multiple projects on the politics of formalisation and taxing the informal economy.


Read our new working paper on "Rethinking Formalisation: A Conceptual Critique and Research Agenda" here:

Our new article on "Beyond Greed - Why Armed Groups Tax", with Tanya Bandula-Irwin, Ashley Jackson, Florian Weigand and Vanessa van den Boogaard is now available in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism:

Bandits & Bureaucrats: How States Shape Smuggling Routes

With Dr. Florian Weigand, LSE

Our project explores the role of the state in the context of cross-border smuggling. It investigates the trade-offs that smuggling networks face in choosing between trading goods through regular points of entries such as ports and border crossings, or irregular maritime and ‘green’ borders. From this, we seek to investigates how the relationships with state agents, the type of goods transported as well as the wider enforcement environment affects networks’ choices of routes. The project draws on extensive qualitative primary research in North Africa and Southeast Asia.

We are also the editors of The Routledge Handbook of Smuggling (December 2021). The entire book is available as open access:  

Our article "Channeling Contraband: How States Shape International Smuggling Routes" is now available open access in Security Studies:


Methodologies to Research Informal and Illegal Activities

Researching illegal activities, while an object of increasing interest, generates a range of methodological challenges for political scientists. I am interested in discussions within and across disciplines on how we can develop methods that allow for innovative and in-depth research into these topics, keeping in mind both the safety and well-being of researchers and the power dynamics in which these issues are embedded.

My article "Researching the Politics of Illegal Activities" is now available in Political Science and Politics: 

I have contributed a chapter on "Solitary Decision-Making and Fieldwork Safety" to The Companion to Peace and Conflict Fieldwork:


Borderlands in the Middle East

With Adeel Malik (University of Oxford)

Borderland regions provide active sites of exchange that have long remained peripheral to mainstream social science. In a forthcoming article, we highlight the significance of cross-border informal trade for the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Mapping informal economic exchange across the region's borders, we identify existing gaps in the literature and offer a new political economy understanding of such informality in the Middle East. We argue that cross-border informality provides an important window into some of the central questions of Arab political economy, such as the organisation of markets, political settlements, durability of authoritarian regimes, business-state relationship and the role of informal institutions. We underscore the need for a more holistic understanding of informal trade that moves away from a predilection with the security-centred view of informal economy that largely treats such trade as a law and order issue.


Our article on "Border Economies of the Middle East - Why do they matter for Political Economy?" is now available in the Review of International Political Economy

Tobacco Smuggling and Taxation

With Giovanni Occhiali

Taxation is widely regarded as one of the most effective tools to combat the public health consequences of smoking. However, especially in low and middle income countries, tobacco tax rates remain low. This has been connected to the influence of the tobacco industry, which in particular has used the dangers of tobacco smuggling as an argument against tax increases. In a study of Sierra Leone's tobacco tax increase, Giovanni Occhiali and I examine this claim, and find that an increase in taxation does not need to lead to more smuggling, even in a low capacity context.

Our paper, entitled "No Smoking Gun - Tobacco Taxation and Smuggling in Sierra Leone" is now available open access in Tobacco Control

My chapter on "Cigarette Smuggling - Trends, Taxes and Big Tobacco" is available open access in The Routledge Handbook of Smuggling:

Work in Progress

Projects currently in progress include research on:

  • Taxation in the Informal Economy in Accra (with Nana Akua Anyidoho, Mike Rogan and Vanessa Van den Boogaard)

  • Zakat and the State in Morocco, Egypt and Pakistan (with Umair Javed and Vanessa van den Boogaard)

  • Cannabis Taxation (with Giovanni Occhiali)

  • The Use and Taxation of Loose and Informally Sold Cigarettes (with Giovanni Occhiali)

  • Informal Work and the Covid-19 Vaccination in Lahore (with Shandana Khan Mohmand, Umair Javed and Vanessa van den Boogaard)

  • Evaluating a Formalisation Exercise in Freetown (with Giovanni Occhiali and Vanessa van den Boogaard)

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