Natasha Iskander

Associate Professor of Public Policy

The Puck Building
295 Lafayette Street
Room 3043
New York, NY 10012
Mondays 5:00pm - 6:30pm
Natasha Iskander

Natasha N. Iskander, Associate Professor of Public Policy, conducts research on the relationship between migration and economic development. She looks at the ways that immigration and the movement of people across borders and institutions can provide the basis for the creation of new knowledge and new pathways for political change. She considers these dynamics as they pertain to economic production, governance, and political opportunity. Her award-wining book, entitled Creative State: Forty Years of Migration and Development Policy in Morocco and Mexico (Cornell University Press: 2010), examines the processes of innovation launched by migration in both countries, and looks at the way that immigrants worked with government to design policies that built a bridge link between labor emigration and local development.  She has also explored how migration can support the development of knowledge considered tacit and situated– that is, knowledge that is impossible to codify and difficult to move across contexts.  She has looked at Latinos in the US construction industry, examining how migrants considered unskilled can transpose and transform tacit knowledge, and can make vital contributions to industry performance. As an extension of this research concern, she has conducted wide-ranging research on transnational certification programs. At present, she is writing a book on migrant workers in Qatar, and the ways in which their ability to transpose and create knowledge is inflected by the contractual agreements – similar to bonded labor contracts – under which they labor.


Dr. Iskander’s research has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Qatar National Research Foundation, and others. She has held positions as a fellow-in-residence at the Center for Advanced Studies of the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and the Global Research Institute at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.


Dr. Iskander received her PhD in Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  She also holds a Masters in City Planning (MCP) from MIT, and a BA in Cultural Studies from Stanford University. In addition to her research, she engages in development work with partners ranging from the World Bank to small NGOs, internationally and in the United States, on issues of urban development, migration and development policy, and community health planning.



In the coming decades, water will be the central issue in global economic development and health. With one in six people around the world currently lacking access to safe drinking water (1.2 billion people), and more than two out of six lacking adequate sanitation (2.6 billion people), water is already a critical factor affecting the social and economic well-being of a sizable proportion of the world's population. However, with the world's population projected to double in over the next fifty years, and with rapidly dwindling water supplies becoming both more scarce and more volatile as a result of global warming, we are likely to face a water crisis so severe it will reshape everything from our governance structures to our modes of economic and agricultural production to our patterns of social interaction. Water will be the axis around which all public policy revolves.

In light of the centrality of water as a current and future public policy issue, this course explores innovative and sustainable solutions for water harvesting and distribution to address the challenges presented by anthropogenic climate change. The field of water harvesting and delivery has generally considered water supplies to be fairly stable, available to be sourced in the same places. As a result, water infrastructure management has traditionally been concerned with efficient methods of water sourcing, delivery, and purification, and with effective methods of cost-recovery for those services. In this course, we will step out of this conventional framework and look at water provision from a new vantage point: instead of taking water supplies as a constant, we will look at how water sources are changing as a function of global warming and increased population pressures, and then will ask what implications these shifts are likely to have for water sourcing and water distribution.

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This course introduces the theory and practice of institutional reform in developing and transitional countries. It reviews the evolution of international development paradigms, examining how the role, structure, and management of institutions, the public sector, and non-governmental organizations have changed in response to shifting economic and political trends, with a particular emphasis on accountability. The focus is on major institutional and managerial reforms intended to promote good governance as less developed economies liberalize and their societies democratize. Key topics include issues of property rights, knowledge and innovation, learning, the rule of law, decentralization/intergovernmental relations, civil service reforms, anticorruption, citizen engagement, and public-private partnerships. In addition, the roles of international development aid and the external institutions that support institutional and managerial reform in developing and transitional countries are introduced. The course concludes with a synthetic review and a comparative case study exercise.

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The politics of immigration and immigration policy seem more critical now than ever.  Public debates about immigration have roiled nations around the world, and disagreements about how immigration should be regulated, who should have the right to migrate, what political rights immigrants should have once they cross a border, and how immigrants should participate in the economy have strained political alliances and upended norms of political discourse.  In some cases, conflicts over immigration debates have been used to justify the overhaul of political institutions.  However, these are not new.  The history of migration is long, and the disputes about migration just as old.  In the modern era – defined here as the mid-19th century onward – debates about migration have returned over and over to a consistent set of themes, and have often been as heated and as strident as they are today.

These debates have engaged head-on with issues of economic equity and distribution of wealth, national identity, and the allocation of power in a society.  Their connection to the actual empirics of migration, however, has been more tenuous. While the political discourse is framed in terms of immigration policy, the political contests have had more to do with tensions around economic transformation and dislocation, with concerns about national security, and with changes in social norms than they have had to do with the actual observed facts of immigration. Despite this slippage, these debates have had stakes that are very high.  The policies they have produced have affected migrants profoundly, often upending their social and economic lives.

The course considers these debates, their relationship to the empirics of migration, and the policy outcomes that they produce. These issues are considered from several angles: the labor-market incorporation of immigrants and their families; the construction and militarization of borders, and the enforcement of the distinction made between refugees and immigrants; the possibilities for connection among communities, economies, and political categories that migration represents; and new aspects of migration as security concerns and climate change come to the fore.  For each of these topics, the course reaches back to find their historical expressions, and brings the insights and questions from the past to bear on the present.

To explore these issues, the course considers immigration in local and global contexts. Because of the historical component to the course, the emphasis is on migration flows to Europe and North America.  The course reviews the impact of those migration flows on countries of origin and investigates whether migration can be a vector for economic development.  The exploration of those issues brings the global South into the course, and that investigation is deepened through a consideration of a subset of South-South migration flows and of the policy questions they generate.

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Couples with CAP-GP.3227.

As part of the core curriculum of the NYU Wagner Masters program, Capstone teams spend an academic year addressing challenges and identifying opportunities for a client organization or conducting research on a pressing social question. Wagner's Capstone program provides students with a centerpiece of their graduate experience whereby they are able to experience first-hand turning the theory of their studies into practice under the guidance of an experienced faculty member. Projects require students to get up-to-speed quickly on a specific content or issue area; enhance key process skills including project management and teamwork; and develop competency in gathering, analyzing, and reporting out on data. Capstone requires students to interweave their learning in all these areas, and to do so in real time, in an unpredictable, complex, real-world environment.

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N. Iskander and N. Lowe. The Skills of Immigrants. The Oxford Handbook of Economic Geography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Forthcoming.
N. Iskander. Controversy and Methodology: Birds of Passage Then and Now. In Fine et al. Articles “Celebrating the Enduring Contribution of Birds of Passage: Migrant Labor and Industrial Societies." ILR Review, 69(3), 774-782.



The impact that remittances – the monies that migrants send home – have on the development on migrant-sending economies is a matter of considerable debate. This essay presents the case of Morocco and its state-controlled bank, La Banque Centrale Populaire (BCP), to argue that the major determinant of remittance impact on development is the quality and breadth of financial intermediation to which migrants have access. By providing a set of financial tools that allowed migrants to deposit, save, and invest with the institution, the BCP, since 1969, simultaneously made remittances funds available the migrants for their personal expenditures and to the Moroccan government for large-scale industrial investment. However, to create financial services for migrants with an appeal broad enough to bring significant amounts of remittance liquidity into the banking sector, BCP had to engage migrants in an open and collaborative process of product design. Ultimately, this paper argues, migrants’ involvement in the design of financial products enabled them to use the banking system to redirect remittances resources to rural and semi-rural areas most migrants were from, and to amend the industrial development priorities of the Moroccan government.


Using an ethnographic case study of Mexican immigrant construction workers in two U.S. cities and in Mexico, the authors illustrate the contribution of immigrant skill as a resource for changing workplace practices. As a complement to explanations that situate the protection of job quality and the defense of skill to external institutions, the authors show that immigrants use collective learning practices to improve job quality from inside the work environment—that is to say from the inside-out. The authors also find that immigrants use collective skill-building practices to negotiate for improvements to their jobs; however, their ability to do so depends on the institutions that organize production locally. Particular attention is given to the quality of those industry institutions, noting that where they are more malleable, immigrant workers gain more latitude to alter their working conditions and their prospects for advancement.


In recent years, the relationship between migration and development has received renewed attention, and analysts, policy-makers, and development experts have returned to the question of how to use emigration to foster economic growth in countries and communities of origin. The main thrust of this inquiry has focused on how to use remittances – the monies that migrants send back home – to support economic activity (de la Garza & Orozco 2002; Orozco 2002; Munzele Maimbo & Ratha 2005; Ratha 2005). However, among countries with high emigration rates, a handful of governments have expanded their emphasis past remittances to create policies that link emigration and development in a more comprehensive way (Castles & Delgado Wise 2008). Morocco and Mexico feature prominently among them. Both countries have policies to link emigration with local and national economic transformation that reach beyond a narrow focus on remittances, and that, more importantly, are creative, participatory, and dynamic (Iskander 2010). At their outset, however, the policies were as single-minded in their focus on remittances as any of the more mercenary examples of today.



This article examines informal training and skill development pathways of Latino immigrant construction workers in two different urban labor markets: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. We find that institutional differences across local labor markets not only shape how immigrants develop skills in specific places but also determine the localized obstacles they face in demonstrating and harnessing these skills for employment. To explain the role of local institutions in shaping differences in skill development experience and opportunities, we draw on the concept of tacit skill, a term that is rarely incorporated into studies of the labor market participation of less educated immigrants. We argue that innovative pathways that Latino immigrant workers have created to develop tacit skill can strengthen advocacy planning efforts aimed at improving employment opportunities and working conditions for marginalized workers, immigrant and nonimmigrant alike.


At the turn of the twenty-first century, with the amount of money emigrants sent home soaring to new highs, governments around the world began searching for ways to capitalize on emigration for economic growth, and they looked to nations that already had policies in place. Morocco and Mexico featured prominently as sources of "best practices" in this area, with tailor-made financial instruments that brought migrants into the banking system, captured remittances for national development projects, fostered partnerships with emigrants for infrastructure design and provision, hosted transnational forums for development planning, and emboldened cross-border political lobbies.

In Creative State, Natasha Iskander chronicles how these innovative policies emerged and evolved over forty years. She reveals that the Moroccan and Mexican policies emulated as models of excellence were not initially devised to link emigration to development, but rather were deployed to strengthen both governments' domestic hold on power. The process of policy design, however, was so iterative and improvisational that neither the governments nor their migrant constituencies ever predicted, much less intended, the ways the new initiatives would gradually but fundamentally redefine nationhood, development, and citizenship. Morocco's and Mexico's experiences with migration and development policy demonstrate that far from being a prosaic institution resistant to change, the state can be a remarkable site of creativity, an essential but often overlooked component of good governance.



This paper documents the rise and fall of a micro-learning region in Philadelphia. The central actors in this region are undocumented Mexican immigrants who until recently were able to draw on the intensity of their workplace interactions and their heterodox knowledge to produce new and innovative building techniques in the city's residential construction. The new knowledge they developed was primarily tacit. More significantly, the learning practices through which immigrant workers developed skill and innovated new techniques were also heavily tacit. Because these practices were never made formal and were never made explicit, they remained invisible and difficult to defend. With the housing market collapse and subsequent decline in housing renovation in south-center region of Philadelphia, this tacit knowledge and the practices that gave it shape and significance, are no longer easily accessible. We draw on this case to demonstrate the importance of access to the political and economic resources to turn learning practices into visible structured institutions that protect knowledge and skill. Whether or not the practices that support knowledge development are themselves made explicit can determine whether the knowledge they produce becomes an innovation that is recognized and adopted or whether it remains confined to a set of ephemeral practices that exist only so long as they are being enacted.


Iskander, N.. Diaspora Networks for National Infrastructure: Rural Morocco, 1985-2005. In J. Brikenhoff ed. Diasporas and Development: Exploring the Potential. Washington, D. C. : Lynne Reider



Nominally, the wave of protests by undocumented immigrants that swept through France in the late 1990s successfully challenged the restrictive Pasqua immigration laws. However, despite appearances, the mass movement was at base a labour protest: undocumented workers demonstrated against immigration laws that undermined the way they navigated informal labour markets and, in particular, truncated their opportunities for skill development. Furthermore, it is proposed in this article that examining social movements for their labour content can reveal erosions of working conditions and worker power in informal sector employment. A case study of the Paris garment district is presented to demonstrate how the spread of ‘hybrid-informality' made legal work permits a prerequisite for working informally and relegated undocumented immigrants to lower quality jobs outside the cluster.