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Whatever the outcome of the Iraq war, it will leave many wounds that require healing. Science can help in this process, but only if applied judiciously.

All wars are ugly. And modern science and technology, for all their precision and apparent efficiency, have not made them any less so. Indeed, the reality is that in many ways science sits at the very core of the current conflict: the power of high-technology weaponry is being brought to bear on Iraq because of its alleged continued possession of other weapons — chemical, biological and perhaps even nuclear — that also originated in the research laboratory.

The presence of science on the battlefields of Iraq is a powerful reminder that it offers the potential to do harm as well as good. This is also one of the lessons that need to be borne in mind when the world picks up the pieces of the current conflict. There seems little doubt about the final outcome. The task ahead will be to patch up the damage that has been created in the process.

Whether mending wounded bodies, bringing together torn communities, or rebuilding deeply bruised institutions — including the United Nation itself — the more benign face of science could make it a powerful ally in the healing process. But applying science to this process without due care and with excessive self-confidence is likely to prove counter-productive. For that would only reinforce perceptions of the relative balance of power in the modern world, one of the origins of the current conflict.

Indeed, reconstruction needs to be done in a sensitive way if it is to be successful. The essentially Western 'scientific' approach to problems, ranging from medical care to urban rebuilding, will only create further resentment if applied in ways that seek to reinforce the dominance of Western values in the process. What will be needed are culturally-sensitive strategies that find ways of embedding modern science and technology in the fabric of lives and lifestyles based on very different traditions and value systems.

A new paradigm

History provides little to guide us in this task. In international conflicts in the recent past, the political landscape — and the role of science within this landscape — has been significantly different. For example, the Cold War was a period in which both sides of the conflict could claim significant scientific prowess. Indeed it was the strength of this prowess in producing — through the development of nuclear weapons — the threat of virtually global destruction that gave this confrontation its particularly deadly characteristics.

At the same time, the common possession of this prowess meant that both sides could, at times, speak in the common language of science. And this in turn meant that it was possible for scientists, through organisations such as the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, to promote the cause of peace by providing a channel of communication through which moderation could prevail. Such influence was successfully exerted on topics ranging from the testing of nuclear weapons to the need for international controls on chemical weapons.

But the end of the Cold War, and even more significantly the events of 11 September 2001, have put an end to that approach. The current conflicts are no longer between rival powers possessing comparable skills in science and technology, even if putting them to the service of different ideologies. Rather, it is between the scientific 'haves' and 'have-nots', where science is no longer seen as a potential bridge linking common interests but, more often than not, one more instrument of political oppression and attempted cultural hegemony.

Respecting value systems

If this shift is true at the material level, it is also true at the religious level. One argument currently being heard in some quarters is that science forms universal system of belief that has the power to bring together communities based on very different value systems. This appears to be the hope expressed by some of the participants at a symposium on science, religion and values organised earlier this month by the Third World Academy of Sciences at its headquarters in Trieste, Italy (see Muslim world pledges more science academies and Wrestling with Islam's flagging science base).

There was certainly a general recognition at the symposium of the fact that, taken as a whole, Islamic countries invest significantly less in science than countries in the West. But there was little consensus on whether this could be blamed on religious, or even cultural, factors. Some argued that an excessive influence of religious belief undermined pressure to invest in science for economic and social development. Others, however, pointed out that many Muslim countries had strong scientific traditions, and suggest that this lack of investment was the outcome, as much as the cause, of economic underdevelopment.

Again, as so often in the modern world, the message appears to be that the "one solution fits all" approach of globalisation will not work. Science, like the modernism of which it forms a central component, must be moulded to the needs and values of communities and nations. It cannot afford to be seen as a device by which one nation seeks to impose its needs and values on another.

The challenge of reconstruction

This is the dilemma at the heart of the reconstruction process that must take place in Iraq — indeed in other parts of the Middle East as well — once the war is ended. The challenge of reconstruction is daunting. And the potential contribution of science, from providing modern medicines and clean water supplies, to helping rebuild faith in the multilateralism that lies at the core of the United Nations — for example, through its efforts to forge an international scientific consensus on threats such as HIV/AIDS and global warming — is enormous.

But if context is not everything, it is certainly important. Nothing would be worse for the long-term stability of the region than for a US victory in Iraq to pave the way for a rebuilding process in which Western interests in general, and US interests in particular, are seen to dominate. Moving in that direction will only exacerbate the tendencies that gave rise to the current conflict, and are likely to fester under the surface long after it is over.

To avoid this, reconstruction must be based around the concept of capacity building. And part of this must include creating a basic capacity to produce the science and technology that any nation requires to help secure its economic and social development. It must also include the capacity of that nation. to ensure that science is put to the genuine service of its own people. Achieving this will not remove the root causes of the current conflict, or those that may well follow. But it will, hopefully, help to make the claims of those who inflame such conflicts less convincing.

© SciDev.Net 2003

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