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The anticipated appointment of Paul Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank presents a major challenge to the whole development community. Science may well benefit; but it is essential that poverty alleviation, not ideological ambition, dominates the bank's agenda.

The Bush administration's strategy of 'shock and awe', which it used to bludgeon its way into Iraq two years ago, was wheeled out again in Washington again two weeks ago. The occasion was a decision by the administration to put forward Paul Wolfowitz, one of its leading neo-conservatives — and a chief architect of the Iraq invasion — as its favoured candidate to head the world's largest and most powerful development agency, the World Bank.

The news will, if standard procedures are followed, lead almost automatically to Wolfowitz's appointment as successor to the incumbent, James Wolfensohn. It was, however, greeted with howls of protest from many parts of the development community. Many of these complaints have been overtly political; there are fears that Wolfowitz will find it difficult to build a consensus on policy issues with countries that he has alienated so deeply through the unilateralist stance taken by the Bush administration over the Iraq war.

Other critics have focused on Wolfowitz's apparent lack of suitable qualifications for the new post. One widely-heard comment, for example, has been that, unlike his much-liked predecessor, Wolfowitz has no professional background in economics, and little experience in dealing directly with development issues (unless one counts three years as US ambassador to Indonesia).

Such objections may be relatively easy to answer; Wolfowitz has a formidable intellect, and has expressed a willingness to learn on the job. A deeper concern is that Wolfowitz, despite promising to commit himself to the bank's primary goal of alleviating global poverty, may become deflected from the process through a willingness, if not a desire, to promote ideological as well as social objectives.

One only has to think of the way in which the United States tried, with the support of conservative allies across the world, to force a global ban on all forms of human cloning through the United Nations — in the teeth of opposition from many of its political allies around the world — for evidence of the way that such forces can work.

Good news for science?

The dilemma facing the international community is how to ensure that the undoubted strengths that Wolfowitz will bring to his new post — not least his willingness to take a strong stance in favour of transparent government and cost-effective investment, both of which can only reap benefits — are not undermined by a conviction that there is only one type of solution to problems facing developing countries, and that is to replicate forms of social and economic development espoused by conservative groups within the United States.

As far as the World Bank's support for science is concerned, there are good reasons to be optimistic. This is little to do with Wolfowitz's intellectual credentials (although the fact that he has a degree in mathematics and physics should at least ensure a willingness to listen to a 'scientific' analysis of development of challenges). Rather, it reflects the fact that the arguments recently being heard for greater investment by the bank in science and technology projects have as much appeal to political conservatives as to political progressives.

Admittedly, much of the credit for bringing science and technology back into the mainstream of the World Bank's thinking lies with the more liberal Wolfensohn, who has taken a personal interest in programmes such as the Millennium Science Initiative, and has been a driving force behind the bank's recent discovery of the role of science in development.

But a core reason that Wolfensohn's enthusiasm has taken root is a growing demand from developing countries for the capacity to allow them to share in the benefits of globalisation. And this has been reinforced by awareness among donor nations that science-based growth can play an important role in helping to stabilise politically sensitive situations.

Neither of these is likely to be contested by Wolfowitz. And there is therefore little reason to fear that the bank's newly-rekindled faith in science and technology will be placed on a back burner. Indeed, this could well be an area in which the bank finds itself entering an imaginative partnership with the United Nations and its development agencies. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan this week identified science and technology as a key tool in alleviating poverty by promoting economic growth.

Nor is it likely to threaten individual programmes that illustrate the bank's willingness to put its philosophy into practice. Among these, for example, is the project currently being negotiated under which Uganda would be granted a US$20 million loan from the bank to build up the country's science and technology base. The projects to be supported under this loan are, again, precisely the type of projects that a pro-business, pro-stability administration should want to succeed.

Social concerns

More vulnerable are likely to be those areas where the bank's investments have been intended to address broader social concerns, particularly where these require a pro-poor commitment. One, for example, is investment in projects linked to environmental protection. For the past two decades, the bank has been striving to respond to critics who claim that the projects it has supported in the recent past (such as the building of massive dams as a source of hydropower, or roads through sensitive ecological regions) have paid insufficient attention to their potential to create environmental damage.

Under Wolfensohn's tenure, although it would be too generous to say that this tendency has reversed, it remains true that increasing attention has been paid to the potential environmental impacts of major capital projects. A leadership less sympathetic to the argument that such problems cannot be solved through market mechanisms is also likely to be less sympathetic to demands that the bank should respond to concerns in this area.

Of particular concern here is the issue of global warming. In his speech to the UN General Assembly earlier this week, Annan reiterated the urgency of addressing the problems of climate change, and for preparing the ground for developed and developing countries to work together in reducing carbon emissions.

Given the investments in more energy-efficient technologies that this will require the developing world to make, the role of the World Bank could well prove critical. But a leadership which reflects the US view that this can be tackled primarily through technology and the market alone, without any corresponding political action that could conflict with the interests of key business sectors (such as the oil industry), is likely not only to be limited in its effectiveness, but also damaging to any attempt to generate a global consensus behind prevention measures.

A choice of direction

The best scenario is that Wolfowitz will use both his intellect and his passion to provide a new impetus to efforts at promoting effective governance in the developing world, combined with scientific and technological capacity, as the best way of meeting the needs of the poor.

Some have drawn a parallel with Robert McNamara, who also softened his political image in moving from the Pentagon to the bank. A better analogy might be Bill Gates, who has shown that the ability to operate as an arch-capitalist does not necessarily conflict with philanthropic goals (although some are questioning now whether Gates is putting too much focus on the role of science and technology in raising health levels in developing countries, with inadequate attention to the social systems in which these are embedded; see Gates Foundation project ignores real roots of disease).

The worst scenario is that Wolfowitz uses his new position to project a domestic conservative agenda on to the global stage. US aid policy, for example, already withholds support from groups that encourage abortion in the interests of birth control. Sadly it does not take a great leap of imagination to envisage the United States encouraging the World Bank not to support research institutions that carry out research using stem cells taken from human embryos — or even the printing of school biology texts that mention evolution!

The needs of the poor in the developing world are too pressing to be subject to such ideological distortions. And hopefully the new science-based Council of Development Advisors being set up by Annan within the UN system should be a first line of defence against this happening (see UN to set up science advisory mechanism).

But open warfare on such issues between the World Bank and other multilateral development agencies will not be in anyone's interests. With luck, Wolfowitz will demonstrate himself to be a committed pragmatist, not the ideological bulldozer that he has appeared to be over some of his policies on Iraq.
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