The world’s poor deserve better US leadership

John McCain and Barack Obama Copyright: Flickr/Chesi – Fotos cc

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The US election has implications for science and foreign aid policy, and so for the poorest people across the developing world.

When Colin Powell, former Republican secretary of state, endorsed Barack Obama, the Democrat candidate in this year’s US presidential elections, he said his decision was partly because the United States will need "to fix up the reputation that we’ve left with the rest of the world".

Powell’s views are widely held across the world, in developed and developing countries alike. Opinion polls show that recent actions, from aggressive engagement in Iraq to heavy-handed restrictions on foreign visitors, have undermined respect for the United States.

A key task facing the next president will be to regenerate this international respect. Ensuring the country’s security will, of course, remain a high priority. But these two goals can be pursued more sensitively, and at less political cost, than they have recently been.

Enhancing efforts to tackle global poverty will be particularly important; not just by providing direct assistance like food aid, but also by helping poor countries improve their science and technology capacities.

The more that the United States becomes identified with such efforts, the less it will be accused of merely pursuing its own commercial and military interests. And the more that such countries generate sustainable economic growth, feed their people and create new jobs, the less they will become breeding grounds for fundamentalist-driven protest.

Cutbacks and ideological challenges

The US government already does much to promote science and technology in the developing world. In biomedicine, for example, it is by far the largest supporter of international efforts, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Other US programmes boost collaborative research in key development areas such as agriculture, water management and low-carbon energy. The State Department has also taken steps towards raising the profile of ‘science diplomacy’ — advancing foreign policy objectives by supporting scientific activities.

But resource shortages have limited many of these efforts. In recent years, for example, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has suffered sharp cuts in its science and technology capacity, particularly in its overseas missions — capacity that is essential to making its foreign aid programmes respond to local needs.

As Nina Federoff, science and technology adviser to both the Secretary of State and the Administrator of USAID, admitted in April, "these shortfalls have hurt the Agency’s ability to achieve its mission".

The Bush administration’s efforts to promote science for development have also suffered the same ideological pressures as its domestic science programmes — from opposition to stem cell research (for example, a bid to promote a ban through the United Nations) to reluctance to accept scientific evidence on climate change.

Ready advice

The new administration will not lack suggestions for improvements. Sensing the possibility of a significant change of tack, particularly if a Democrat is elected, several recent reports have proposed how the US can better manage its international scientific affairs.

For example, the national academies of science, medicine and engineering have argued for a chief scientific adviser with cabinet status, charged with promoting science in foreign policy. As the US foreign secretary, Michael Clegg, points out, "attitudes towards US science are more positive than towards any other aspect of US society".

Others recommend improving collaborations with developing countries. Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, claims that the US refusal to fund international partners means that for many poor countries "collaboration is doomed before it has begun".

He has argued for new funding mechanisms to get round this problem, pointing out that the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme allows non-European institutions to apply for research funding.

Others have suggested a US$100 million annual research and development fund, based on the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (see ‘US science office must promote global collaboration‘).

Hopefully, the new president will seriously consider all such recommendations. There should be little political disagreement on the vital role of science and technology for development policy.

Watch and wait

In practice, of course, much will depend on the winning candidate’s commitment to more effective aid policies. There is little doubt that Obama, whether from his childhood in Indonesia (where his mother worked for USAID) or his efforts to alleviate poverty in Chicago through community projects, is more sensitised to such a challenge.

In contrast, major question marks hang over the aid policies likely to emerge from a McCain administration. Despite opposing the Bush administration’s fundamentalist stance on global warming, there is little evidence that he will embrace the more structural changes needed in US foreign policy, including closer integration between science and diplomatic initiatives.

The choice between the two lies in the hands of US voters. Noone pretends that the candidate’s positions on either science or foreign aid will significantly influence the election’s outcome. But nor can anyone deny that this outcome will largely determine the effectiveness of both in improving the lives of the world’s poor in the years ahead.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net