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In principle, the World Bank says that it is keen to support science in the developing world. In practice, its efforts to do so have been more ambivalent.

As the main source of investment finance for much of the developing world, the World Bank has long been one of the most significant members of the United Nations system. Furthermore, as its officials are quick to point out, its contribution to science has been, and remains, substantial. At present, for example, the bank spends more than US$500 million a year on various science and technology programmes. These range from the support of science education in primary and secondary schools, to a recent US$50 million loan to Chile to boost its science base (see World Bank boost science in Chile).

Beneath the surface, however, all is not so rosy. The bank’s support for science tends to be highly selective. Over half of the total sum is focused on only one sector of its responsibilities, namely agricultural and rural development. Furthermore, much of the rest is made up of loans to a relatively small number of middle-income countries in East Asia and Latin America. These are not necessarily the nations whose need to build capacity in science, technology and innovation is greatest, particularly to meet the challenges of sustainable development.

In other words, the problem has not been a failure of effort, but of vision. The result, as external critics of the bank have been pointing out for several years, is that apart from agricultural research, the World Bank lacks a coherent across-the-board strategy for promoting science and technology in the service of development.

Internal critics

These critics have now been joined by internal voices. In a recently-published working paper, a group of bank officials headed by Robert Watson, the bank's chief scientist – and best known as the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – argue that although the promotion of science and technology “requires a sustained, coordinated multi-sectoral approach”, such an approach “has not yet emerged from the myriad of different activities that the World Bank has sponsored” (see Strategic Approaches to Science and Technology in Development).

Their comments are timely. In the recent past, the dominant attitude of the World Bank towards science and technology has been to portray both as primarily tools to achieving development objectives. Much less attention has been paid to promoting capacity in science and technology as a development objective in its own right. Yet unless the bank gives this the priority it deserves, it will severely undermine the ability of developing nations to develop the science they require to meet their social and economic needs.

Watson and his co-authors, Michael Crawford and Sara Farley, recognise that the mood within the bank is changing, as sectors other than those concerned with agriculture and rural development accept the need for a more strategic approach. “But the progress made towards this objective has been modest and has come slowly”, they point out, adding that “the timeline for anticipated results fails to reflect the long time-frame required for this type of change”.

A structural failure

This has not always been the case. During the 1970s, for example, the World Bank’s commitment to a strategic vision of the role of science in development was expressed through an influential science office. In the 1980s, however, under pressure from various conservative governments – in particular, the US republican administration of President Ronald Reagan – this commitment disappeared with the decision to eliminate the office, and thus downgrade the strategic overview that it had been able to offer.

The report by Watson and his colleagues draws a discreet veil over this episode, just as it does over the bank’s own responsibility for the current poor state of science in many developing nations. For its support for “structural adjustment” programmes, which became popular at the same time, inflicted its own damage in this field. Many countries in Africa, for example, continue to suffer from the consequences of policies that, while attempting to streamline economic efficiency, frequently did so at the expense of much-needed investment in public goods (including research).

The bank itself is not alone in shouldering responsibility for this state of affairs. Frequently, governments in developing nations preferred to absorb required cuts in public spending by going for the less politically sensitive targets, of which science was high on the list. Nevertheless, regardless of who took the actual decisions, the bank, through its reluctance for example to provide high levels of support for tertiary educational institutions, remains closely implicated with policies that are largely responsible for a steady decline in investment in research in many developing countries –particularly in Africa.

Joining the knowledge economy

In recent years, the bank has been making some amends. In particular, it has increasingly recognised the central importance to all countries – not just in the developed world – of the knowledge economy. This recognition was reflected, for example, in the World Development Report of 1998, which focussed on the theme of Knowledge for Development. It has also been at the centre of new projects such as the Millennium Science Initiative, which seeks to promote centres of scientific excellence in countries (such as Chile and Brazil) whose university-based research potential has become diluted through the mass expansion of higher education.

Nevertheless, as Watson’s working paper argues, much remains to be done to develop new ways of thinking about the relevance of science across the board, and to introduce the internal structural changes that will promote and give strategic coherence to these ways of thinking. For, as the paper argues persuasively, a commitment to scientific understanding underpins efforts to achieve genuinely sustainable development across all spheres of the bank’s activity, not only focusing on meeting economic growth targets, but also social needs, from health to food security.

There is also a clear need for the World Bank to look closely and critically at its own concept of sustainable development, and the role of science and technology in putting this into effect. For too many, the bank remains closely identified with large-scale technology projects – the Narmada dam in India being perhaps the best known, and most heavily criticised, example – that continue to place too much emphasis on economic return, rather than on social or environmental well-being.

In other words, the bank has much to do to make up for its relative neglect of science and technology in the poorer developing countries over the past 20 years. It needs to show that it can generate a new vision of science and technology in development that is sensitive both to the needs of long-term capacity building, and to novel ways (including enhanced science communication) of mediating the relationship between science and society.

With the financial resources that it controls, the bank is better placed than most to achieve these goals. Equally, however, a continued lack of vision – and hence achievement -- in this sphere would represent a major failure of the whole global development community.

© SciDev.Net 2003

The authors of Strategic Approaches to Science and Technology in Development are seeking comments on their working paper. These should be sent to [email protected], or [email protected].