A window of opportunity opens in the US

For several years, the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) has been under growing pressure to adopt a more long-term approach to its support of science and technology in developing countries. This was the main thrust of a draft report by a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, which the Science and Development Network website, SciDev.Net, reported on as “US aid agency ‘should pay more attention to science’”.

The agency now supports a wide spectrum of activities, from the development of science education in South African schools to the substantial support it provides for research into vaccines against HIV/Aids and malaria.

But many feel that all these activities could benefit from a more coherent commitment. An excellent opportunity to do this has arisen with the announcement by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that a major reorganisation of the agency’s work is imminent.

Hopefully, this will reduce the current fragmentation of US aid efforts. Certainly the rapid growth of the foreign-assistance budget during the past few years has raised the need for such coordination. And there are further grounds for optimism in the fact that Rice has nominated Randall Tobias, former president of drug company Eli Lilly, as the new head of the agency.

Reasons for optimism

There is, therefore, much to welcome in Rice’s explanation of the decision to integrate the agency’s work more closely with that of the State Department. The most obvious manifestation of this is the fact that Tobias will also hold the new position of director of foreign assistance at the State Department.

The reasons for optimism lie partly in the references to the importance of capacity building in developing countries that Rice made in a speech to USAid officials. This reflects an awareness that development work will only succeed if it provides countries with the means and ability to determine their own future. What needs to be more widely recognised is that an indigenous scientific and technical capacity is an essential tool for reaching this goal.

There are also grounds for optimism in Tobias’s own background. Although not a scientist by training, he has spent his whole professional career managing science-based enterprises.

Grounds for caution

Despite such good omens, however, there are also grounds for caution. One lies in the apparent willingness of the Bush administration—as exemplified by the administration’s position on climate change—to bend its definition of sound science to fit its political outlook.

Tobias has come under fire for his part in such activities through his current role as coordinator of all US international HIV/Aids assistance. In particular, he has been at the forefront of a campaign warning against relying on condoms (and preaching abstinence as an alternative) to prevent infection—a campaign that critics argue is based on a misuse of scientific evidence about condom efficacy.

There is insufficient content to this issue on its own to justify the accusation of Tobias being “anti-science”, as some of the administration’s opponents have alleged in criticising his nomination. Certainly his support for research into novel vaccines would not support this charge, which in any case is unlikely given his previous industrial experience.

Nevertheless, there is also sufficient substance in the charges to warrant some scepticism about Tobias’s own assertion, made in an interview in 2004, that US policy in this field “is a balanced, science-based one that focuses on what works”.

The second reason for caution is that closer links with the State Department could undermine USAid’s effectiveness, a concern widely held within the agency itself. The worry is that it could be pressed into shifting its focus away from long-term strategies towards shorter-term political goals, particularly those that are determined by the immediate foreign-policy concerns of the administration (which at present means Afghanistan and Iraq).

Already, for example, concerns have been expressed about the support provided by USAid to the Palestinian Authority in the run-up to the recent election there. Ultimately this could lead to a situation in which the only countries receiving US support are those that share the US view of the world, a situation that would be good for US interests but bad for global democracy.

Deflecting criticism

To the relief of many of those attending last week’s meeting, Rice told USAid staff that the organisation would remain an independent agency, and not, as some had feared, be folded into the State Department. A move in that direction would have virtually guaranteed that USAid’s activities in developing countries be viewed with even more suspicion than they already are.

It could also have meant that the agency’s efforts to promote long-term development strategies in the countries it seeks to help would be openly vulnerable to short-term political priorities.

Rice herself also sought to deflect criticism on this point by arguing that a short-term approach to building “well-governed democratic states” would inevitably fail. “It isn’t the long-term perspective of USAid that needs to change,” she is reported to have told one questioner.

But the concern remains. It is now up to Tobias to demonstrate through his actions—and the USAid programmes he promotes—that the administration means what it says.

One way of doing this would be to implement proposals for a more strategic approach to science and technology within the agency. After all, the vitality not only of the US economy, but also of US society as a whole, has long rested on the government’s decision to invest in a robust and productive science base. There is no reason why it should not promote a similar agenda within the developing world.

Subverting the US aid agenda to shorter-term goals—whether economic or political—might reap immediate rewards, but at a long-term price, as previous US support for Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq has shown. Using this agenda as a tool for investing in the long-term vitality of the societies that the US is seeking to help would be widely welcomed by the rest of the international aid community.—SciDev.Net

David Dickson is the director of the London-based Science and Development Network

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