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Entrance to the World Bank building in Washington, DC. Credit: iStock

Science and Technology at the World Bank: Recommendations to President Ajay Banga

The World Bank sustainable development Broader Middle East and North Africa South and Central Asia Sub-Saharan Africa
https://doi.org/10.1126/scidip.adn6325

After Ajay Banga’s start of his five-year term as President of the World Bank in June 2023, Science & Diplomacy asked five individuals who have worked at the World Bank in science and technology (S&T)-related roles to respond to this question:

Given your experience at the World Bank, how have science, technology, and innovation impacted the World Bank’s programs? How have these programs evolved and what could have been done better? What would you recommend to the new World Bank President Ajay Banga from a S&T perspective?

The five respondents were Sajitha Bashir, Alfred Watkins, Charles Weiss, Gordon Myers, and Klaus Tilmes. Their responses are preceded by brief biographies that provide context for their science and technology expertise and experience at the World Bank.

Science & Diplomacy is publishing these responses to foster discussion. The views and opinions expressed in the essays are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Science Diplomacy, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), or the AAAS Board of Directors.

E. William Colglazier, Kim Montgomery, Estefania Ortiz Calva, and Katie Garner

 

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Sajitha Bashir has spent her career working in human development sectors in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and the Middle East. She is a former adviser to the Global Director for Education at the World Bank, where she created the Partnership for skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET), and previously headed the national research and evaluation unit of the government of India’s primary education program.

Science and Technology, the World Bank, and Africa

For decades, the World Bank lent a significant amount of money for science and technology (S&T) projects, yet investment in such projects for sub-Saharan Africa lagged behind. For S&T capacity building to have a more prominent role in the Bank’s lending strategy for low-income countries, Bank leadership should assess its organizational structure and the role of capacity building in achieving development.

In 2013, the Bank’s Africa education team developed the first of its kind Africa Centres of Excellence project. The goal was to build capacity in sub-Saharan Africa through regional projects training master’s and Ph.D. students in S&T disciplines and establishing a permanent science fund. Nearly ten years later, these projects have become among the largest S&T projects in the Bank’s portfolio, with close to $650 million invested in over 70 centers across the region. The first Africa science fund, the PASET Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund, seeded by African governments and the Bank has progressively attracted funding from South Korea, the European Union and the Carnegie Corporation.

The beginnings of these projects were hardly auspicious given the question I was asked when I was Education Practice Manager for sub-Saharan Africa: “Why does Africa need investment in S&T education and capacity building, when so many children have not completed primary school?” This may sound surprising now, but it was a common concern from World Bank Country Directors a decade ago. With its focus on eliminating extreme poverty and the strong link between poverty reduction and completion of primary education, the Bank often considered S&T education to be a luxury that African countries could not afford. It was suggested that specialized expertise could be procured internationally instead.

This approach was also intriguing given the obvious role that S&T capacity building has played in the transformation of economies such as Japan, China and India—examples that African countries were keen to follow. In fact, the Bank heard from none other than former South African President Nelson Mandela in 2001, when then-President Jim Wolfensohn met with African leaders and asked what they thought the Bank could do for Africa. Mandela’s answer was to create world-class African institutes of S&T modeled like the Indian Institutes of Technology or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It took the World Bank more than a decade to start designing its science and technology education projects in Africa.

Capacity building for S&T is a relatively small part of the Bank’s lending and not considered one of its core domains. For an institution globally involved with projects spanning a massive array of subjects, it is peculiar that S&T capacity—a key ingredient of economic development—is not more prominent, especially in poorer regions where it could help most. For instance, between 1979 and 2003, only one of the Bank’s 51 S&T projects was in sub-Saharan Africa.1

As Ajay Banga begins his leadership role at the Bank, I would advise him to look into two possible reasons for this disconnect. One may be the organizational structure of the Bank. While many governments have organizational bodies for coordinating S&T policy and programs, there is no department within the Bank in charge of S&T capacity building. Different initiatives may be taken up by the teams responsible for different sectors such as education, economic policy and innovation, health and climate change, but they are rarely well coordinated. Another reason could be the conceptual difficulty of linking S&T capacity building with poverty reduction/economic development. This is an area where researchers could help to better make the argument for a region that will be home to one quarter of the world’s population and 40 percent of its children by 2050. It is an argument worth making.

 

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Alfred Watkins is founder and chairman of the Global Solutions Summit (GSS) and, for the past six years, was a member of the Governing Council of the UN Technology Bank for the Least Developed Countries. He worked for more than 23 years at the World Bank, spending six years as the World Bank’s STI Program Coordinator and leader of the World Bank’s STI Global Expert Team.

Science, Technology, Innovation, and Engineering for Development (STIE4D)

Nearly everyone at the World Bank agrees that science, technology, innovation, and engineering (STIE) are indispensable for economic development. All things considered, greater scientific literacy, competency, and institutional capacity are preferable to the opposite. Yet, there is less clarity as to what STIE for development (STIE4D) means and the best way to build capacity that promotes sustainable, inclusive development. As President Banga begins his five-year term, the Bank has an opportunity to help client countries develop STI capacity building programs tailored to their individual needs and development objectives.

Effective STIE4D capacity building programs must include support for science-based activities in tandem with a wide variety of complementary activities that transcend the day-to-day work of science and scientists. It takes more than science and scientists to convert scientific results in the lab into tangible development results on the ground. For instance, ensuring that an ingenious technology for improving the lives of smallholder farmers will generate results on the ground requires connecting that laboratory innovation to the people in rural villages who will need to learn to use it. Also essential are market studies to validate the potential demand and social acceptability of the product, a detailed business plan, a sales and customer outreach strategy, local business partners, local supply chain partners, educational programs to help farmers and local businesses learn to use it, and workforce development programs to make it operationally sustainable. The scientist who developed this innovative solution is probably not the best person to undertake these tasks. Organizing and coordinating this work is complicated, painstaking, and expensive. It will not happen automatically, but without it, the journey from the lab to results on the ground will stall. This is where the World Bank needs to step in.

The Bank is ideally suited to help developing countries organize stakeholders, fund activities, and help create programs and institutions that will join forces to complete this work. Historically, the Bank has been a staunch proponent of STIE4D, supporting activities to spur innovation, including small and medium-sized enterprise development, vocational education, and policy reforms, even without a dedicated STIE4D program. But despite these well-intentioned efforts, global STIE progress marches ahead at an ever-increasing pace while the STIE4D capacity in many developing countries languishes.

To help countries fill this gap, I suggest that President Banga appoint an STIE Program Advisor to unite these discrete STIE capacity building activities into a coherent World Bank capacity building program. To operate effectively, this individual would need a broad synthetic overview of the STIE capacity building process and strong diplomatic and communication skills. Since this person would not have operational responsibility or control over the design or content of specific Bank projects, his or her message to Bank colleagues, government officials, and other stakeholders should be, “How can I help you design and implement effective STIE capacity building programs to achieve the country’s development objectives?”

The STIE advisor could function as an intermediary between external stakeholders who want to connect with decision makers within both the Bank and developing countries. The advisor would need a broad overview of current Bank STIE capacity-building activities as well as close ties to a broad range of external contacts. Finally, the advisor would need to learn from previous successful and unsuccessful World Bank and national STIE capacity building initiatives. Their challenge would be to help convert these lessons into coherent national capacity building strategies, closing the gap between the pace of STIE4D progress and STIE4D capacity.

 

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Charles Weiss is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He was the first Science and Technology Adviser to the World Bank and is the author of The Survival Nexus: Science, Technology and World Affairs (Oxford University Press, 2022).

Establishing Science and Technology in the World Bank, 1971

I was 33 years old, direct from a basic science laboratory, when I began my one-year appointment as the first Science and Technology Advisor to the World Bank, with no further commitment on either side. I was fortunate that, at the time, Bank President Robert McNamara was taking a technically skilled but stodgy institution focused on loans to governments of low-income countries to finance engineering-intensive infrastructure and was transforming it into a broad-gauge development institution with the mission of overcoming global poverty.

No one knew how to do this, so the Bank was open to new ideas. McNamara warned me, “Keep it practical; I don’t want you working on why grass is green.” I didn’t tell him that I had worked out the molecular orbital theory of the visible absorption spectrum of chlorophyll, i.e., why grass is green. My first task at the Bank was to make a dramatic visual demonstration of the value of an innovative technology to an institution that assumed that low-income countries should use only standard, well-tested, low- or medium-tech methods. Landsat, NASA’s first Earth resources satellite, was about to provide much more detailed information than the simple outline maps the Bank was then using.

Shortly after the satellite was launched, I commissioned the first mosaic of images of the entire continent of Africa and displayed it as a 7-foot poster just outside the cafeteria. When I spotted the director of the Bank’s agriculture department looking curiously at the mosaic, I showed him the wealth of information that project planners could learn from satellite imagery. He sent Eric Siceley, an experienced British ex-colonial staff expert to examine my mosaic. Siceley jabbed his finger at a spot in southern Kenya and announced dramatically, “I planted those trees, and the eland are eating them!”

Wolf Drewes, a Bank staff agronomist, made one of the first applications of Landsat imagery to a Bank-financed project. A country had claimed reimbursements for the cost of more irrigation canals than were actually constructed, which was verifiable via satellite. Drewes also used this technology to assist Nepal and Bangladesh to create their first detailed maps. Building on this work, I contributed to the establishment of the Bank’s office of geographic information systems.

As a young scientist in a well-established international institution, I made plenty of rookie mistakes and benefitted from advice from sympathetic senior colleagues. But by the end of the year, my colleagues were no longer asking me why the World Bank needed a science advisor. My appointment lasted for 15 exciting years, an extraordinary experience in science diplomacy.

The World Bank is well positioned to identify needs for mobilizing science and technology (S&T) for development, to translate these needs into concrete practical proposals, to organize their financing, and to make them a reality. During the half century since the position of Science and Technology Advisor was created, the World Bank has undertaken many important and fruitful initiatives.

I would advise President Banga to expand the vision of President McNamara and make systematic support to S&T a centerpiece of the World Bank’s policy and strategy at national, regional, and global levels. This includes support to education, research, innovation, capacity building, and national policies for science and innovation. The Bank should develop international research and development collaborations on problems critical to developing countries, in collaboration with the private sector as appropriate, perhaps by creating an independent foundation for the purpose. This will require a Science and Technology Advisor to guide the effort, with strong support from top management and the freedom and flexibility from which I benefitted.

 

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Gordon Myers recently retired as a Chief Counsel and Head, Technology Business Risk of International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. He is presently Special Advisor, Sustainable Technology to Valoris Stewardship Catalysts LLC, and Of Counsel to Wave Law PLLC. He is also project lead for the Responsible Technology Initiative of ISLP, a non-profit and non-governmental organization providing pro bono legal assistance to governments, civil society organizations and social enterprises in the Global South. The views expressed here are his own.

Science, Technology, and Sustainability in Private Sector Projects

International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector financing arm of the World Bank Group, has been at the forefront of enabling the transfer, commercialization, and scaling of new technologies in emerging markets. Among other things, IFC has played a key role in enabling the mass adoption of cellular technologies; identifying technologies that support inclusive, efficient financial systems; and supporting energy and battery technologies that are a part of climate-friendly solutions.

In my experience, IFC has generally been most comfortable taking commercial risk. But IFC has also supported more technologically risky investments, with strong developmental outcomes. Examples include a biotechnology venture program; a strategic, partner-driven approach to so-called “deep tech” and “tough tech” funds; a program matching innovators and leading companies to conduct cutting-edge pilot projects in key sectors; and a considered, technology-informed approach to its fintech program. More recent advisory and project development projects also include development standards and supports targeted at catalyzing technology adoption.

But engagement at scale with new solutions at the uncertain farther reaches of science, regulation, and consensus may also carry the possibility of real public harm. How can IFC fairly be asked to do “everything everywhere all at once”—build investment volumes dramatically, partner efficiently with the private sector, and manage uncertain but potentially severe risks to the very populations it intends to benefit? And yet its mandate leaves no option. One proposal might be for an IFC science advisor to work with key donor countries, such as India, Israel, and South Korea, and with established government agencies, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF), who have successfully developed successful programs that translate science and values to practical solutions with commercial partners. Easy wins, for example, might include upskilling of staff, management, and Board capacity to manage science more effectively; integrating effective and responsible science guidance into project approval and portfolio management processes; and ensuring that its Anticipated Impact Measurement and Monitoring (AIMM) ratings framework rewards responsible, sustainable, and urgent technology risk across IFC’s operations. As a global institution not subject to any national regulation, moreover, IFC might work with its partners to develop effective standards that transparently communicate its appetite for risk and invite active guidance and input from clients and civil society on its performance.

As with prior, similar initiatives, IFC could begin with a small, centralized effort to leverage available internal expertise into a coherent operational approach, with accountability to a committee of IFC’s Board of Directors and a defined deadline to mainstream technology risk decision-making to operational departments over time. This centralized capacity could evolve into a more permanent IFC resource, or even spun out as a separate institution or body outside of any specific development finance initiatives. This institution would support DFI efforts to understand and maximize the benefits of science and technology for development and develop roadmaps for efficient and sustainable private sector involvement in scaling these activities (much like the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy within the White House). This would be a substantial advance in the capacity and credibility of the development finance community to meet its increasingly challenging mandate.

 

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Klaus Tilmes serves as Co-Chair of the Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and as Senior Advisor on development issues and digital risk management. During his 30-year career at the World Bank, he worked across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, leading programs in infrastructure, knowledge and technology strategy, and finance, trade, and competitiveness.

Leveraging Knowledge to Address Global Change

As a global organization dedicated to ending poverty, the World Bank plays a vital role in mobilizing knowledge and finance to support development. Harnessing science and technology (S&T) is critical to achieving this mission.

Building the human and institutional capacities needed to adopt scientific and technological advances is a first step. In the mid-1990s, many governments restructured their utility sectors, opening them to private sector participation. To address this new reality, I worked with the Public Utility Research Center at the University of Florida to launch the International Forum for Utility Regulators (IFUR). The program assisted newly appointed regulators from around the world navigate complex decisions on tariffs, service, and competition. It also generated opportunities for peer-to-peer exchanges and hands-on learning that even remain active today. Looking ahead, IFUR can serve as a robust model for building capacity given rapidly evolving international standards in other S&T areas.

The 2007/8 global financial crisis created new urgency for the World Bank’s role as a “knowledge bank,” with many countries demanding solutions for social and economic displacement. Working as a member of the Knowledge Strategy Group, we successfully argued for the World Bank to open up and provide free access to its development data; champion new partnerships with philanthropies, research institutes, and technology companies; and promote more cross-cutting solutions. These changes laid the foundation for the kinds of broader S&T engagements that ensued.

Over the past decade, leveraging digital technologies has been critical to ushering in innovations and disruptive solutions. Millions of digitally disconnected people and communities have gained access and economic empowerment through World Bank programs fostering financial inclusion and providing digital IDs. Through Infodev, a global partnership, my team piloted new entrepreneurship models for agribusinesses, created digital innovation hubs, and supported clean-tech start-ups to scale innovative solutions to climate change.

President Banga’s vision for the World Bank “to create a world free of poverty on a livable planet,” connects the fight against poverty at the country level with the need to address global challenges, including climate change, biodiversity, pandemics, food security, and digital access. For this ambitious agenda, I would like to offer the following suggestions:

First, President Banga should reach out and engage with the global science community to join forces in addressing these transboundary issues. This collaboration could focus both on scaling solutions already known as well as scanning the horizon for promising new research. A chief science advisor would be able to connect ongoing S&T initiatives within the World Bank with science networks for development.

Second, the rapid pace of scientific discoveries and technological change has galvanized demand for new knowledge and applications. Capitalizing on the World Bank’s role as honest broker and convenor, President Banga should issue a global challenge to reimagine learning and capacity building at scale on S&T issues. Access to this knowledge would serve as a precious public good.

Third, new mechanisms are needed to transfer and adapt these S&T advances into strategies and programs at country level. The STI-for-SDG Guidebook, developed under the umbrella of the UN Technology Facilitation Mechanism, provides policymakers with a roadmap which Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Serbia, and Ukraine are piloting. Going forward, the World Bank should consider expanding its S&T assistance and funding beyond just a handful of middle-income countries to all—lest many of the poorest countries fall further behind.

It is my hope that new forms of collaboration between the international science community and knowledge institutions will help to respond to this growing list of development challenges. The time has come to link science diplomacy and development assistance to test implementable solutions in an age of accelerated progress in S&T.

 

Disclaimer

The views expressed herein are not necessarily the views of International Financial Corporation or the World Bank Group.

 

Endnotes

  1. Vinod K. Goel, Ekaterina Koryukin, Mohini Bhatia, and Priyanka Agarwal, Innovation Systems: World Bank Support of Science and Technology Development (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2004), http://hdl.handle.net/10986/15026.
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