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Science, ethics and alternative visions

An interview with

Ghazi Algosaibi,
Saudi Arabia's ambassador to London

'He is particularly critical of the tendency in some developing countries to adopt science, education, and technology policies that have been shaped in the richer countries of the West without properly thinking through the implications'

[london] Ghazi Algosaibi, one of the leading candidates to become the next director-general of Unesco (see 4 February 1999) says that if elected, he will prioritize initiatives on the ethics of science, illiteracy, and promoting what he calls "a culture of friendship" between nations.

In a detailed interview in London last week, Algosaibi talked about science and development, his vision for Unesco, and his strategy for getting elected. And he claimed that his main rival for the post, Ismail Serageldin, a vice president of the World Bank, does not have the support of African countries, or of Egypt.

"I am the candidate of Egypt, and I hope to get the support of African states," says Algosaibi says, who already claims to have endorsements from the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Arab League.

Algosaibi acknowledges that Serageldin will be a formidable opponent in terms of his long experience at the World Bank and his large constituency of supporters from the global environment and development community (see www.serageldin.net).

But he says that none of his rivals can match the breadth of his own professional experience, which includes more than 15 years as a diplomat, dean of a university, head of Saudi Arabia's railways, and minister in the departments of health and industry. "With all undue modesty, and all due arrogance, no one in the history of Unesco will come with such experience."

Algosaibi, who is 59 and has a German wife, is a lawyer with a doctorate in international relations. But he is better known at home as a writer and poet, as well as for a 10-year career as a minister that began in the government of King Faisal in 1974.

This career came to an abrupt end in 1984 when Algosaibi was appointed ambassador to Bahrain, before being sent to London in 1992. He declines to discuss why he fell out of favour, except to say that "it is a long story". But his views on Saudi development policy during the 1970s and 1980s cannot have endeared him to his country's rulers, particularly those that followed the untimely death of King Faisal in 1975.

Algosaibi is particularly critical of the tendency in some developing countries to adopt science, education, and technology policies that have been shaped in the richer countries of the West without properly thinking through the implications.

For example, he believes it was wrong for the Saudi authorities to model their universities on the American 'Ivy League' system at a time when the country needed skilled engineers, technicians, and nurses who were - and still are -instead invited from overseas. "When I was at the University of Riyadh. I wanted to train nurses and technicians," he says. "I warned that there would be graduate unemployment. But people thought I was mad."

Algosaibi also criticizes those developing countries with significant illiterate populations who devote resources to expanding higher education without a simultaneous commitment to building schools and investing in adult education.

These views, outlined in more detail in his book, The Dilemma of Development, are also reflected in Algosaibi's vision for Unesco. Indeed, he says that if elected director general, he intends to launch what he describes as a 'Cru-had' - a Crusade and a Jihad - against illiteracy.

Algosaibi says he believes that as a body with limited funds, Unesco needs to develop a similarly sharp focus in science. Rather than fund research - "which others do better than Unesco" - he would like to see the body making better use of its role as an intergovernmental forum discussing the implications of science for society.

For example, Algosaibi says that there has been little intergovernmental discussion on the implications of advances in the life sciences, particularly cloning technology, xenotransplantation, and in bio-weapons. He also says that Unesco's work in science should be more closely attached to its contributions in the field of culture, which he believes should focus on developing friendship between countries.

Algosaibi acknowledges that Unesco's work in preserving heritage sites in member countries is a successful and focused activity. But he thinks that activities should shift up a gear. "These are difficult times. Academics are talking of 'a clash of civilizations', and fanatics are waiting to declare war," he says.

"In the coming century, each country will be capable of destroying any other with biological weapons. Unless there is more genuine friendship between countries, no amount of UN peacekeeping efforts will deter conflict."

Algosaibi says he is aware that many countries perceive Saudi Arabia to be a country that totally lacks democracy, freedom of religion, human rights and individual liberty; and that, regardless of his ideas - or his merits as a candidate - this will dent his support, particularly among Western countries.

But he says he is aiming to convince "every individual that counts" in the election why he thinks such views of Saudi Arabia are missing the point. "Every country cannot be like the United States or Europe. They have their own history, culture, tradition and religions.

"Saudi Arabia is one such country, and in common with close to one billion Muslims, we don't approve of many developments in the Western world, such as rising divorce rates and children being born out of wedlock. But this doesn't mean we should condemn the countries where this is taking place."

He describes Saudi Arabia as a "traditional, and deeply religious society", and says that attempts by the government after the Gulf War to allow women to drive were met with considerable public hostility, as were laws enacted in 1960 to make education compulsory for females. "Girls had to be sent to school under police protection."

Algosaibi adds: "I don't deny that change is needed. But it should be left for societies to sort it out in their own time. It's no good telling the Taliban they're violating UN resolutions. They'll just turn around and shoot you."

He says he is also aware that one of Ismail Serageldin's strengths as a candidate is that he is better known in - and may be considered more acceptable - to Western countries. "Ismail spends half of his life organizing international conferences and the other half attending them," jokes Algosaibi. "That's how he gets to know so many people."

But he also says that many developing countries may not want a director general who has spent much of his adult life based in Washington. "If Ismail gets elected, it will be the West talking to itself again."


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