The Islamic world’s current science effort is on life support and without major ‘surgery’ could be yet another policy failure, says Athar Osama.
In 2007, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) created the Science, Technology and Innovation Organisation (STIO) to jumpstart science cooperation among its 57 member countries. Three years later, a founding meeting approved an annual budget of US$70 million, with four founding members — Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and and Syria — committing US$5 million each to the budget.
To date, 20 countries have joined STIO — but none has honoured its financial commitment, according to the organisation’s secretariat in Islamabad, Pakistan.
STIO’s mandate was to organise cooperative research and pool resources under the banner ‘Your money for your projects’. But there is very little to show for its six years of existence.
Muslim countries have performed abysmally when it comes to collaborating with each other. According to an annual report (2006–7) of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), inter-country trade among Muslim countries is only 14 per cent of their overall global trade. This is particularly true of commerce related to science and technology.
But the failure, so far, of STIO could be a new low in OIC science diplomacy, particularly because STIO promised to make good on many years of trying to create a pan-Islamic R&D fund.
That promise should not be lost: the Muslim world should save this important piece of science diplomacy infrastructure.
Recognising the causes
The surgery needed to save STIO from becoming either defunct or an instrument of the status quo requires a proper diagnosis. Its problems lie at two levels.
The first is the politics of power within the Islamic world. OIC institutions have often been dominated by one country, which often results in diplomatic deadlock.
It is important to rise above such politics to create organisations with shared ownership within the Islamic world.
STIO, for instance, is nominally headquartered alongside COMSTECH, the OIC’s Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation, based in Pakistan and always headed by someone from the country. But it could be headed by someone of appropriate credentials from another country. If he or she belongs to an influential country in the OIC, such a leader could bring additional weight — and resources — to the table.
Back to the drawing board
The second source of STIO’s problems may lie in a design flaw, although this was hard to predict. ‘Your money for your projects’, struck as a compromise to gather the political will to create STIO, actually undermines it. This is because member countries are allowed to spend up to 90 per cent of their financial commitment to STIO within their countries with just 10 per cent going to the organisation.
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