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Sustainable Development Forum in Jordan Shows Potential of Science Diplomacy
Marsha Goldberg and Fernando Echavarria had worked for months from their offices in the U.S. State Department to organize a conference that had ambitious scientific, education and diplomatic objectives, not the least of which was to strengthen relations between the West and the Muslim world.
But for all the challenges of organizing a conference thousands of miles away in Amman, Jordan, they hadnít counted on a war.
On the eve of the conference, war exploded on 12 July between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. For Goldberg, then a AAAS Diplomacy Fellow, and Echavarria, a former Diplomacy Fellow, it was a time of acute uncertainty. Would professionals from around the Middle East and North Africa still attend? Would it be best to postpone it, or cancel it?
The conference started on schedule, and while the four-day gathering was deeply colored by tension and sadness arising from the conflict fought just 150 miles away, it proved to be a powerful reminder that diplomacy based on science and technology is an effective way to encourage constructive relations among the nations of the Middle East and North Africa and between the West and the Muslim world.
“These kinds of events are extremely important,” keynote speaker Eduardo Lopez Moreno, chief of the Nairobi-based Global Urban Observatory for U.N. Habitat, said in an interview. “When trying to respond to regions where there are some political tensions, this creates an excellent opportunity to use science and technology to build bridges and to use this as an example of the value of collaboration.”
Goldberg offered a more personal reaction, putting her work on the conference in the context of her two years as a AAAS Fellow at the U.S. State Department. “This was the most satisfying activity of my Fellowship,” she said.
In all, the GeoInformation for Sustainable Cities conference drew 50 planners, scholars and government officials, representing 10 countries and regions in the Middle East and North Africa—Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, the West Bank and Gaza, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Kuwait, and Yemen. Fifteen of the participants were women; seven of the experts were from Libya, and seven more from Iraq. The mayor of Marrakesh, Morocco, was there, as was the former mayor of Kuwait City. So were representatives from the federal government and private industry in the United States.
What they shared was a high-level exchange of counsel and insight on the uses of geographic information systems (GIS), from tracking leaks in an urban water system to charting broad development and poverty patterns. And, too, they were able to build knowledge-sharing networks that could help with that planning for a generation to come.
Goldberg became a Diplomacy Fellow under the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship in September 2004; her fellowship ended a few weeks ago, at the end of August. Echavarria was a AAAS Diplomacy Fellow for a year beginning in 1997, and he has stayed on at the State Department, currently serving in the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science.
For more than three decades, the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships have brought scientists and engineers into government service in a variety of agencies and in Congress. The fellowships are designed to establish and nurture critical links between federal decision-makers and scientific professionals to support public policy that benefits the well-being of the nation and the world.
“AAAS Fellows are able to help apply science as a bridge when there is a divide between opposing stakeholders or nations,” said Cynthia Robinson, director of the S&T Policy Fellowships. “They learn quickly that science diplomacy is a valuable channel for global cooperation.”
Geographic information systems use high-powered computer hardware and software along with mapping systems, satellite images and other technology to create rich data sets. When socio-economic data is added to the mix, the systems are able to construct illuminating portraits of where and how people live.
Those tools could be crucial in coming decades as millions of people around the world leave rural areas to live an often precarious life as squatters in urban slums. Such urban areas are growing exponentially; by some estimates, as many as 2 billion people worldwide may be living as squatters by 2030. That will create enormous challenges for their governments at home and around the world.
“This is where the sustainable development challenge will have to be met..in places like Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Baghdad, Mumbai and Sao Paolo,” Echavarria said in an interview. “How are we going to address the needs of the urban poor—clean water, health, transportation, housing and other incredibly challenging problems?”
According to Goldberg and Echavarria, the roots of the Amman conference go back to the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, where members of the U.S. delegation were involved in exchanges on how geospatial technology could help policymakers address issues related to AIDS, poverty and education.
In 2004, when Goldberg first started at the State Department, she and Echavarria had adjoining offices. She was an urban planner by training; Echavarria was going to a meeting that focused on the distribution of GIS software to cities. Subsequent discussions led them to apply for an internal State Department grant under a program aimed at using science and technology to aid in a number of diplomatic objectives, including outreach to the Muslim world.
A small grant came through in late 2005, and they used that to leverage additional funds and other support from an array of federal and private partners: the U.S. Agency for International Development; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI); and Trimble Navigation. The workshop itself was organized by the International City/County Management Association.
But then, just four days before the conference was to convene in Jordan, war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. Colleagues and friends wondered whether Echavarria and Goldberg should go through with it.
They did, and they arrived to find Amman largely unaffected by the war. Among the conference participants, they found an enormous hunger to share their knowledge and to obtain new insights about how GIS can help keep a city running.
Hosni Abu Gheida, Jordanís minister of Public Works and Housing, delivered welcoming remarks at a reception. Others came hundreds of miles, making a rare trip out of their countries. The delegation from Iraq, Goldberg said, was just happy to have a respite from conditions at home.
“I donít know how you still do urban planning in Iraq,” she said, “but they were there, still working, still developing, still looking to do good things.”
Different countries had different levels of GIS experience and skill. And from country to country among those represented, there were different levels of freedom to use GIS and related technology.
While much time was spent between sessions and over meals watching grim news reports and discussing the warís impact, many participants expressed deep gratitude for the hope that the conference seemed to offer.
Nidal Saliba, GIS manager for the Water Authority of Jordan, made a presentation on how the technology is improving the management of water infrastructure in the Amman area. In an e-mail interview after the conference, he predicted that the session would have broad positive effects—creating new understanding about the potential of GIS, promoting cooperation and open-exchange of information between different countries, and helping transfer knowledge from experienced countries to those with less GIS experience.
The conference and events like it “can assist people living in the Middle East in dealing with the critical and extremely complex challenges that characterize the region in
the political, social, and economical realms,” Saliba said. That, in turn, promotes the “enhancement of people's everyday lives.”
Shoreh Elhami was born in Iran, but came to the United States after earning her undergraduate degree at the National University in Tehran; she has extensive knowledge of the Middle East and more than 15 years of experience in GIS and urban planning. Now GIS director for Delaware Appraisal Land Information System in Delaware, Ohio, she offered a similarly upbeat assessment after her time as a presenter at the conference.
“GIS technology is a powerful decision-making tool,” she said in an email interview, “and if used appropriately, it could assist in alleviating poverty, identifying infrastructure needs and shortages, and devising sound environmental policies, to name a few uses. Therefore, events such as this could highlight these advantages, introduce best practices, and create an environment where colleagues can share their stories with one another.
“An environment such as this creates a positive reaction towards all parties involved in organizing the event. As for alleviating geopolitical tensions, I can say that any honest attempt to share knowledge and technology in a neutral environment such as this conference cannot have a negative impact.”
Moreno and others suggest such meetings also can, in subtle ways, encourage democracy.
“I don't want to be naÔve, that just because we organized a workshop democracy will come to a country,” Moreno said. “But after the workshop we can create a network, a collaboration of people working together....When you have an extended support network, you feel more confident and more empowered to discuss issues you might not otherwise be able to.”
Building democracy in this way “is a long-term process,” he added. “It should be supported by action, it should be supported by funding, and it should be supported by technological and institutional support. And then I think the workshop and things like it will largely pay off.
“In the current situation, with so many tensions, I think the policy we should follow is not one of fighting wars, but instead to see ways of collaboration. Rather than see this region as a potential enemy, we should see that we have a lot in common and look for ways of working together.”
With her AAAS fellowship complete, Goldberg has left the State Department and now serves as a director of environment and social assessment for the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation. Both she and Echavarria said that, if funding is available, they would like to organize similar conferences in Southeast Asia, Latin America and other regions.
Edward W. Lempinen
18 September 2006