December 22, 2010

Travel Blog: “Lost in Translation” is a Universal Problem

I put this in the category of “things that really surprised me that should not have surprised me in the least.” A major theme at the gathering I attended in Jordan was the wide gulf between policy makers and the academic/science community on all things natural security.

Many in the group pointed to Jordan’s model of appointing a committee or board on water resources as a means of bringing in academics, business leaders, and others to directly advise the high reaches of government decision makers on resource issues. Jordan established its Royal Commission on Water in early 2008 under the direction of Prince Feisal Ibn Al-Hussein; a year later it issued this (pdf) national water strategy. However, opinions on this model’s applicability to the broader Middle East/North Africa region were mixed. Some thought it worked wonderfully at bridging the science/policy gap. Others voiced concerns that other governments would not handle such a committee or board as intended, but rather they could become just outlets for nepotism.

Still, it’s an idea worth considering. Our Defense Policy Board, Defense Business Board, and President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (or PFIAB or whatever it’s called these days) all seem to be highly effective mechanisms for delivering outside-of-government expertise into the minds of policy makers.

A further complication of the science/policy gap in the Middle East is the intentional withholding of data, especially on water. This stems from the array of shared water resources and less than full trust that other countries will hold back from taking over their water; one person specifically cited concerns over Israeli actions as reason for Lebanon’s resistance to releasing good public data on water. Even if this is more worry than ground truth (of which I’m in no place to adjudicate) it is still driving behavior change that makes integrating natural resource concerns into policy making a less effective process.

And yet, I realized that I was sitting in a room among pieces of the solution. I found myself surrounded by people from many different countries who are actively working to bridge the gap, as we say. I have no doubt that many of them will influence policy or decide policy for their countries, and they will bring their expertise on climate change and natural resources to the table. If the world ends up navigating the changing climate fairly well, including mitigating that change, it will be because of so many people like those I met in Jordan working so hard at this challenge.