18 June 2004 --
Ismail Serageldin gave an opening keynote address to a developmentally minded gathering held in the Senate chamber of the Dutch Parliament. The topic was the risk society from the perspective of the developing countries. On the big picture, Serageldin impressed the audience with the needs of the developing countries and their problems. But he also addressed methodological issues and analytical techniques. Serageldin was particularly lucid in explaining the difference between what he referred to as risk (known number of outcomes, with specific probabilities assigned to each) and uncertainty. He argued that policy formulation should take these differences into account, and that the precautionary principle should be based on comparative risk assessments, not just to reject a new technology based on the question “would there be some risk associated with this technology?”, for that implies that the default position (the alternative to adopting the technology) has zero risk. Which is not correct. The alternative is the continuation of current technologies, hence the need for a comparative approach (a point made forcefully by Philippe Kourilsky in a report to French PM Jospin a few years ago).