Heard of U8?

One group of students try to build "global grass-roots" organisation

Imagine a world in which we all have a voice. A world where there is a platform for the voiceless, a platform for global dialogue and shared learning, and a platform for engagement with the policies that affect our everyday lives.

Or, more practically, a platform that enables you to see the impact of global warming in a remote Indian village, in the Ethiopian plains as well as on a Dutch seaside town. A platform where all countries can communicate with each other on shared concerns which will indeed have the ear of the President.

Well almost – try Al Gore, a former Vice President as well as Peter Lilley of the Conservative Party’s Global Poverty group, Hilary Benn and top executives at ABC News in Washington, DC. Let’s also not forget the Foreign Ministries in over 13 countries, and regional and international institutions such as the African Union or the World Bank that have been engaged. With features in the Guardian and the Hindu, and confirming global TV coverage for the U8 summit in less than a month’s time, it is time to talk.

The U8 is a global grass-roots student organisation facilitated by a small yet dedicated executive committee. As of today, the U8 actively involves 27 universities in developed and less developed countries, as well as having a presence in over 40 universities in 19 countries.

Unlike the G8, membership is not just for the richest countries, but for all countries. The U8 is wholly independent, non-partisan, and student-led with top level universities involved such as Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Warwick as well as universities in Nepal, India, Kyrgyzstan, Ethiopia, Mexico, Egypt, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, France and Germany. We are a growing and open organisation, having more than tripled our membership since October 2006.

The aims: (1) shared learning of international development issues, (2) to promote not only a culture of inclusion but genuine global partnerships by twinning U8 universities in different continents and (3) engagement with policy makers to inform policy.

On 9-11 March, one of the most important global summits on international development led solely by students will take place at Warwick University in Coventry, England. Over a hundred students from around the world from both developed and developing countries will gather for the 2nd annual U8 summit.

To prepare for the upcoming summit, students across the globe have been researching, holding debates at their respective universities, gaining international media coverage, meeting with key policy makers and influential leaders, and blogging online on the U8 website: All of these views will come together at Warwick during the 3 day summit.

The online blogs and student researchers tackle issues such as conflict, poverty, migration, health and the environment as chosen from the U8 Consultation Paper 2006. The U8 asked governments, NGOs, private sector companies and academics in both developed and developing countries as well as international organisations what they thought the most important issues were in development. This sets the framework for the research, giving a representative view of global developmental concerns.

On the online forums, the following exchange is an example of the daily dialogue since November:

“I am not convinced that the EPAs [European Union Economic Partnership Agreements] are as harmful for developing countries as is often argued,” says Steve from Oxford.

Senayt from Ethiopia at the Addis Ababa University replies, “Unless we Africans strengthen, diversify local production, and transform our commodity dependent economies, EPAs will render our continent even more dependent on foreign aid handouts.”

Meareg, also from Addis Ababa adds, “Aid does not solve our problems rather destabilize our internal activities….we know how much terrible it is …so please I beg you pardon to delete the word aid from your mind and please replace it with the word ‘fair trade’.”

The U8 website on average each week attracts over 1850 visitors from over 60 countries, from Peru to Mongolia, Canada to Cameroon, Tajikistan to Mexico.

"It is incredible to see the traffic generated to the website as we are truly becoming more global and inclusive in our discussion," said U8 Co-President James Clarke, studying Politics at Warwick.

Following the U8 Summit in March, delegates from member universities from around the world will consolidate research and present issues raised to key policy-makers, researchers and practitioners.

Already, meetings are taking place such as in the House of Commons with the Globalisation and Global Poverty group, set up by David Cameron, where members of the U8 Exec have called for a regulation of the gap year industry, arguing that development is usually not part of their agenda.

The issue is being opened up to the forums to get views from both developed and developing countries. U8 Ethiopia delegates were the first to submit its views to the Party.

"Students from developing and developed countries are asking ‘What can we do to help?’" explained Clarke. "We hope that the meetings with government officials of all political views will continue to allow students to inform policy, and allow for changes needed."

To find out more about the U8 Summit or to become involved, please visit the website

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.