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: www.u8development.org.uk. 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 www.u8development.org.uk.

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.