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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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser