Students are leading the way on international development

The Warwick International Development Summit provides a platform for the spread of innovative new ideas.

International development nowadays often appears to be a topic that many governments profess to commit to but few actually act in a way designed to meet the needs of the people that they claim to be trying to help. Such non-committance is displayed by the fact that only 5 developing nations have yet to reach the donation target of 0.7 per cent of GNI set out by the UN in 1970.

Funding problems have only worsened following the recent economic crisis and the resulting austerity measures pursued by western governments have tightened public purse strings. Although a few countries such as the UK have committed themselves to maintaining their aid budget despite cuts to other areas of expenditure, such ring fencing has been pounced upon by longstanding opponents of aid. Extreme examples such as India’s receipt of aid despite its pursuit of a space capability are used to attack development budgets in general.

It doesn’t help the development cause that aid has had a problematic history. While there has been a move away from the top down, Western led approach followed in the past in favour of a recognition of localised specific and unique circumstances in developing areas, the pursuit of targets such as the Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 have so far met limited success.

Furthermore, aid has often had a (some may say inevitable) focus on the national interest of donor states. Favoured nations often receive significant grants to the detriment of poorer regions, which according to Oxfam undermines “the effectiveness of aid in meeting humanitarian needs and maximizing poverty reduction.”

Despite these issues with development, there is still a determined drive in the global community to improve the lives of the many millions of people who live in desperate conditions around the world in the 21st century. One increasingly recognised way in which development objectives can be met is by engaging young people.  Young people often have the passion and curiosity to be willing to tackle head on the problems that face developing nations. Such enthusiasm is displayed in the thousands of students that choose to travel the world during their gap year or summer holidays, often taking part in projects in deprived regions to improve the lives of others.

The UK is in an exceptional position to foster such engagement. UK universities are ranked second only to the US in demand by foreign students, fuelled by the prominent position that our nation’s institutions feature in international league tables. Last year there were 428,225 full time undergraduate international students studying in the UK, making up 14 per cent of the student population. Nowhere but in universities is there such a multinational mix of people that have a desire to improve the world as well as the backgrounds to offer a truly global perspective on development. This provides UK universities with the unique opportunity to promote engagement in development issues and ensure that both UK and international students have the ability to learn from each other.

One example of this is the establishment of student societies dedicated to culturing such connections. At the University of Warwick, the Warwick International Development Society is preparing for its 7th annual development summit, organised by students from all over the world. With past speakers including WTO Chief Economist Patrick Low, Under Secretary of State for Development Michael Foster MP, BBC reporter Jon Sopel and World Bank lead economist Branko Milanović, the Summit has attracted the attention of significant individuals within the field of development. This year it is due to feature among its speakers Mahmoud Mohieldin, Managing Director of the World Bank and Jeffrey Sachs, the prominent development economist and UN advisor.

The summit has proved exceptionally popular, with attendees including not just students from Warwick but those from other universities around the UK and Europe as well as members of the public. With such a wide audience, the summit has been able to provide a platform for the spread of innovative new ideas and engage young people from a variety of backgrounds. This year’s summit coordinator, Aleksandra Katolik, explains that “by presenting a large variety of topics and making the content of our conference accessible to attendees new to international development, we will be able to show fellow students, activists and members of the public the immense opportunities and ways of making a difference in development.”

The society has also demonstrated how it can engage students in development work. This year it expanded its reach abroad, forming a partnership with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines to provide the opportunity for students to contribute to improving sustainable agriculture techniques and policy. Through these opportunities, the society hopes to demonstrate that students can contribute to development in a variety of ways.

Solving development problems such as food scarcity, lack of clean drinking water and rampant disease in the developing world will not be achieved in a short time. While the Millennium Development Goals have made progress, it doesn’t appear that they will all be completed by 2015. To steal a tag line from the 2012 Olympic Games, to solve international development problems we need to ‘inspire a generation’ to continue the progress that has been made over the past years. Encouraging greater engagement in our diverse universities is one way of ensuring that the issue of development is firmly in the minds of future generations.

Farmers planting rice in Cavite, south of the Philippine capital Manila. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.