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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage