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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Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.