BY BILL KIRKMAN

An international student body, the U8, has ambitious plans based on the premise that the views of the recipients of aid should be taken seriously.

IF you want to provide effective help to people, you must first discover what help they want. The best way to find out is to ask them.That seems to me a straightforward truth, but it is a truth which is frequently ignored. We all tend, I suspect, to like providing the kind of help which we consider appropriate. This may be through arrogance - we know best, and if you need help we must obviously know better than you. More often, I suggest, it reflects insensitivity.

Obvious truth

If we move from the personal to the public, to the question of international aid, it is obviously more complicated, but it still makes sense to recognise that people in need are likely to have a good idea of what their needs are. The use of international aid as an instrument of donors' foreign policy has considerable risks. That, too, is a straightforward truth, and there are many manifestations of it. I have been thinking of this since attending recently a reception to mark the opening in Cambridge of a Humanitarian Centre, which brings together a variety of student organisations. It is housed in a university building and it enjoys the support of the University, through an informal relationship.

Inclusive agenda

One of the organisations is Cambridge University International Development, which is playing a leading role in a much wider body - U8 Student International Development Partnership. This, to quote from its website, aims to "include, understand and engage students from both developed and developing countries, to look at international development issues in a new way". The plan is that each member university in a developed country must twin with at least one university in a developing country, and facilitate the "twin's" input into U8. U8's aims include collaboration of students from diverse geographical, cultural and academic backgrounds and direct engagement with students from developing countries. Crucially, one aim is to "create a culture where developing countries are included in policy discussions and can voice opinions on policy that directly affects them". So far, universities from France, Germany and the Netherlands are involved in U8, as well as 11 U.K. universities.Next year, the U8 will hold a summit, at the University of Warwick, at which 150 students from developed and developing countries will gather to finalise research which they have been undertaking, and produce recommendations to be presented to key policy makers. Early next month there is to be a meeting to produce a consultation paper, which will serve as a framework for the 2007 summit. The speakers will include the co-presidents of U8, James Clarke of Warwick and Mark Koller of the University of Cambridge. They explain: "We are not confined in the same way as a government is to its electorate, or a private company is to its body of shareholders, or a NGO to its donors. We can push boundaries, voice our opinions freely, and dedicate significant time to the completion of our aims".All this is extremely ambitious. Whether it succeeds will depend on many factors, including, above all, the willingness of governments and aid agencies to take seriously the premise on which the U8 is based - that the views and wishes of recipients of aid should be taken seriously.

Committed to change

What is most likely to make it succeed is the intelligent energy and enthusiasm which the students are bringing to it. Meeting Mark Koller at the Humanitarian Centre reception provided an immediate demonstration of this. This is not a gathering of well meaning amateurs. Rather, as the document setting out information about the U8 Partnership notes, "our members are socially conscious students motivated and committed to making a difference, many of whom will go on to fill positions of responsibility in their professional careers. As the potential future leaders they will have the ability to effect real change."

Real chance of success

That is a big claim, but applied to students of major universities of international standing, not an unrealistic one. If we return to the concept that to discover what help people - in this case, people in the developing countries - need, the best thing is to ask them, we can add an important corollary. Those best qualified to articulate these needs are likely to be those who are both local and international, who are part of the society for which aid is necessary, but also have close allies in the societies which will be able to provide it. The U8 Student International Development Partnership certainly has the possibility of punching above its weight.Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com