Uniquely well placed to make a difference

How the Cambridge Development Initiative is rethinking volunteering and tapping into the potential of Cambridge as a force for good in international development

By Patrick Hoffmann

In a speech titled Universities and the Poorest Billion, our current Vice-Chancellor argued that universities like Cambridge are ‘uniquely well placed to make a difference’ in international development. While quoting the principal is only slightly more socially acceptable at university than it is at high school, this is actually nothing less than a forceful repudiation of the comfortable picture of Cambridge as a closeted ‘ivory tower’. It is a belief that is fundamental to the vision behind founding the Cambridge Development Initiative.

So what can Cambridge ‘uniquely’ provide to development and what does that have to do with an initiative that is not just ‘yet another volunteering project’ , as some might sigh in exasperation?

As the Vice-Chancellor put it, universities are ‘the last great integrators of knowledge’, places where all disciplines come together – places exceptionally suited to provide holistic solutions to complex problems, as the Cambridge Development Initiative is seeking to do. Just as importantly, strong partnerships with companies, NGOs and government are vital to a university like Cambridge, making it a natural ‘broker’. The Cambridge Africa Business Network is itself a prime example of realising Cambridge’s potential as a platform.

But one thing was strangely absent from the vision that the Vice-Chancellor presented – the students. His image of the university as a force for good is all about the academics, everyone from the Junior Research Fellow upwards. However, this is just as true for the 12,000 undergraduates and 6,000 postgraduates, people with skill sets of exceptional breadth and depth. When else can the Shakespearean actor, the banker and the aeronautical engineer really join forces to make a difference before they all go down their separate careers paths? Aside from the odd encounter at Alumni events, or in an eclectic London bar, these people may never even meet again, let alone combine their skills for integrated, creative programmes which could foster the sustainable development of entire communities.

In conclusion, then, universities are an ideal platform for this kind of work but we contend that students are uniquely suited to taking the lead – and that they can do so through a new kind of volunteering.

Currently, that potential lies untapped.

Even though volunteering is the main way for students to get involved in international development, most volunteering projects in Cambridge are in fact very conventional and much like the projects you might find anywhere else. A typical project might involve flying over to an African country, for £700 a ticket, and teaching English or building a well.

To do student volunteering differently, we want to take an integrated approach: We are designing projects in Entrepreneurship, Health, Engineering and Education, all of which focus on five slums in the city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. That way, we are establishing a platform for students from all backgrounds and disciplines to support Tanzanians themselves in lifting communities at the bottom of the pyramid out of poverty. It is an open platform that invites new ideas and allows different skills and abilities to converge for greater impact.

More than that, we want to test how much student volunteers can contribute to implementing innovative and sophisticated development solutions: our Entrepreneurship project, for instance, is an incubator for Tanzanian university students. It provides the students with hands-on support for founding businesses that provide products or services in the slums. Bridging what is known as the ‘Pioneer Gap’ of early-stage development, it will build these social enterprises to scale. A diversity of experiences, skills and creative insights from our students will be invaluable. There is a role to play for the social anthropologist, just as there is for the experienced MBA student.

Nothing quite like this has ever been done by a student-run initiative: it is a far way off from building a well. We hope this approach will have a greater impact  on communities in Dar es Salaam. And as for our volunteers, we hope they will realise that they are not shut off in an ‘ivory tower’, but part of a community that is ‘uniquely well-placed to make a difference’.

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