International WUS from a national committee perspective

The WUS International Secretariat gave me a warm welcome when I joined WUS UK in 1973, inviting me to attend the International Executive Committee meetings in Geneva as an observer. The International Executive Committee was elected at the biannual International Assembly, tasked with taking the major decisions between Assembly meetings. It was effectively the governing body that advised or instructed the Secretariat although the Assemblies remained sovereign. These meetings gave me a good insight on what was happening globally but also an opportunity to meet the Executive and the Secretariat formally during the day and informally over fondue dinners in the old city to build up trust and to discuss ways of working together.   

Early on WUS International offered to support WUS UK Chilean refugee scholarship programme with 20 scholarships from SIDA funding, but once we had attracted UK aid funding we all agreed that the funding could be better spent on Chilean refugee students elsewhere.  It set the tone of how WUSI and WUS UK worked closely together in practice supporting each other’s programmes. Over time, WUS UK gave much more financially to WUS International programme but we gained from being part of a truly participative movement. Genuine partnerships were created between committees in the North and the South that were not beholden to the Western donors.  There were disagreements from time to time, as there always will be, but there was much good will and mutual respect engendered by the international secretariat in particular Nathan and Richard Taylor.  

International Executive Committee

1979 WUS International executive, with observers, at Chemin des Iris, Geneva

International Assembly Munich 1974

My first major international involvement was attending the International Assembly in Munich in the summer of 1974. I had dragged myself away from the London office where we had been working very long hours to initiate our major programme for Chilean refugee students. I joined two other colleagues on the WUS UK delegation, Michael Payne my predecessor and Barbara How the WUS UK Chairman, who were both probably twice my age, but we worked well as a team. They were old hands with a depth of experience of WUS International Assemblies, which I found invaluable as a newcomer.  I had never before worked in a global non-governmental organisation, while I was uncertain how welcome we would be with everyone being familiar with the British imperial and colonial tradition.  Occasionally I was teased about this, but never with malice and always as a WUS colleague sharing many common values.   

Delegates to Munich Assembly 1974 Centre Mr. Chidabaranathan International General Secretary, foreground right Bill McNeil (Canada) and John Watson (Canada)

 My first mistake in Munich was allowing myself to be nominated to the Recognitions Committee that reviewed the credentials of national committees and delegates to see if they were entitled to vote, stand for the executive election and have their costs paid for future Assemblies. Although there were objective criteria, it was “a can of worms”. The procedures were immensely time-consuming, while considerable pressure was being placed on members of the committee by some delegates to accept or reject particular delegates or committees. It was work that needed to be done, but I vowed never to be involved again.  The politicking at the International Assemblies for recognition and for election to the international Assembly could be intense, therefore as an employee of WUS UK, it was best left to others.  

 The recognitions committee work left me so exhausted that during the remaining time in Munich I tried to relax, listen, learn and catch up with sleep.  Throughout the discussions in the Assembly there was a recognition that, worldwide, there needed to be a deeper social commitment by all institutions of higher education in the wider society. WUS’s role was to be a catalyst or an exemplar of this.  I remember little of the detail of the Assembly itself, though it was the last for the highly respected Nathan and the first for Richard Taylor as the new International General Secretary.  It was time well spent though as I learnt much from the other delegates, particularly those from Africa, who encouraged WUS UK to pioneer new programmes in partnership with them.  

The Manila Assembly took place in 1976 which I attended with two other WUS UK delegates, Iain Wright – who became the WUSI President in 1978, and Sally Whittal a student volunteer. There were 59 representatives from 23 countries. It was a one-week Assembly that made a firm commitment to refugee scholarship programmes that were central to WUS UKs work. They were seen as being an important way of protecting and promoting human rights, recognising that acting against discrimination was promoting development in the fullest sense.  

International Assembly Manila 1976

1976 Manila Assembly Group photo of Participants
1976 Manila Assembly Group photo of Participants

I was blown over by the warmth and hospitality by the local committee. Somehow, they managed to find the time and energy after the organisation of an exhausting Assembly to take me around to visit the educational and health projects that WUS Philippines and the volunteer students were implementing. The theme was social justice through community development. They were inspirational in their enthusiasm and commitment to social justice in their local community.  

1976 Manila assembly, The Philippine participants relaxing

 I then flew to join a WUS Workshop at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, I arrived a day late and just in time. I was followed in by a typhoon, my plane was the last plane in before the airport was closed with the city being battened down for the storm. The Chinese hospitality was impeccable.  I recall being mesmerised during one dinner by waiters filleting the bones from fish with chop sticks. WUSI events were such diverse cultural experiences inside the meeting room and outside when socialising.  

Air fares were expensive in the 1970s, this, with the complications of communications, made it important to squeeze as many activities and experiences in a visit to the other side of the world as you could.         After the two-day workshop in Hong Kong, I flew on to Bangkok, where the WUS UK delegation was garlanded with flowers at the airport by friends from WUS Thailand. We went on to spend a fascinating week in Thailand with WUS students in Chiang Mai working on agricultural and education projects with impoverished peasants. I learnt how to sow paddy and understood what monotonous backbreaking work it was even for myself a fit 29-year-old.  

Informal gathering outside seminar WUS Hong Kong 1978 Richard Taylor, unknown, unknown, Tad Mitsui, Alan Phillips, Jean-Marie Schwartz

International Assembly Colombo 1978

The 1978 Sri Lanka conference came at a time of a lull in the violent inter-ethnic conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers. On the arrival of our delegation with Iain Wright (the UK Chairman) and Gail Miller (a student representative) it seemed such a peaceful country, with an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage.  It soon became clear that acute ethnic and religious tensions remained. One major cause of tension was the change in university education from English to Sinhalese, which effectively excluded many young Tamils. They had become easy recruits for the Tamil Tigers.  The Assembly debates were robust as ever, with a two-day workshop on “Rethinking Development” contesting the traditional approach of focusing on economic imperatives. The importance of lifestyles and the quality of life, the opportunities and risks of the transfer of technologies, alongside the protection and promotion of human rights and the need in the west to promote development education. WUS Sri Lanka had brought together a wide range of participants, Sinhalese and Tamil, from throughout the country for a superbly organised event.  

1978 Colombo Assembly Plenary

My strongest recollections are taking a long holiday afterwards visiting WUS members throughout the country with Hilary (to whom I am still married). Their generosity of time and spirit – particularly in the isolated and marginalised northern Tamil city of Jaffna was unforgettable. We were treated like royalty.    We had a good friend in Sri Lanka in the late Professor Samaranayaka (Sam)- the Treasurer of WUS International- who even organised a three day stay for us on a tea estate near Nuwara Eliya so that we could see the vestiges of the old colonialism and (discreetly) understand the continuing exploitation of the tea estate workers by their new owners. We met many of the WUS Sri Lanka Assembly participants in our travels from Columbo to Kandy and from Trincomalee to Jaffna.  

International Assembly Managua 1980

 In 1980 I had the privilege of travelling to Nicaragua. WUS was the first international organisation to be invited to hold a meeting in the country since the overthrow of the Samoza regime. WUS UK was represented by Robert Lee (the Chairman), Robert Kamasaka (a student representative) and me. Pauline Martin our Latin American regional representative and Iain Wright- elected in 1978 as the International President- also attended. It was held in the war damaged capital Managua attended by 70 delegates from 34 countries. it was a highly politicised conference coming soon after the Sandinistas had come into power; they were heady days of revolution and change. The Latin American WUS committees, including 12 newly formed committees, were determined to have much more influence over WUSI, initially contesting the appointment of Klavs Wulff as the new General Secretary. The progressive Rector of the University of El Salvador, Felix Ulloa, was elected as the President of the WUSI Executive. Tragically, he was assassinated by a death squad some two months later.  

I came away from Nicaragua with two long-lasting memories; the first was the destruction in the centre of the capital which was testimony to the extraordinary way in which Nicaragua’s dictator Samoza had bombed civilians and shops in the previous year to try to cling onto power.   

Nicaragua literacy campaign 1980 learning letters through match boxes

 The second long-lasting memory was the magnificent Literacy crusade. I had the chance to travel around for a week after the Assembly to see the way that it was already transforming the lives of so many of those living in the rural area, who had been illiterate. Additionally, many of the literacy teachers were university students from urban educated families. It educated them in the realities of rural poverty during the six months that they lived and worked within the villages. Their methods of mass communication and education were innovative and exciting.  

Student brigadistas in Nicaragua in 1980

Throughout my time at WUS I had the privilege and enjoyment of working with WUS colleagues from all over the world, from different cultures and backgrounds but so often sharing the same values. It was an enriching, enduring, experience of an effective international NGO. It was invaluable a decade later when I became the Director of Minority Rights Group International.   

Author profile
Alan Phillips

Alan Phillips was WUS (UK) General Secretary from 1973 to 1981. He moved on to help establish the British Refugee Council in 1982. In 1989 he was appointed Director of the Minority Rights Group International, leaving it in 2000 to become the UK expert on national minorities at the Council of Europe and its President until 2010. In recent years he has helped save WUS UK archives and supported research on its historic work. He has been honoured by the Chilean and UK governments, as well as by the University of Warwick.