WUS Germany in the context of the international movement

After its foundation in Germany in 1950, WUS enabled German students to establish international contacts after years of isolation due to the Nazi era and to be accepted and recognised again in the international academic world community. Already in the early 1950s, it promoted study for students from Africa, Asia and Latin America at German universities. WUS developed proposals for better advising and study support for foreign students and promoted the self-organisation of foreign students, for example, the nationwide organisations of students from Ethiopia, Chile, China, Eritrea, Ghana, Greece, Indonesia, Cameroon, Morocco, Palestine, Peru, Turkey, among others.

Especially when students and scientists had to flee to Germany as exiles, WUS supported them ins organising associations and contributed to the “democratic intelligentsia” of these countries finding protection and reception in Germany. After the end of the dictatorships in their countries “refugees became development workers for re-democratisation and building of social and just structures” in their home countries, supported by WUS.

Therefore, we are particularly proud and consider it an honour that the former President of the Republic of Chile, H.E. Ricardo Lagos, has written the foreword to this anniversary publication and, using Chile as an example, pays tribute to the work of WUS for thousands of people worldwide, for whom WUS offered a platform, an opportunity to contribute to the strengthening of democratic societies, to the safeguarding of the human right to education.

We are also very proud that the former Foreign Minister of Norway, Thorvald Stoltenberg, who as a WUS staff member in Vienna in 1956 actively helped with the reception and care of refugees from Hungary, honours this anniversary publication with a contribution.

Together with the Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, Thorvald Stoltenberg has supported the work of WUS over the years. In 1948, Olaf Palme was commissioned by International WUS to determine, within the framework of a fact-finding mission to Germany, whether WUS should resume its work in Germany. The test result of Olaf Palme was differentially positive, so that in 1950 the foundation of the German WUS Committee took place. In the years of apartheid in Southern Africa and the years of dictatorships in Latin America, it was mainly the Scandinavian countries that supported the work of WUS financially and used the contacts of WUS to contribute to overcoming apartheid and dictators.

Refugee support and the work for decolonisation and democratisation

Throughout the years, WUS has been able to con[1]tribute to de-colonisation and the building of democratic structures, whether this was in Namibia or South Africa. The former Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva wrote his resignation letter as ambassador on the typewriter in the WUS General Secretariat and declared his support for the founding of the state of Bangladesh.

Alleged “terrorists” who work to democratise their countries, such as Peter H. Katjavivi, worked closely with WUS before Namibia’s independence and is now Speaker of the National Assembly of Namibia. Likewise, WUS has assisted “terrorists” in South Africa such as Nelson Mandela, later President of the Republic of South Africa and many others with distance learning materials in South African prisons. Just two examples of what it means for the international community to enable and defend the human right to education.

Because of the barbarism of the Nazi regime in Ger[1]many and the bitter experiences of many Germans who had to flee into exile from that regime but were turned away at the borders of Europe because of the closure of the borders around the “Reich”, 70 years ago, in 1951, the Magna Charta of refugee law, the

Geneva Refugee Convention was solemnly adopted at a special UN conference in Geneva. And what does the reality look like today? Everywhere, walls are being erected, deadly border security systems are being expanded, in some cases even financed from development budgets and proudly included in the annual balance sheets of states as ODA payments, and a solidarity-based asylum system is being repeatedly denied.

In October 1999, under the Finnish presidency in Tampere, the EU states had solemnly committed themselves to building a “common asylum system based on the full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention on Refugees” and to guaranteeing “absolute respect for the right to seek asylum”. This finally became a farce in Europe in 2015.

Currently, more than 82.4 million people are registered as refugees worldwide – up 4 percent from a year earlier. 2021 will be the tenth consecutive year in which this number of people fleeing will increase. In addition to the basic necessities of life, food, water, medicine, access to education is elementary for people on the run. WUS, together with many other organisations, is working for this every day, as well as for people who are fighting against dictatorial regimes in their countries, such as in Myanmar or in supposedly democratic states, such as Turkey.

WUS support for democratisation

The de-colonisation of the last colony on the African continent, the Western Sahara with hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi refugees in the Algerian border region of Tindouf and the legitimate claim of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is supported by WUS. In addition to the commitment to supporting democratic processes in many parts of the world, the education situation in many countries is still a cause for concern. In addition to the trend to privatise and commercialise education and thus to declare education as a commodity, we observe with concern the considerable underfunding of the education sector.

Instead of allocating at least 20 percent of the national budget to the education sector, as is necessary, many countries allocate only a small percentage. At the Global Education Summit at the end of July 2020 in London, the international community only made available just under 3.37 billion euros for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) – for the worldwide education of 175 million children – instead of the requested 5 billion euros. Together with the international civil society alliance, the “Global Campaign for Education”, we have criticised this as insufficient, as the Corona pandemic has worsened the international education crisis. In many countries, schools had to be closed temporarily, and in some parts of the world, children are still unable to return to school.

WUS and development policy

For WUS, development policy was and is always part of domestic policy. WUS understands that it is necessary for the promotion of the so-called developing countries, in particular to promote the acceptance in Germany for change processes in the German society, i.e., to promote change processes in the “North” so that the “South” has a chance for survival and development.

Therefore, WUS is actively engaged in the implementation of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the framework of UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development and, in this context, is particularly committed to revising the relevant curricula at all levels of education, from Kindergarten to Universities.

WUS promotion of fair trade WUS has been working for this for more than seven decades, e.g., with its commitment to fair trade relations.

FAIR TRADE, today a common good in society, was already an issue for WUS in the 1950s. The WUS project “Bazaar of Foreign Nations”(Basar Fremder Völker), a forerunner of today’s “One/Third World Shops”, offered products from Africa, Asia and Latin America at FAIR prices more than 70 years ago and thus promoted the basic concern of many people and states from Africa, Asia and Latin America for a fair world trade order. Within the framework of its educational and lobbying work, WUS supports the shaping of fair international trade conditions and the accompanying structural changes.

While in the 1950s it was the “Bazaar of Foreign Nations”, today it is e.g. Fair-traded soccer balls that are distributed to schools and youth clubs in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This has contributed to the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs switching its procurement from ten thousand balls a year to Fair-traded balls, and at the same time doing a piece of development education work.

WUS: a unique co-operative network for human rights and social responsibility

The unique international network of WUS is its strength, a strength that is nourished by the basic conviction that people have a basic right to education, a human right to education. This basic understanding ranges from humanitarian care and reconstruction aid after wars to disaster relief after earthquakes, tsunamis and floods, and support for educational development projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

WUS members always understand their commitment to social responsibility and therefore WUS has been working for decades in close co-operation, not only with trade unions, but also with student and university organisations, human rights organisations, development policy organisations and their umbrella organisations and has also co-founded a whole series of these organisations. This was done with the aim of promoting civic engagement and strengthening civil society structures.

The present commemorative publication with its manifold contributions gives an insight into the multifaceted history of WUS, and into the world of thought of the people who have shaped WUS and whom WUS has shaped in turn. The Festschrift is a proof of a tradition-conscious young and innovative organisation, certainly also very often uncomfortable for the establishment.

WUS: a lasting legacy

It is fascinating to see again and again that all over the world you can meet students who were formerly supported by WUS and who are now working as scientists, politicians, teachers or as entrepreneurs and who are volunteering for the human right to education. They are now passing on the solidarity they received to a new generation of young people in times of need.

Be it the former student activist in Sri Lanka who, due to the political circumstances in Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s, came to Germany to continue his studies and now, as a leading scientist in his field of research in Australia, supports young scientists in Sri Lanka and many other countries, or as President of the Republic in El Salvador after studying as an exile with a WUS scholarship in Brazil, helping to expand the rule of law in El Salvador, despite great political tensions. Tens of thousands of former WUS scholarship holders form an international network of civil society engagement and meeting these personalities is always inspiring and encouraging that the commitment to the human right to education pays off in many ways for the promotion of a more just world and a world of solidarity.

A history of dedication

All this would not be and is not possible without a dedicated team of WUS office staff and therefore all these colleagues of the last 101 years deserve our thanks for their competent work and for their commitment to the goals of WUS which goes beyond the usual. Many started their careers at WUS at a young age, such as Thorvald Stoltenberg, later Foreign Minister of Norway and High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who helped refugees from Hungary to continue their studies at universities in Europe in 1956 at the WUS office in Vienna. Many other former WUS staff members have gone on to work in academia, politics, public administration, in associations or in the private sector and continue to form a network of “alumni” who are still important contacts and advisors for the work of WUS today.

Author profile
Dr Kambiz Ghawami

Dr. Kambiz Ghawami studied business administration and then received his doctorate in law. Since 1981 he is a board-member of WUS Germany and since 1983 chairperson of the German Committee of WUS. He has published numerous works on global learning, foreign students and development policy. He is a member of, among others, the University Council of the Vietnamese German University (VGU), the Board of Directors of the German Development Service (DED), the Board of the Working Group Learning and Helping Overseas, spokesperson of the Working Group Education - Local/Global in the Association of German Development Non-Governmental Organisations (VENRO) and member of the Advisory Group for Development Education of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).