There's really quite a heated debate going on around tables, which are littered with maps of Cairo, budget tables and hand-sketched diagrams. National and local politicians, real-estate companies, local NGOs and funding bodies are thumping the table, setting out and defending their views on how best to regenerate this quarter of the Egyptian capital, while in the background a number of people feverishly take notes.
But all this is going on almost 3 000 kilometres from Cairo, in a classroom in Darmstadt, Germany. Around the tables are students from all five continents who are following an Erasmus Mundus Masters course. The figures in the background are professors and lecturers, preparing feedback on this role-play workshop, where students use the theory and soft skills they have mastered over previous weeks' module on urban planning.
Mundus Urbano is an advanced Master of Science programme specialising in International Cooperation in Urban Development, jointly offered by four European higher education institutions in Germany, France Italy and Spain. It brings together 25 students from a range of countries throughout the world. Some come straight from a Bachelor's course, while others enter the course later in life, bringing their own professional experience and expertise. Architects, civil engineers, international development specialists and city planners and social scientists all take part in the course, which focuses on urban planning, development and management in the context of international cooperation.
Pierre Böhm, the consortium manager, explains some of the philosophy behind the course: "Our course has a focus on the Global South. We explain European approaches and philosophy regarding urban planning. We then consider examples of how hi-tech solutions can be applied in low-tech environments.
It's one thing to learn from experience in practice in one part of the world. But it's another to transfer this to another part of the world. “We always say to our students and alumni: you are the expert for your country. You can select the examples that can be best adapted to the reality in your country, and take care of the knowledge transfer."
And it’s not just about technology transfer. "Technical solutions are part of the picture. But our course also sets great importance on "social participation" and taking account of the views and interests of all stakeholders. So it considers ways of involving grass roots level in the planning decisions". Hence the shouting around the table.
Giulia Sala from Italy is a first-year student on the course, and understands the need to tailor solutions to the local reality: "At first I thought the course would be a tool for us to solve the problems of developing countries. But this isn't chemistry: you don't have a formula which gives you one solution. You need to understand the context and develop solutions that are based on that. In that sense it is really relevant what the other guys in the class have to say. They all have experience of working in their home country. Most of the time I'm learning something more from my colleagues than from the teacher! We work a lot in groups, and we really confront each other during this."
Giulia – who already has a Masters in urban planning under her belt – found out about Mundus Urbano when she was looking for an internship with the UN Habitat in order to put her planning skills to use. Thanks to its close relations with UN Habitat, Mundus Urbano has a banner on their website.
Students follow an obligatory core curriculum in the afternoon. In the mornings, they are free to follow a number of elective courses – these are followed by other Masters students at the University of Darmstadt, some of them in collaboration with other German universities. After this first foundation year in Germany, students choose an area of specialisation offered by one of the other partner universities in Barcelona, Grenoble, and Rome.
Tharmendra Pulendran had already experience of working for the UNDP in his home country of Sri Lanka when he applied to Mundus Urbano. "It was the dual approach that interested me. I was interested in development issues, particularly urban development. But the development economics part of the course was what persuaded me to enrol for MU, and defined my second-year choice to specialise in this at Tor Vergata University in Rome."
He found he learned both from the course itself and from the other participants: "other students brought different talents and expertise to the course - for example presentational skills and techniques. Coming from Sri Lanka I found it interesting how open the teaching system was in Europe, with much more dialogue and constructive critical argument within the lessons."
Tharmendra has been back in Sri Lanka since 2013, where he now works as Area Director for Care International in the north of the country. He is putting his skills to work on the planning and management of short-term recovery programmes as well as longer-term capacity building for development, including an EU-funded project on reconciliation. At the same time, his mastery of research techniques during Mundus Urbano gave him the confidence to start another Masters – a M. Phil course in development economics.
After the workshop, we see that the arguments and the raised voices are all just part of the role play. Students form a tight-knit group during their study period, and lasting contacts are made. Pierre Böhm and the project team are looking at strengthening these contacts through the development of a more structured alumni section for the course.