Earlier this month saw the sixth meeting of the ESRC seminar series on UK-Africa relations that I have been involved in. Two workshops hosted by the Royal African Society were followed by a public lecture in the evening. The overall theme for the day being ‘Africa and the UK Public Imagination’. In this post I will provide a short summary of the various presentations and sketch out what, for me at least, were some of the most interesting issues raised. Podcasts of the workshop presentations will be available on the website for the seminar series in due course.
During the morning workshop, our speakers considered how Africa is represented within campaigning traditions in the UK. Niheer Dasandi (University College London) reported on some research he had conducted with colleagues on the nature of Africa campaigning in the UK. Based on survey data, the emotional responses of individuals were assessed in relation to the use of what Dasandi described as ‘traditional’ and ‘alternative’ appeals to the public. The conclusion being that NGOs do have alternatives to the stereotypical negative imagery that has dominated Africa campaigning for years.
Nick Dearden (Director of Global Justice Now) picked up on these issues and unpacked some of the broader political dynamics at play. He convincingly argued how the ‘live aid model’ continues to be the dominant framing of Africa experienced by the public in the UK. He spoke from personal experience of the problems faced by NGOs in framing their campaigns on Africa. In particular, he argued that the use of ‘traditional’ imagery results in a depoliticisation of the challenges facing Africa and a focus on aid as the appropriate response, rather than broader campaigns on justice.
The limits to engendering a spirit of solidarity in campaigning on Africa, was then discussed in Lara Pawson’s very personal account of her experience of living and working in Angola. Pawson is the author of In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre. She reflected on how hard it is for those of us in the UK to show real solidarity from afar and argued that more space should be given to Africans themselves.
Our afternoon workshop switched attention to how UK-Africa relations have been reflective of changing political dynamics at home. Allison Coyle and Sara Rich Dorman (both University of Edinburgh) outlined how the Scottish government has supported bilateral relations between Scotland and Malawi. This development partnership receives government funding to support the activities of civil society organisations who are at the heart of the relationship. They noted, that partly for reasons of scale, this results in a much more ‘grounded’ development partnership than the UK-wide approach led by the Department for International Development.
Dyfan Powel (University of Aberystwyth) then discussed the ‘Wales for Africa‘ programme, which is chiefly a grant administration scheme to support Welsh NGOs and their work in Africa. Both the Scottish and Welsh cases demonstrated how, partly for reasons of size and in the Welsh case in particular, as a result of the constitutional constraints upon the Welsh government, the underlying politics of development in Africa are not explicitly considered. Finally, Andrew Mycock (University of Huddersfield) in his discussion of the Commonwealth demonstrated how UK perceptions of Africa are still shaped by the historical legacies of colonialism.
In the evening we relocated to the School of Oriental and African Studies to hear Alex de Waal (Tufts University) give an overview of a new book he has edited entitled Advocacy in Conflict. This spoke to some of the themes discussed earlier in the day. A convincing case was made as to how transnational advocacy can often slide into over-simplified singular narratives that limit the agency of Africans themselves.
As always, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking day. On further reflection, I found a couple of themes to be of particular interest.
- It was clear from the discussions on Africa campaigning that context is important. As Nick Dearden acknowledged, during New Labour’s time in office there was, relatively speaking, a more conducive environment to challenging the dominant historical framing of Africa. However, the public’s perception is hard to shift because of the broader context and in particular the power of the mainstream media, which is dominated by the culture of celebrity. This was picked up in Alex de Waal’s evening lecture where he critiqued what he termed the ‘designer activists’ who can play a key role in agenda-setting.
- The seminar series as a whole has demonstrated how difficult it is to disaggregate the UK’s relations with Africa from a whole range of multilateral fora (be it the EU’s trade agreements with the continent, or the role of the Commonwealth, etc.). However, at the same time, the process of devolution has seen moves towards the constituent parts of the UK forming their own ‘independent’ relations with Africa. These are limited both in terms of the amount of funding available and the scope for them to offer a political alternative to the orthodoxy of mainstream NGOs.
Later this year, the series of seminars will conclude in Nairobi, Kenya where questions of ‘African agency’ will be considered in relation to the overall theme of ‘UK-Africa Relations’. My blog posts on previous seminars are all available here and for full details of the series go to the official website. For the latest news do follow @UKAfricaSeminar on twitter.