Active on a global scale
Journalist Michele Kirsch examines how local community action can benefit from taking a globalised approach
Currently at work across the globe, the Active Citizens programme aims to turn the familiar concept of globalisation on its head. The programme wants to emphasise the similarities not between brands and consumer goods, but between people – between the social, cultural and ecological issues shared by us all. The programme is taking a globalised approach in order to establish a meaningful practical dialogue between separate communities around the world, creating a global network of active citizens ready to improve society. The Active Citizens programme believes this will give participants not only a stronger sense of their own culture, but also a stronger sense of the culture of others. In this way ‘globalisation’ allows communities to interact with other communities elsewhere in the world with a view to meeting up in person, exchanging ideas and working on projects together.
The Active Citizens programme seeks to embrace the concept of ‘Ubuntu’, a traditional African philosophy evoked by Nelson Mandela during his fight to bring down Apartheid in South Africa. Tom Broadhurst, Project Manager of Active Citizens, explains that Ubuntu can be translated as, “I am, because you are, because we are.” In other words, we affirm our own humanity by acknowledging the humanity of others.
In order to achieve its goals, the Active Citizens programme is presently divided into three phases: local training, social action projects (SAPs), and international engagement.
The Active Citizens programme delivers local training through a worldwide network of partner organisations, who train groups within the Active Citizens community and ensure the programme has local relevance and impact. International dimensions are explored through training and through direct engagement via exchange visits, online networking and events. Seed funding is available for SAPs that can demonstrate the values of the Active Citizens programme. But Tom Broadhurst is keen to emphasise this is not about the British Council stepping in and giving handouts. “It’s about exchanging skills for taking direct action, about helping people help themselves.”
Some of the groundwork towards achieving these goals has been laid by other British Council initiatives, such as InterAction and Debate to Action both of which took place in Africa. Find out more about the Debate to Action project by downloading the British Council’s magazine Actonit (See PDF at bottom of page). However, whereas InterAction focused on individuals and Debate to Action focused on youth, the scope of the Active Citizens programme is much broader: it’s globally connected yet locally engaged.
Social action projects
The focus of many SAPs is about showing people the benefits of thinking big, says Monomita Nag-Chowdhury, Project Delivery Manager for Active Citizens. Speaking about projects that have taken place in Africa, she says, “For example, we set up education projects or activities based on HIV awareness. These benefit everyone. We might do something similar in the UK, and though the aims remain the same the outcomes may differ. For example, in the Debate to Action programme we raised awareness of drugs and alcohol with a video conference in Manchester that involved a group of participants working with young offenders in Ghana. This involved the same issue but in different settings.”
SAPs seek to establish a common ground between separate communities. Maire Ni Threasaigh is the Active Citizens co-ordinator in Northern Ireland and is developing relations between communities in Derry and Addis Ababa, the Rift Valley and the Nigerian city of Kano. She speaks about the connection between ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and the religious divides in Kano. “What has happened here is that we’ve just come out of 30 years of armed conflict, and then we had an influx of immigrants from Europe, so we’ve had to deal with issues like racism, sectarianism, and trying to give help and advice to people who don’t speak much English.” Maire goes on to explain the connection between the two countries. “In Nigeria, there’s a lot about empowering women and getting them into education. In Northern Ireland, which has the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the UK, it’s about keeping those young women in education. It’s similar, but different.”
Over 2,000 miles away in Kano, Ramatu Umar-Bako, Portfolio Manager of Public Diplomacy for the British Council in Nigeria, tells me about preparing for the arrival of the Northern Irish contingent, as well as the issues they face in Kano. “We have had many intercultural crises in Kano, between Northern and Southern Muslims, between Christians and Muslims. We’ve been putting together interactive sessions with the various groups so each can showcase their religion and culture, and then discuss topics like violence and peace and try to get people to see the other point of view.”
Catherine Fieschi, Director of Counterpoint, believes technology is an important factor in helping facilitate SAPs and achieving international engagement. “It’s not just about being able to share information in order to help build activities,” she says. “It’s also a new way to store culture and heritage and to archive material.” The cultural benefits felt by local communities, which come from accessing information quickly from anywhere in the world, have been summarised in the pamphlet Cloud Culture, published by Counterpoint, the think-tank of the British Council.
Some feel that education in global citizenship feels too much like indoctrination, while others believe it’s the best route to goals such as world peace. Eleanor Brown, co-author of the paper Global Citizenship and The New Public Diplomacy for the University of Nottingham, feels that anything which opens a forum for discussion has got to be a good thing. “There’s often a lack of concern about the issues that affect people,” says Eleanor. “But there’s also a feeling that their actions won’t make a difference. This is exacerbated by forms of governance that don’t convince people that their views are being listened to. There’s also a sense that we don’t fully understand the issues and without all the information we can’t come to the ‘right’ conclusions. Therefore, a more open examination of different perspectives and an opportunity to discuss issues from different sources is essential.”
The connectivity achieved by taking a globalised approach echoes the hopefulness expressed by Shami Chakrabarti, Director of the human rights organisation Liberty. In her closing speech for the British Council’s series of talks exploring the achievements of 75 years of cultural relations, she spoke of Liberty’s founders. “They would be heartened by the opportunities that now come for small groups of people to link up with other groups of people all over the world, and the enormous opportunities that come with the challenges of our shrinking interconnected world.”
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