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Social leaders need social literacy

Radha Nair, Director Active Citizens, explains why intercultural dialogue remains vital for social leaders great and small

2011 has been marked by an unprecedented wave of uprisings across the Arab world, creating an avalanche of social revolutions that have raised crucial questions regarding leadership. Who exactly is in charge of these revolutions? And how well do they understand or represent the societies they seek to reform? The issue of identifying those individuals who may be seen as future political leaders was particularly apparent during the uprising that took place in Egypt earlier this year. At first, the international press pointed to the return of Egyptian dissident and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Mohamed El Baradei. When it became clear that El Baradei had no more of an idea as to the course of the revolution than anyone else did, the press turned to the Muslim Brotherhood and then to Egyptian web-activist Wael Ghonim, who had mobilised protesters on Facebook.


Social leadership is becoming more participatory than ever, with society increasingly looking towards everyday citizens as leaders of social change. This increased sense of participation has without doubt been influenced by advances in digital communication. Wael Ghonim described the Egyptian protests energised by his Facebook campaign as, “the revolution of the youth of the internet.”


The digital revolution


Today’s communication channels are wider and more numerous than ever before, making it possible to rally more widespread support for a cause than previously imagined. When he created ‘We are all Khaled Said’, a Facebook campaign against police brutality in Egypt, Wael Ghonim may not have expected it to attract tens of thousands of followers and play such a crucial role in galvanising his country’s revolutionary protests. A former computer engineer, Ghonim proves that anyone may come to be regarded as a leader. One no longer needs money, military backing or powerful allies; one only needs the means to communicate with like-minded people. The events that took place in Egypt in 2011 have shown that there is indeed such a thing as a ‘Facebook revolution’.


This and subsequent protests across the Arab world demonstrated how a collective desire for change can have a dramatic impact, but revolution is only the first step on the long road to positive social transformation. Protests by everyday citizens can indeed spark revolution, but the long and democratic process of social change that follows requires specific leadership skills.


The limits of digital networking


In October 2010, journalist Malcolm Gladwell published an article in The New Yorker, Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. In it, he describes the limitations of digital networking in what he calls “high-risk and strategic activism”. He argues that US civil rights activists in the 1960s made an impact because they were intimately involved in their movement, working towards a clear vision and employing a clear organisational structure. Facebook and Twitter, argues Gladwell, cannot create the same kind of leadership. It’s possible to inspire gatherings, resistance, destruction, blockades, parties or vetoes in a single tweet or Facebook status update, but, as Gladwell implies, you cannot create a design for life within 140 characters.


The leaders who will eventually emerge from this difficult period in Middle Eastern history will need to have a standard toolkit of leadership competencies: visioning, agenda-setting, organisation, communication, advocacy, business management, etc. We at the British Council believe that when you consider the fluid nature of the world today, it is vital to forge these skills within the context of an international, intercultural and interdependent world.


A global influence


From travel, information and climate to faith, finance and trade, the influence on culture of both the nation state and the local community is diminishing. Global systems currently pervade. The interconnectedness of the world has been of interest for centuries, the standard narrative dominated by the actions of traders, missionaries, humanitarians, philosophers, colonialists and faith leaders. The fact that these people have something to either sell or impose – whether faith, telecommunications or government – reminds us just how threatening such incursions can be to indigenous cultures and communities.


I was vividly reminded of this in 1996, when I made an ill-advised journey up Mount Mulanje in southern Malawi during the rainy season to visit a community receiving micro-credit on a donor project. Our Landover slithered and revved its way up the mountainside in relentless rain. After three fearful hours, the ground finally flattened, the forest cleared and we arrived at our remote destination. Our first sight of this marginalised village community was a building resplendent in the red and white colours of Coca-Cola, stocked as it was with a vast array of soft drinks. While the villagers struggled to find the transport required to deliver their vital banana crop to the capital before the fruit became rotten, a drinks company based in Atlanta USA was able to scale Malawi’s highest peak every week to replenish its stock of soft drinks. The global distribution system of a corporate giant is something to behold!


The importance of understanding


Here are two key questions for community leaders today: how can local people remain in control of their own destiny amid imposed social change and how can social leaders ensure that local development reflects local values and priorities? In order for a local community to take control of a situation, it’s important that they work with a clear sense of identity and responsibility regarding the local, national and global community in which they live. This will help them understand the systems that operate across these communities, as well as the leverage points that may help them achieve their goals. Understanding how one element influences another within a whole system is a management theory known as ‘systems thinking’. In the case of the villagers on Mount Mulanje, there was a possible solution to be achieved using systems thinking. The villagers could perhaps have formed a community or collective with other villages on the mountain and, through their increased power as a group, negotiate with the local Coca-Cola distributor to not only make more than one delivery a week, but also allow their banana crop to be sent down the mountain in the same vehicles.


Civil society


The section of society where people organise themselves to identify and represent community interest (and confront the undiluted interests of business or the complex interests of the state) is referred to as ‘civil society’. This is where major social and cultural transformation is often triggered and led, and whose emergent leaders are a vital audience for the British Council’s Active Citizens programme.


Civil society has access to grassroots communities and can relate to local identity on an intimate level, in a way that the state or the private sector cannot. The Active Citizens programme has established an international network of over 100 civil society organisations representing community interests in areas of national development in participating countries across the world, from Kenya and Jordan to Bangladesh, Pakistan and the UK. Working in partnership with these organisations, it’s possible to identify grassroots social leaders and help them develop the intercultural literacy that is vital in enabling and supporting social change.


The challenge of ‘super-diversity’


Pervasive global systems, such as global migration and global communications can create situations in which communities face the challenge of hosting high levels of cultural diversity. Migration to the UK following World War II came mainly from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia. More recently, migration from Eastern Europe has further diversified the population, leading some academics to coin the term ‘super-diverse’ to describe the UK population.


The political narrative in the UK has become increasingly beset by the issue of multiculturalism and immigration. Political parties have had to address the impact of immigration on housing, social cohesion, employment and the welfare state, and how best to administer immigration caps and policies to deter long-term immigrants. More recently, Prime Minister David Cameron fanned the flames of this discussion by stating his belief that multiculturalism had failed in the UK.


A fundamental shift


If only we could sum up our ideological position on migration and diversity as ‘live and let live’, but it’s not that simple for those leading the way. The major challenge for political leaders in the UK is how to identify or define the myriad norms of society within a super-diverse environment. Much of the social norm and law-making in the UK is based on the principle of what any reasonable human being might consider right and fair.


However, the impact of migration over the last six decades has resulted in a fundamental shift in the UK demographic making it less easy to identify standard values. For example, 33% of the population of Tower Hamlets in London, the most populous borough in the capital, is of Bangladeshi origin and 70% of Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets are under the age of 30. Neither statistics are  consistent with the overall demographic trend in the UK. This demographic complexity illustrates just how difficult it is for leaders to pin down exactly what the ‘average person’ might think. This in turn has led to much debate on what it means to be British.


Coming to a consensus


The need for intercultural literacy among social leaders becomes even more apparent when you consider the multitude of conflicting viewpoints thrown up by a super-diverse society. Most people of different cultural backgrounds are happy to recognise that the UK values the right of every child to a free education up to university level. However, the question of whether to send our children to faith schools, for example, is likely to create disagreement along the lines of degree of religious devotion. Those who are more religiously devout are likely to support faith schools and those who are less religiously devout are likely not to support faith schools. Ask an even more culturally specific question such as ‘what would you consider to be obscene?’ (a question underpinning UK laws on obscenity and pornography) and you would get a multitude of conflicting answers from different parts of society. Therefore, how can any prospective social leader even begin to represent British cultural values if they do not engage and dialogue with different parts of their super-diverse and ever-changing constituency?


Intercultural literacy is vital not only for our appointed leaders but also in the building of peaceful secure communities and societies. In his book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen suggests that a failure to recognise complexity or diversity can lead to a violent disregard for outsiders. Sen suggests that we often subscribe to others and ourselves singular identities that can block communication, trust, understanding, and rational decision-making. In this way, a Hindu single mother may vote for a Hindu political candidate simply because they share the same faith, regardless of the fact that that candidate may have a stated contempt for single mothers. Here she would be failing to recognise the complexity of her own identity and apply a degree of rationale to her decision making.


Intercultural dialogue


The British Council’s Active Citizens programme aims to equip social leaders with intercultural values and skills. The programme accepts that people may carry simplistic assumptions about other cultures through no fault of their own. However, through workshops and international exchanges with linked communities, our participants are taught to hold any such assumptions lightly. This enables them to engage with and accept other cultures, allowing them to assume a more varied and complex perception.


In 2010, I participated in an Active Citizens international workshop in Nairobi, which illustrated just what we mean by ‘intercultural dialogue’. As part of the exercise, each participant had to argue a position on the planned development of a Muslim community centre near the site of the Twin Towers in New York. We were asked to divide along the lines of, “yes, we agree with the development”, or, “no, we do not agree”. We were then asked to switch sides and argue the opposite. At this point, we were forced to set aside our knee-jerk instincts and apply cold hard logic. By the end of the exercise, we all had far more nuanced opinions on the question in hand. While we were happy at the outset to take a polarised view, by the end we were unable to separate along the lines of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The exercise was based on a stimulating current topic that had made global headlines, and was an excellent way of forcing one to think empathically from a different cultural perspective.


The way forward


We live amid numerous global systems, which can affect our lives in the form of global warming, volcanic ash clouds, banking crises and social media. While cultural diversity may be peculiar to some communities and countries, the trend towards more multicultural societies is both global and inevitable. Indeed, it is now difficult to deny the long-term importance of intercultural literacy for peace and prosperity both in the UK and around the world. Intercultural dialogue encourages open and respectful exchange and interaction between those from different cultural backgrounds or worldviews. This in turn leads to a better understanding of global systems and interdependency.


A social leader can employ systems thinking and adopt a value-for-difference whether working on knife crime in Peckham, adult literacy in Chittagong or social cohesion in Mombasa. They would use the same knowledge and skills whether they were deciding which school to send their child for an education, whether they were national delegates at an international conference or pursuing a career in an international bank. The skills and knowledge of intercultural literacy are eminently transferable and scalable. They are also vital to social leaders at every level, from citizen to world leader, whether directing us towards revolution or reform.






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