FEATURE18 November 2020

Our minds’ eye

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Brexit Features Impact Middle East and Africa Trends UK Youth

In a post-Brexit UK, and to redefine UK-African relations, it is imperative to listen to the voices of young people, research for the British Council’s New Narratives programme found. By Tom Curran.


In late 2019, the British Council tasked M&C Saatchi World Services with identifying dominant and emerging narratives about the UK across the African continent, and about the continent in the UK, at a historical moment when UK-African relations are being radically redefined.

The findings of the research were designed to inform the British Council’s five-year New Narratives programme. This aims to contribute to changing reciprocal perceptions of the countries of Africa and the UK, to stimulate new understanding and unlock connections and collaborations for mutual benefit.

Three challenges defined our approach to the research. First, an early review highlighted the multiple, often conflicting, and vague uses of the term ‘narrative’. In response, we focused on the touchpoints that influence how young people construct stories about the other place. Second, recognising the influence of imagery on young people’s perceptions, we integrated visual data and stimulus throughout the research design. Third, imagery of the UK across Africa was not as abundant as imagery of Africa in the UK. Consequently, we commissioned narrative scouts in five African countries to source pictures, videos and other visual materials of the UK in their respective countries.

Our research design included: a historical review of the narrative trajectories and cultural and socio-political themes dominating UK-African relations from 1500 to the present; a semiotic analysis drawing on thousands of images in popular culture and gathered by local narrative scouts and young people across the two regions; and drawings of young people from the other place, gathered in 32 workshops with 256 people aged 18-35.

We convened the youth workshops in five UK cities – London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast – and cities in eight African countries: Addis Ababa, Algiers, Casablanca, Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, and Yaoundé.

For young people living in the UK and across Africa, there is widespread awareness of, and sensitivity to, the UK’s position as a former colonial power, and as potentially complicit in various forms of neo-colonialism. Young black British people and Africans are especially emphatic in their interpretation of the UK’s colonial legacy as one of exploitation and destabilisation. Non-black young people in the UK, meanwhile, report being unsure about how welcome they would be as visitors to African countries and are highly sensitive to appearing as neo-colonisers.

While young people in the UK regard the UK as a significant provider of aid to African countries, this aspect of UK-African relations is coming under fire for reasons including a perceived lack of impact after decades of international development efforts. There is also an argument that giving aid allows the UK to present itself publicly as a saviour of a needy Africa, while continuing to exploit the continent.

In terms of what the other place can offer them, young people in the UK perceive Africa as a tourist destination only. Indeed, even when explicitly asked to nominate a country or city they would consider studying or working in for six months, the majority could only think about travelling for a holiday. The situation is reversed for young people living in African countries, who see the UK as a gateway to opportunity in terms of work and study.

When it comes to the prospect of travelling to the other place, safety concerns are expressed on both sides. For young people in the UK, decades of stories in the news media and by charities highlighting famine, drought, disease, inequality and instability have contributed to a perception of African countries as impoverished, dangerous, and lagging behind the rest of the world socio-economically and in terms of human rights. For young people in African countries, concerns about British racism and elitism are widespread, with notable examples cited including prejudice and discrimination in the English Premier League, and the treatment of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, by the royal family.

When asked to imagine each other, young people living in African countries commonly see their UK peers as facing no worries or challenges, whereas, from the UK perspective, the experiences of their peers in African countries are marked by problems of poverty, inequality and health. Despite these differences, however, young people in both places share a common set of youth-centric values, hopes and aspirations, including commitment to family, honesty and respect, and an ambition for professional and economic success.

There is no doubt that the ‘pictures in their heads’ that young people living in the countries of Africa and the UK have of each other – and of each other’s countries – are heavily influenced by their shared history and by popular culture. Navigating the waters of new trade relations with other countries and trading blocs should take account of the multiplicity of narratives informing these pictures. In general, but especially in the context of a post-Brexit UK and the challenge to redefine UK-African relations, listening to the voices of young people in both places is imperative for this to be achieved in a sustainable and productive manner.

The research examined four categories of narrative touchpoints: 

DIRECT TOUCHPOINTS are experiences where young people are in contact with people from the other place, including family and friends who live there, or settings, such as universities, that serve as meeting points.

BRIDGING TOUCHPOINTS are formats or forums, including music and sports events, involving people from both places. For example, in the English Premier League, teams are from the UK, but many of the leading players are from African countries.

MEDIATED TOUCHPOINTS are media platforms or formats produced to represent and communicate content about the other place, including film, TV, marketing, advertising and news media.

ICONIC TOUCHPOINTS are individuals, institutions, places, monuments and structures, rituals and customs, and brands that are intrinsically identified with either place. Examples included the British royal family, William Shakespeare and Big Ben for the UK; Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe, the Pyramids and Kilimanjaro for African countries.

Tom Curran is senior research executive at M&C Saatchi World Services

This article was first published in the October 2020 issue of Impact.