Report

Voices of the People: Culture, Conflict, and Change in North Africa

Sultan Barakat

Many young people in the region have grown up in an atmosphere of injustice, inequality, and corruption. They have ambitious ideas for a better future. We need to engage with them urgently and help them secure and build on the changes they have helped create.

A tide of change has surged through the Middle East and North Africa since 2011.

Sparked by the death of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, it has been an explosive release of pent up frustrations after decades of injustice, inequality, poverty, corruption, repression, and assaults on the dignity of the individual. It has captured people’s imaginations across the globe and compels us, as nations, as organizations and as individuals, urgently to rethink our response to the questions and demands it carries.

Rapid change is not something new to the region. Over the last generation the Middle East and North Africa has had the fastest rate of population growth of any region in the world. In 1950 the population was around 100 million. Today it is around 380 million. The consequent flow of migration from rural areas to the cities has created enormous pressures on the provision of effective services, resources, and most importantly employment.

The demographic realities are startling. One third of the population of this region is under the age of 15 and 70 percent are under the age of 30. Their concerns are similar to those of the next generation all over the planet: to have a good education, to find valuable work, to be respected and listened to, and to have a meaningful voice in shaping their own futures. It has been these young people who have been at the visible crest of the loud and insistent movements for change in the region, alongside more mature institutions and individuals. It will be these young people, as they establish themselves as active citizens in their communities and nations who will be shaping social, political and cultural development in the years to come.

Given the unprecedented changes taking place, now is the time to ask how the UK can recalibrate its ties in this region. In particular, how can the UK arts and creative sector build trust and connections with this new generation of young people with ambitious ideas for a better future? What genuine, long-term, and sustainable difference can we make through cultural relationships, through creative partnerships and through the exchange of knowledge and ideas? And how can we do so at a time of continuing change and, in some countries, continuing instability? This has implications not just for the UK’s ties with MENA but its relationships in other parts of the world undergoing rapid change. It also has implications for cultural organizations across Europe, in the United States, and around the world.

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