When Young Arab Voices representatives gathered in Malta as part of a major discussion on all things Mediterranean, the key message was that talk trumps terror.
Following months in which Western political argument – notably the US election and the UK referendum - seems to have plumbed new depths of division and defamation, where should we turn for guidance on more positive discussion? It might sound unlikely but young people in the fledgling, and mostly stuttering, MENA democracies have managed what many politicians and social commentators in the ‘developed’ world seem to find so difficult: discussion on the things that appear to divide us. And they are preparing to take their model north into the EU.
The young people in question were at the heart of the discussions when the Anna Lindh Foundation staged its Mediterranean Forum in Valletta recently.
Nearly 700 delegates from 42 member countries and 4000 local branches representing civil society, cities, cultural bodies, artistic and youth organisations met in the Maltese capital to discuss how their work together on inter-cultural dialogue can counteract conflict, extremism, unemployment and socio-economic inequalities.
They were concerned about the deteriorating vision of southern Mediterranean peoples and states held by Europeans to the north, with negative images of the Syrian war, fleeing refugees and brutal jihadis disproportionately dominating media coverage. According to the participants, this results in crowding out alternative narratives of common interests and cultural interaction between north and south; context and complexity are lost, undermining generosity and encouraging closure of both mental and physical borders.
Research on inter-cultural trends released at the Forum confirms the picture. Preliminary results from the Anna Lindh Foundation’s latest EuroMed survey show the south has a real sense of media negativity from the north. And yet the same survey shows converging values and aspirations between the north and south, contradicting images of cultural polarisation. It is in this context that the five-year programme Young Arab Voices has brought to the heart of the MENA region the traditional, largely western, democratic approach to dealing with conflict in perceptions. Built around carefully organised and structured dialogue, this programme has given more than 100,000 young people from Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco the opportunity to develop their skills in public debate, while arguing in favour or against motions on topics affecting the countries of the entire EuroMed region.
The Malta Forum announced the extension of the programme into the EU as Young Mediterranean Voices. This supports the research findings that “fostering youth-led dialogue initiatives is the most efficient measure to prevent and deal with causes of radicalisation and conflict”. It is a view supported by 79 per cent of northern and 86 per cent of southern citizens surveyed and underpins the decision to launch the new programme in which young people from both north and south will debate together. Political support from organisations such as the EU and Unesco, detailed at the Forum, will prioritise work with youth over the next three years, making a concerted effort to bridge gaps with policy-makers.
Given the research findings on distorted perceptions, the Forum was also concerned with media and their potential contribution to north-south relationships. The survey evidence showed that television and online media are more trusted in the south than the north, the reverse being the case for print media, radio, films, documentaries and books. But contextualizing the crises of migration, wars and terrorism that dominate northern coverage of the south is being made increasingly difficult by commercial pressures and the popularity of online resources, which often lack the necessary professionalism for selecting and framing the news required to understand and interpret events.
The Forum agreed on a need to map and monitor media reporting and practices in both directions, so that journalists, civil society activists, policy-makers and political actors can engage more with each other on these issues. More research and analysis, exchanges and mentoring of journalists, better links between journalism schools, and bringing together the young debaters with media were all suggested as ways of improving the situation. At the heart of these plans is the concept of dialogue, an approach often paid lip service but too frequently not adopted with the sincerity and rigour it demands. If people are prepared to listen to the young voices from the south – and soon to be the young voices across the Mediterranean into the EU – perhaps there is a prospect of moving from division to true dialogue.