Harmonizing Voices

Citizen Voice and the Arts: Opportunities and Challenges for Citizen – Policy Engagement on Environmental Issues in Sahelian West Africa

Within the context of Sahelian West Africa, our initiative amplifies the voice of citizens through artistic channels. This engagement empowers communities to influence environmental policies, aligning governance with local needs.


Citizen and policy groups address environmental challenges in the Sahel, but rarely together.

In Sahelian West Africa, including in Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali, artists and citizens have used protest art to make their voices heard, in contexts where this can carry risks of conflict with authorities. Artists sometimes act as engaged citizens, who can draw on their artistic talents to communicate a message.

This paper explores how far art may be used as a tool for dialogue between different groups on environmental concerns in the Western Sahel. We review how art has been used in communication and dialogue globally and in the region, where activism and communication are more common than arts-led dialogue and deliberation. Field activities included an actor mapping exercise, interviews and experimental workshops, and an online platform. We found that hierarchies and sectoral silos contribute to a lack of dialogue. Communication of protest messages, although easier, runs the risk of confrontation with authorities. There is a degree of compromise between amplifying an undiluted ‘citizen voice’ and trying to find some degree of resonance within the dominant policy context. A focus on the skill of the artist helps understand which aesthetic qualities promote the affective reactions that make arts-led activism powerful.

To understand the situations where arts-led dialogue between multiple groups may be possible, it may be instructive to focus on commonalities that disparate groups can emphasise. Simultaneously, there are some situations where unidirectional communication can be as effective as intentional dialogue in effecting change. Such communication can sometimes eventually lead to dialogue between parties, including the viewers of artworks and participants in them.

Ce document comprend des sommaires en français sur page 8.

Cite this publication

Bellwood-Howard, I.; Taylor, P.; Doyle, J.; Niang, A.; Ndiaye, H.; Sow, F. and Sountoura, L. (2022) Citizen Voice and the Arts: Opportunities and Challenges for Citizen–Policy Engagement on Environmental Issues in Sahelian West Africa, IDS Working Paper 584, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, DOI: 10.19088/IDS.2022.088

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