The Art of International Friendship: Exploring Twinning in a Global Age

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: Politics

Abstract

Twinning refers to the construction of formal or informal ties between two towns or cities usually located in different countries. Initially intended as a measure to encourage trust, understanding and cooperation between fragmented nations in the wake WWII, during the latter half of the twentieth century the practice of twinning extended from Europe all across the globe, taking a variety of new and interesting forms. However, the value of town twinning - with both European and more international constituencies - has recently been questioned in the UK media and in Parliament. Some suggest that twinning has little utility for local publics in an age of globalisation and mass tourism, whilst others have linked twinning to 'junkets' that only serve to benefit local councillors. In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, local council funding for twinning related activities was slashed all across the UK. In spite of this, many projects have survived, running on the steam, initiative and sustained engagement of an assortment of trans-local groups. How have they survived? What kinds of benefits are derived from engaging with these initiatives? Why do arts and cultural exchanges feature so prominently among twinning activities?

Notably, although term 'friendship' is ubiquitous across policy documentation, civil society campaigns and other materials relating to twinning, scholarly work in this area is extremely limited. In academe, 'international friendships' are commonly defined as strategic or diplomatic alliances among states. Yet a top-down and state-centric characterisation fails to capture the wider web of factors that can foster and sustain friendships that cross borders, including solidarity, empathy, art production and inter-cultural exchange. At a time when social fragmentation and cultural polarisation appear to be on the rise, this research project seeks to advance academic and practical understandings of 'international friendship' by focussing on the civic and political value of town twinning. In particular, by weaving together concepts and methods drawn from International Relations, Social Movement Studies, and Aesthetics, it will generate new insights into how cross-border 'friendships' are experienced, understood and maintained by state and non-state actors operating across the local, national and international levels.

The proposed project engages policy officials, civil society actors and arts partners in key aspects of both the research design and dissemination phases. It promises to generate original qualitative data and conceptual advances which will be of relevance to the work of these groups, but also has a wider relevance for members of the general public and academe. Unfolding in interrelated six strands or work packages, it will meld desk based research with interviews, ethnographic and arts-based techniques. In this way, it will build on both the sensibilities and methods that the Principle Investigator (PI) has developed in her work to date which has addressed the political role of art in Latin America. It will also enable the PI to further hone her research methods and leadership capacity through a comprehensive programme of skills development addressing visual methodologies, in-depth interviewing and languages, all of which will serve to complement and strengthen the project.

Planned Impact

Why is this project important and for whom?

International Policy-makers - The notion of 'value' in policymaking circles is increasingly tied to the needs of economics, business and accounting. Social, civic and political value are much harder to quantify than economic value but they are nonetheless important considerations for policy-making. This project will build an evidence base on 'value' that goes beyond 'the economic offer' of twinning. Beyond this, undertaking this research project will also make the PI well-situated to address emerging questions about the nature, evolution and worth of European cultural diplomacy in the wider context of the 'Brexit' process.

Twinning Organisations and Solidarity Movements - In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, twinning projects were hard-hit by local government funding cuts. Rather little research on the value of twinning exists which might provide a basis for: a) evaluating the impact of existing projects b) challenging divestments from existing twinning projects; and/or, c) establishing new links in the future.

The General Public - Public understanding of 'what twinning delivers' is limited and has been compounded by a great deal of critical media coverage in recent years. In the public imaginary, twinning is often linked to "jollies, junkets, and jamborees" for local councillors (Clarke 2009). This project will enhance public understanding of what 'twinning' is and who it serves. Among other things, the project will illuminate the work of activist and community organisations in advancing international friendships that have potential to deliver benefits across diverse constituencies.

Academia - The term 'friendship' is ubiquitous across twinning projects yet scholarly work in this area is extremely limited. In International Relations, 'international friendships' are commonly defined as strategic alliances among governments. Whilst this top-down approach featured strongly in the early history of twinning, it does not tell the whole story. This project will examine alternative drivers of friendships that cross borders, including solidarity, empathy and trans-local cultural exchange. In so doing, it will bring together distinct bodies of theorising (on political theory, social movements, aesthetics and emotions) and offer new analytical tools.

Publications

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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/R004137/1 01/04/2018 31/08/2018 £243,897
ES/R004137/2 Transfer ES/R004137/1 01/09/2018 31/07/2021 £216,904
 
Title Visual Research Diary 
Description As part of my work I have been developing a set of images (drawings, collage, prints and paintings) that operate similarly to ethnographic field notes. They serve both a documentary and an expressive function. I will continue working on this body of images over the final year of the grant, with a view to exhibiting them as part of a workshop or exhibition in 2021. 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact N/A - unfinished 
 
Description Emerging societal impact: I have started receiving periodic invitations from local twinning associations and national twinning networks to offer guidance on "best practice". Two recent examples of this were the HAFSA and BPFTN AGMs in Spring 2020. The BPFTN are in the process of recruiting a development officer. I will meet with this person to give an overview of my research on twinning and linking with communities overseas, including offering some reflections on contemporary challenges and common pitfalls.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Other
 
Description Blog for The Conversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This blog presents some reflections on 'twinning' and 'Brexit', informed by my research to date.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://theconversation.com/challenging-national-governments-why-twinning-towns-is-inherently-politi...
 
Description Blog for The Conversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact One of the oldest North-South community links surveyed as part of this project is the relationship between Gunjur (Gambia) and Marlborough (UK). This link, alongside a handful of others, inspired a burgeoning movement of links for sustainable development, which grew from strength to strength from the mid-1980's to the early 2000's. In 2019, I visited Marlborough and Gunjur to ask representatives of the community about the strengths, weaknesses, hopes and aspirations for the link after so many years. One of the things that came across strongly during the conversations I had in Gunjur was local opposition to a new fishmeal factory that had built on the beach. I documented the environmental protests in a blog for The Conversation, sharing this with the linking partners back in Marlborough.
Together with British and Gambian partners have since developed plans to run a piece of arts based action research with young people from Marlborough and Gunjur during Aug 2020 which will feature discussion on the environment and climate change.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://theconversation.com/profiles/holly-eva-ryan-128929/dashboard#
 
Description Blog for the LSE Latin America and Caribbean Centre 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Twinnings are established for a wide variety of reasons. Whilst many of the examples that I examine in depth for this project are civil society-led initiatives, sometimes twinning is a more straightforward reflection of geopolitics and state extractivism. One of the recent twinnings that I surveyed as part of this project was the 2019 link between Georgetown (Guyana) and Aberdeen (UK). This twinning took place against the backdrop of recent oil discoveries, which I discuss at some length in the linked blog.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/latamcaribbean/2020/02/27/guyana-elections-2020-a-crude-awakening/
 
Description HAFSA AGM 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited to present my research on "benefits, challenges and best practices in twinning" to the Hanwell Friends of Sebastiya, a community link between Hanwell (Ealing) and the city of Sebastiya in the Palestinian West Bank. The AGM took place in Hanwell but my presentation was live streamed to a gathering in the partner community of Sebastiya.
The audience totalled 65+. This included organisers, volunteers and supporters of the community link.

There were two main impacts of my talk. Firstly, it generated a stimulating debate about the whether twinning should be seen as a political act or not. It also spurred a process of reflection about what the HAFSA link currently does well as well as what it could do better. Secondly, the talk generated requests for further information and involvement. For example, many members requested a transcript of the talk, which I plan to share. The high degree of interest at this event has prompted me to write a blog for The Conversation, which examines twinning as an expression of politics. Moreover, my talk at HAFSA resulted in an invitation to attend the Britain Palestine Twinning and Friendship Network's AGM in London, an event which attracted representatives from over 40 twinning and friendship links across the UK.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020