Yemen Times interview with British Council Middle East regional director:”There has been an organizational shift in the way the British Council operates. The world is changing and we have to adapt to it.” [Archives:2009/1227/Reportage]

January 22 2009
Patrick Brazier: Through the Connecting Classrooms program, we have an ambition that every single school in the UK will have an international connection. This way people in the UK have the ability to better understand and learn about the world.
Patrick Brazier: Through the Connecting Classrooms program, we have an ambition that every single school in the UK will have an international connection. This way people in the UK have the ability to better understand and learn about the world.
By: Nadia Al-Sakkaf
Middle East Director of the British Council Patrick Brazier has recently been on his first visit to Yemen since his appointment in October 2008.

After more than 18 years of working at the British Council, sometimes in sensitive countries such as Uganda and Syria he believes today more than ever in the council's mission, which is to promote understanding and trust between people in the Middle East and the UK. Nadia Al-Sakkaf interviewed Brazier for the Yemen Times.

Operating in difficult environments

The British council is a cultural organization with a mission to facilitate trust and understanding between the people of the UK and people around the world.

Because of the crises in trust between this part of the world and the UK or the west in general, cultural relations are more important in difficult environments than in stable ones.

It is so easy for people to look at security from a narrow angle and miss the wider aspect, which is people around the world listening and learning from either.

It is when security is bad that when we are needed the most, so even in difficult circumstances we continue to operate. It is during the difficult times that we really need to be there because it is about building long term trusting relationships and making the commitment to each other.

The Middle East region includes the six GCC countries plus Yemen and Iraq. We have been in Iraq since 2004, and maintained our operations there even under very difficult security environments.

Through our operations, we maintain relationships with our target partners, who in essence are three groups: decision makers, the next generation of leaders, or people in the middle stages who have the opportunity to implement work, and finally educated young people.

The work that we do in maintaining relationships between people in the UK and our partners is critically important. We need to maintain these relations in difficult times and not just in easy times because we have to build faith in our work and our operations.

That being said, we have an absolute duty to the people who work for us and those who engage with us not to expose them to direct danger. We have to install reasonable security measures to ensure their safety and to continue our operations. This is the challenging balance that we always have to maintain in difficult places.

We must remain open and available to people without compromising security.

Policy shift in operating programs

There is a significant organizational shift in the British Council. For seventy years at least the work we did and the relationships we built was enormously successful. However, the world is changing, and we have to adapt with it. And as an organization we have to recognize the global importance of cultural relations: it is not just local anymore.

One of the things that we discovered from years of experience is that if you have a big building you can only have it in one place in a country because of the cost. You invest an awful lot of money in bricks and water while being available only to a small number of people, many of whom could have access to the services anyway.

So we have instituted a policy change to more effectively use our resources in order to reach a wider number of people. In an environment such as Yemen, there is an additional factor, which is the danger of being open to public access. Unfortunately for some people, having an organization labeled “British Council” constitutes a target.

Having pushed into looking at developing partnerships models, we actually discovered that this is more effective and sustainable. And there is always a physical limit to the number of people who can benefit from our direct services. I think having a building in the past that people came to actually inhibited our thinking to allow us to become as creative and as innovative as we had to now as we respond to complex security situations.

So now we are somewhat outsourcing our services so that we can provide the ability to use those resources without subjecting our staff and people we engage with to direct danger.

There are security issues around people coming into a building to learn English, but there is a whole other set of economic factors around the council's offer of teaching English which we are looking at. But we actually do have a large number of English support activities here in Yemen. It is not as if we are not working with the language, but we are working with the people who are looking to spread the use and development of English. We are working through various government institutes to endorse the English language in Yemen rather than through paid English language courses provided directly by the British council.

English language projects in Yemen

We have two projects financed by the British embassy concerning English language in Yemen. One is the Francis Guy institute in the central political apparatus, and the other relates to English in basic education in schools.

Also, we have a large regional English project across the Middle Eastern region. We are currently looking at the whole curricula to improve the quality of English teaching and learning, which is a large scale regional project. Now we are providing workshops for English teachers in summer schools and getting them to pass this training on to other teachers in different parts of Yemen.

There is also a global suite of products which we call global English products. We launched them in Yemen and they are freely available for learners, parents, children, and so forth.

There are at least three different ways here in Yemen in which we are working on developing English language learning. In a sense, the only thing we are not doing is providing direct English lessons to individuals. We may be looking into models to do this, perhaps through partnerships with existing institutes or the university or so forth, to see if we can also provide a more direct way to facilitate the teaching of English in the future.

Cost and Impact balance

The Chevening scholarships are one of the British government's grants for aspiring individuals that we manage. But for this you have to keep in mind that it very expensive to fund the education of an individual, and so it is a lot of investment in one person.

In any program there is a balance between the cost and the impact. You have to make sure that you are spending your money most effectively to achieve the highest level of impact in the most efficient way. And what the foreign office has done is to develop a Chevening fellowship which is for shorter study in the UK, focusing on particular priority areas for midcareer or senior professionals who have a position in an organization to build their capacity. Often those people cannot get away from their work for more than three months, which is the duration of the fellowship. So for the equivalent of one person we have three fellowships on tailor-made shorter courses, and get people in a position of authority in order to implement the learning in their work.

So the amount of scholarships has decreased compared to the amount of fellowships, although generally the total number of scholarships and fellowships has decreased generally. This is because there is a sense of the balance between this particular way of engaging people and the other areas of program work.

Another aspect that we have explored recently is that we sought out other organizations that share our mission to endorse cultural relations around the world, and would be willing to contribute to the costs of British Council's work in ways that we haven't traditionally looked at. In this region, we have appointed a business-commercial manager who is a former business woman whose job is to go out and sell British Council projects and fund raising. Our ambition is to double our business contacts and partners who would be interested in our work, and to match the programs with funding.

It is about a cultural shift in the British council because we are an old-fashioned public organization and we haven't traditionally worked with businesses. It is really important that we think in a more business-like way, not about making money per se, but being more effective. Therefore, we are trying to attract businesses and institutions and individual philanthropic organizations to our work.

Regional or global projects

There are many regional projects that Yemen is a part of. Many of these programs are running on a long period of time and on more than one cycle.

One is the 'English for the Future' project that we talked about earlier, whereby English expertise is exchanged across the region and the capacity of teachers is built through training.

In school level education we have a global program which is called 'Connecting Classrooms.' This program links schools in the UK with schools all around the world. It provides a whole set of training for teachers for school curricula, but the focus is a link between students. And of course, like all our work, it is about a two-way interaction. And it is equally important, and in some cases more important, that people in the UK have the ability to better understand and learn about the world. One thing about connecting classrooms is that we have an ambition that every single school in the UK will have an international connection. The overall goal is to provide those children with a broader international outlook on their life so that they can understand when they watch the headline stories in news that the reality is much more than what they see.

Another regional program is 'Skills for Employability'. This is about vocational training and education, and again looking particularly at the situation of young people. As the title suggests, this program is about giving them the technical and vocational skills that would enable them to find jobs. In other words, we give them practical skills and not high level intellectual skills. We are not training young people directly; we provide the curricula, materials, and technical assistance to relevant ministries to allow development of vocational training. We are doing this in partnership with the Yemeni Ministry of Technical and Vocational Training.

We have a fourth program for higher education, known as 'Quality Assurance in Higher Education' which is in its early development stages and focuses on the quality assurance of higher education locally. It is about facilitating contacts with expertise from the UK to enable people to develop their quality assurance systems for higher education. We have done it with Sana'a and Aden Universities and the Science and Technology University through the Ministry of Higher Education.

Another strand with this program is research and capacity building in higher education. This program focuses on research at the university level and provides training and exchange of expertise between UK researchers and the Middle East.

We are also managing on behalf of the Department for International Development a program called the 'Development of Partnerships in Higher Education Program'. This program used to be called 'Higher Education Links' and it is an opportunity for universities in Yemen to form partnerships with universities in the UK and other countries for capacity building and institutional development.

In the overall area of the arts, we have a major regional exhibition called 'My Father's House' which is a graphics exhibition starting soon and will be touring the whole Middle East region. We expect that it will be in Yemen in June. It is an exhibition of photographs by British and regional photographers looking into aspects of history and architecture of religious houses. It is also about how people around the world interpret the concept of 'my father's house' in different cultures. So there are eight main photographers and we will be doing a series of activities around the exhibition itself.

We have the cultural leadership program, which is about improving the skills in arts management, called the 'International Cultural Leadership Program'. It is also about the ability for arts organizations to develop their management skills. It is still fairly in its early stages.

Additionally there is the global program called 'Voices' which is about artistic performances. The important element of that would be working with local performers and developing joint productions, joint activities, and workshops. This program is also just beginning.

Looking at a different aspect, we have a program called the 'Global Change Makers.' We have a Middle East angle to the program which is about supporting people in developing local and community projects. It is about motivating the youth and the community to look into the global issues and see what can be done about them locally. Through this program, we provide people with advocacy and leadership skills so that they can work in areas of importance and make a difference within their local communities.

There is the 'Springboard' project which is a women's empowerment program. We have been running pilots in other parts of the region; we started in Saudi Arabia, and twenty five percent of the participants in the program in its first phase were either promoted or set up their own business.

We have a 'Global Exchange' program specifically set up in Yemen, which is an exchange between Yemen and the UK. In this program, we have a total of eight volunteers from Yemen and eight from the UK. This group of sixteen people does community work for three months inside Yemen and three months inside the UK. This will start by the end of 2009, Yemen being one of the priority countries in this region in the program.

We believe that by such programs we will be able to endorse the cultural exchange and learning process between Yemen and the UK, with the exchange working both ways. It is about tapping into the international experiences and different cultural experiences in different ways of looking into the world to address specific problems in the UK and in other countries.