Accessibility links

Breaking News

World: British Council To Refocus On Middle East, Asia

Palestinian police guard the British Council office in Gaza City (file photo) (epa) LONDON, March 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For more than 75 years, the British Council has promoted British culture and education abroad.

Now the council has begun closing many of its European offices, as it shifts its focus and resources to mostly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia.

It's a big move for a distinguished institution that has been around since 1934. Through its network of offices, information centers and libraries, it has helped to satisfy foreigners' hunger for learning English, as well as keeping them in touch with Britain's literature, theater, cinema and other cultural developments.

Changing Times

Now the British Council wants to reach a new audience.

Under its new head, Martin Davidson, who takes over next month, funding for British Council operations in Europe will be cut by 30 percent.

That money will be mostly redirected into programs in Muslim-majority countries.

That means the Baltic states and many Central and Western European countries will lose most of their British Council representation.

The beneficiaries of the new policy will be countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, where British Council spending will rise by 50 percent.

The British Council expects to see its involvement grow quickly in Egypt and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula as well. Central Asia will also get a boost.

Davidson says the move has been long overdue as priorities have been shifting.

"The world is changing and we need to change with it if we're to continue to do our best for the U.K., to do our best for building long term relationships between the U.K. and other countries," Davidson says. "And the nature of the shift is that we will be moving away from the presentation of the U.K. in Europe."

Education In Iraq, Afghanistan

In Iraq, the British Council is focusing on boosting English-language teaching in schools.

"At the moment, our focus is very much on education and assisting the Iraqi authorities in developing their education system," Davidson says. "As the security situation -- we very much hope -- eases, we will look to see whether or not there are new ways in which we can respond to the demands from the Iraqi government."

Davidson has been with the British Council for nearly 25 years, serving in both Europe and Asia. He is well aware of how cultural links help build trust and understanding between nations.

The organization has been often praised for its exhibitions, concerts, seminars, and lectures on literature, theater, cinema, music, and other arts in over 100 countries.

It gets funding from the British Foreign Office in the amount of $370 million per year. It earns nearly double of that sum from its educational activities including English-language courses, examinations, and teacher training.

Davidson says that as offices close in many European countries, work will continue in partnership with those countries and on a commercial basis, especially as far as the teaching of English is concerned. Cultural information will then largely move to the Internet, as young people in Europe use it quite extensively.

Davidson explains the shift should happen gradually, as Britain's relationships with the countries of Central Europe and the former Soviet Union still needing a bit more building.

"Clearly, the relationship between the U.K. and, say, the Netherlands or Denmark or France or Germany is different from the relationship with some of the former communist countries in the eastern part of Europe," Davidson says. "We will be continuing to maintain our services as much as we can, particularly in the eastern part of Europe, and we will be closing the services in the western part more quickly."

As for its current activities in the CIS, Davidson stresses that the British Council "sadly" does not have a presence in Belarus, but has been very active in Ukraine and the Caucasus.

"We have a very active set of work in Ukraine, and we expect that to continue and indeed we would hope to grow more work in Ukraine and also the Caucasus," he says. "We have extremely active programs in Georgia, in Azerbaijan, in Armenia. We are very pleased with the response from our partners there and the way in which we are able to work with all sorts of people in those countries."

Strained Ties With Russia

Davidson points out that as far as Russia is concerned, it has been unfortunate that language courses in Moscow had to be terminated, following restrictions imposed by the Russian authorities after a spy row a year ago.

"We obviously would have liked to be able to continue to teach in Moscow, but with the changes in the regulations, the teaching center wasn't really a viable one for us to continue," Davidson explains.

Davidson says that despite that setback the council is determined to continue its work in Russia as extensively as possible.

In Asia, the council has been involved with students in Iran despite ongoing tensions. And work will also continue in Afghanistan, where there is already much involvement.

"[Afghanistan] is a difficult country to work in at the moment because of security situation, but we're working very closely with the authorities there, with the Ministry of Education, with the Ministry or Religious Affairs, looking particularly at the education system in Afghanistan, at ways in which we can assist in the development of a new curriculum for that country."

A similar program, called Reconnect, is also being prepared for neighboring Pakistan, where it will also involve help for religious Muslim schools in combating militant tendencies.