Posts Tagged ‘British Council’


The FCO Review of the British Council

September 22, 2014

UK government departments are now required to conduct triennial reviews of ‘non-departmental public bodies’ and in July the FCO published its review of the British Council. In general terms it concludes that the BC is doing a good job but that consideration should be given to spinning off some of its income generating activities into a commercial entity.

What is interesting though is the what the report tells us about the FCO concept of Britain’s influence in the world or more accurately the lack of one.

If you are going to review something you need some criteria to evaluate against. The report draws on three substantive sets of criteria. Firstly, the contribution to British cultural diplomacy and UK influence, secondly, the purposes of the BC and thirdly the views of stakeholders. If you’ve got three different sets of criteria you need to be clear about how they relate to each other.

The report immediately raises red flags by describing the BC as ‘the main official body for cultural diplomacy’.  At the BC being described a ‘cultural diplomacy’ would set nerves jangling  but this isn’t the real problem.  As I’ve noted before there is no tradition of official thinking about ‘cultural diplomacy’ in the UK. The BC has tended to talk about cultural relations and even in the past the Foreign Office had a Cultural Relations Department. As readers of this blog will know over the past 10 years government discussion has drawn on concepts of public diplomacy and soft power. The report pulls ‘cultural diplomacy’ out of the air and doesn’t provide any supporting intellectual framework.

The second set of criteria are the purposes of the BC set out in its Royal Charter:

  • Promote cultural relationships and the understanding of different cultures between people and peoples of the United Kingdom and other countries;
  • Promote a wider knowledge of the United Kingdom;
  • Develop a wider knowledge of the English language;
  • Encourage cultural, scientific, technological and other educational cooperation between the United Kingdom and other countries;
  • Otherwise promote the advancement of education.

Hmm, nothing about British influence here.

Thirdly, the review draws on the views of ‘stakeholders’, which variously include government departments, cultural institutions, UK ambassadors and some of the BC’s competitors – especially commercial providers of education services and English language teaching.

The result is that report tends to shift between three stances. Firstly, is the BC doing a good job for British influence, secondly, is it working in accordance with its purposes and thirdly, are the stakeholders happy?

Evaluating an organization against its purposes is relatively straightforward. The report points out that the BC’s ‘society’ strand of work doesn’t fit with its purposes. The irony is that over the last 10 years ‘society’ has been where you find the more kind of projects that the FCO was keen on. It’s when you turn to ‘influence’ that things get difficult. I’m really not sure how you can evaluate an organization against a criterion like ‘influence’ that it doesn’t have a plan for and where the evaluators don’t know what it is and what it looks like. This also feeds into the question of ‘stakeholder’ opinion. Any organization needs to understand what stakeholders think but to make use of such data you need to recognize a few things. Every stakeholder has a perspective (where you stand depends on where you sit), some of these perspectives are inconsistent – particularly for an organization like the British Council – and this may mean you have to trade off some stakeholder views against each other. If you don’t have a clear idea of what the organization is doing it’s difficult to make these trade-offs. This leads to a rather random reporting of ‘stakeholder’ views. For instance there seems to support for the BC doing more arts work but because there’s no in depth analysis of stakeholder views and no theory of influence there’s no intellectual underpinning for this view.

In the appendix of the document that discusses language teaching there’s an example of precisely this kind of trade off. A foreign government is offering a contract for teaching its personnel English, in such a situation it might be OK for the BC to use its status as a government agency to win the business even though this disadvantages commercial operators because of the benefits to the UK. This is one of the few places in the document that tries to balance different perspectives instead of switching between them. The result is a sense that the FCO wants more control over the BC but it’s not sure why other than to ensure that it fills out its financial paperwork properly.

A few years ago I heard representatives of the FCO and the Quai d’Orsay talk about public diplomacy. The Brit talked about budgets, targets and key performance indicators, the French rep talked about the mission of France in the world. France has eventually realized that it may have the overarching concepts but it needs to manage its foreign outreach better, Whitehall needs to realize that managerialism isn’t enough: we need an overarching and enduring theory of British influence.


Is the Tail Wagging the Dog? The 0.7% Aid Target and UK Foreign Policy

July 1, 2013

On Wednesday the Government updated spending plans out to the 2015-16 financial year.  There were cuts to the basic budgets to  all government departments except for Health (0.1%) growth over the previous plans, Department for International Development (1.1%) and the intelligence services (3.4%).  The FCO gets a cut of 6.3% and Defence 1.9%.

The document outlining the spending plans also says that there will be “a review of the operating model of the British Council to encourage greater self funding, reduce the burden on the taxpayer, and promote UK prosperity” which certainly raises the possibility of further cuts in the government grant to the Council.

But readers (particularly from outside the UK) may be a bit puzzled by something.  If all other government departments are being cut how come foreign aid is going up?  Surely that’s politics 101:  times are tough so cut the aid budget because foreigners don’t have votes.

When it came to power the Coalition Government announced that it was going to hit the 0.7% GNI target for Official Development Assistance that the UN has being promoting since the 1970s.  This will mean Britain joins Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands as the only countries to be doing this at present.  There are even proposals to make this legally binding.

Let’s start with the politics of this.  The commitment to the target was in the Conservative manifesto – which is surprising as back in the Thatcher/Major years aid was about 0.25%.    The reason for this change in the domestic political troubles of the Conservative Party.  While many voters liked Tory policies they had negative perception of the party’s brand.  Part of David Cameron’s strategy was to ‘detoxify the brand’ by ostentatiously adopting policies that underlined his party’s caring side.  Aid was one of the beneficiaries.  Hence the 0.7% figure represents a strong political commitment.

In this post I want to look at it a narrow foreign policy perspective because there is some evidence that the combination of expanding ODA target and funding combined with the overall spending squeeze is having unintended consequences on the rest of British foreign policy.

The definition for official development assistance is set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Flows of official financing administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as the main objective, and which are concessional in character with a grant element of at least 25 percent (using a fixed 10 percent rate of discount). By convention, ODA flows comprise contributions of donor government agencies, at all levels, to developing countries (“bilateral ODA”) and to multilateral institutions. ODA receipts comprise disbursements by bilateral donors and multilateral institutions. Lending by export credit agencies—with the pure purpose of export promotion—is excluded.

So you need to hit 0.7 in way that is consistent with this definition.  Who can you give the aid to?  Anyone except high income countries.

That might be a bit too easy so the UK has made things a bit harder.

A. under the 2002 International Development Act aid needs to be targeted on poverty reduction.

B. There’s a commitment to spend 30% of aid in fragile states and

C. There’s a strategic focus on a limited range of poor countries.

Given the focus on fragile states it’s important to note that with some caveats security or military type aid doesn’t count – so you may be in a situation where you have ODA money to spend but it’s not possible to spend it without substantial non ODA expenditure

So now we need to hit 0.7 but in a way that meets these requirements at the same time.  The problem is that there isn’t a big pot of money that says ODA (for instance the DFID budget) on it that is separate from all the other money that government has. Other departments have to pitch in to help.  The FCO has a target for ODA spend, part of which is passed on to the British Council – in the most recent Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee Report on the FCO it points out the difficulty for the BC because it’s grant is being cut but that grant then has to be used in ODA consistent ways.

I’m getting the impression from reading documents from the Independent Commission on Aid Effectiveness and the National Audit Office that it’s actually quite hard to spend enough to hit the 0.7 target and that the mix of activities that FCO/BC/MoD/DFID is actually doing is being shaped by this.  The consequence is that everything that isn’t ODA compliant is being cut back.

One clue to this in contained in some of the documents about the Conflict Pool.  This is a fund that is intended to be used to deal with conflict prevention tasks and which can be used by DFID, MoD and FCO.  This money pays for the Stabilization Unit.  This is one of the areas that British governments are very proud of because it shows joined up working.  Reading between the lines there are tensions here not just between the three departments but also along the ODA/non-ODA line.  The latest strategy document points out that one of the attractions of the fund is that it could use non-ODA money to support ODA spending – for instance security funding that can’t be classed as ODA.  The irony here is that it’s the non-ODA money that is short supply.

Not surprisingly DFID is focusing its resources in its priority countries and not dealing with small projects (too much management overhead) and we need to get the money out of the door.  As anyone who reads this blog will appreciate running a policy area by setting a spending target rather than a strategic objective is not the way that government is supposed to be run but seems to be precisely what is happening here.

What I’m picking up is that in some respects it is the ODA spend tail that is wagging the foreign policy dog. Or am I reading too much into this?


New British Council Report on Influence and Attraction. Not Very Attractive

June 19, 2013

The British Council have just put out a report Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century – sounds exciting doesn’t it? I’ve just read it and I’m not sure that was the most useful thing I could have done this afternoon.

What does it say?

  1. In the modern world culture is good…for everything…it can solve social and political problems, it can improve economic performance, social cohesion etc.*
  2. Cultural relations activities have to be less about projection.  We are in a peer to peer world
  3. The BRICS and other new players (eg in the Gulf) are spending lots of money on cultural relations
  4. The traditional players in Europe are cutting back.

A few comments

  1. The report uses the term culture in such a broad way as to render it meaningless
  2. Cultural relations is used here both in the traditional British Council sense of what it and similar organizations do but also as a synonym for a large part of transnational relationships as a whole.  See Comment A
  3. There’s an interesting tension between the view that we are in a new peer to peer world and the emphasis on the rise of the BRICS.  It seems to me that in large part following traditional European models eg opening cultural centres, teaching languages etc, hosting expositions.
  4.  Ironically one of the oldest tactics in the cultural relations book (going back to the 19th century at least) is to point at what your competitors are doing and say that we must do more or at least not do less.  Which is what this report is doing.
  5. The intention of the report is to build support for cultural relations but because it does such a big job of lumping everything (sectors, regions, countries) together it is ineffective in doing so.  If, as the report argues, governments are ‘relatively powerless’ then action needs to be focussed precisely through identifying what can and cannot be done and what should be prioritised. Making statements like ‘cultural understanding is a precondition to solving pressing global problems’ is just pie in the sky.
  6. There’s too many lazy cultural sector cliches here – I loved the comment that ‘political and corporate elites’ don’t understand the scale of the changes  in global communications.  Well maybe except these changes were brought to you by corporate elites who have handed all your data over to the US state.
  7. At several points the report emphasizes the importance of an arms-length autonomous relationship between organizations like the British Council and government – standard BC boiler plate.  I’m sure that this is true in some cases but I’ve had numerous conversations with people from outside the UK who always say that the credibility of the BC is strengthened by the fact that they see it as being a UK government organization.
  8. I do like the compilation of which countries have cultural institutes where.

*Showing my age here but It’s like the snake oil in Big Audio Dynamite’s Medicine Show from 1985.  (I’d never seen this video before so reading this report did some good.)


Mapping the World of the Mittlers: Mediating Organizations in Public Diplomacy

March 31, 2013

Last week I reflected on why the field of International Relations has paid little attention to Public Diplomacy and argued that one of the reasons is that the conceptual fragmentation of the field obscures the volume of foreign public engagement.  Thinking about this question a bit more I would also add that the organizational fragmentation of foreign engagement also tends to hide the volume of activity.

Particularly in cultural relations countries have relied on operating agencies outside the foreign ministry to actually conduct their work.  Some of these organizations have quite a high profile and are relatively close to government (The British Council) but many others are much more obscure and much more distant – to the extent that we may be talking about a private organization that is providing services to a government programme or a government programme  funding the activities of a private organization.

It would useful to have a term to cover this universe of organizations.  We could call them operating agencies or for the sake of sounding exotic we can borrow the German term mittlerorganisation. This is normally translated as the British quango – quasi autonomous non-governmental organization – something that looks like an NGO but actually has authority devolved from government.  My German English dictionary tells me that the sense of ‘mittler‘ is actually mediating so I’m going to apply the term mittlerorganization to any of the organizations that stand between policy and the publics even if the they are not technically a quango.*

Let’s look at a few cases to illustrate the variety of mittlers.  Firstly, the UK is unusual among the big PD players because it has so few of them.  The British Council offers a broad range of services that in other countries are done by multiple organizations.   Having said this the scope of the BC’s work isn’t fixed in stone: the FCO’s Chevening Scholarships are now managed by a private company.  If we look at France there’s a movement towards a British model with the French Institute as more of centralized quango but this a recent development.  Historically the picture is much more complicated.  Just to take one example between 1922 and 2006 the Association Francaise d’Action Artistique,  the operating agency for music, theatre and the plastic arts, mounted tens of thousands of activities but was little known even in France.  The author of a history of the organization (Piniau 1998) complains that few records that remain and suggests that it suited both the Quai d’Orsay and the artists concerned to keep their sponsorship discrete. In Germany the Goethe Institute coexists with the DAAD, the Alexander Humboldt Foundation  and the IFA not to mention the network of German schools (Maaβ 2009).

In the US there is a network of organizations that grew up in the area between the private sector and government.  To take two examples the Institute of International Education is a private organization established in 1919 to develop international education relationships but which over periods of a decades was closely connected to the development of American cultural relations work.  Another example is IREX, originally set up in 1968 by American universities to manage exchanges with the Soviet Bloc today it operates all around the world.  (In a later post I’ll look at another set of American ‘mittlers’ that revolve around the National Endowment for Democracy).

The world of the mittlers is does not have neat boundaries some are simply extensions of government, for others government sponsored work may be a minor part of what they do.  Many will provide services to private or non-profit actors not just government.  They will also do work for government agencies that is nothing directly to do with advancing foreign policy.   Also priorities evolve over time as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago external cultural policies (and higher education activities) may have originally been seen as tools of national projection but have become more important in their own right.  A necessary step will be develop a typology of mittlers classifing them in terms of legal status, funding, control, proportion of government work in order to provide a basis for a structured comparison.

Scholars of the cultural cold war (eg Laville and Wilford 2006) have argued for the importance of state-private networks but when you begin probe the world of the mittlers you see that this kind of hybrid activity has been pervasive in lots of places.

States have used mittlers because cultural relations work requires the mobilization of expertise, artists, scholars and hospitality within their own society and that have links with foreign countries and this is seen as easier to do by organizations outside government. Sometimes the organizations have been created at the behest of government other organizations existed anyway and have been brought into partnership.  To some extent this mode of working may have hidden government sponsorship from the foreign publics but it has also had the effect of reducing the visibility of this activity to scholars.


*Of course ‘mediating organization’ would do the trick.


Laville, H., and H. Wilford (2012) The US government, citizen groups and the Cold War : the state-private network. London: Routledge.

Maaß, K.-J., ed. (2009) Kultur und Außenpolitik: Handbuch für Studium und Praxis. Nomos Verlagsges.Mbh + Co.

Piniau, B. (1998) L’Action Artistique de la France dans le Monde. Paris: L’Harmattan.


British Council Call for Action to Support Arts in North Africa

February 22, 2013

At the end of last year the British Council has put out a paper The Voices of the People: Culture, Conflict and Change in North Africa.   It describes itself as follows

This publication presents the key insights from a detailed research project carried out for the British Council by the Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit (PRDU) at the University of York during 2011 and 2012. The research, led by Professor Sultan Barakat, comprised 112 interviews with individuals or groups of artists, cultural activists and civil society representatives in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, plus responses gathered in subsequent discussion groups with interested stakeholders and partners.

Our investigation in North Africa was guided by two overriding questions:

  • What social and artistic freedoms and possibilities are opening up for artists and cultural institutions in these four countries?
  • Conversely, what new possibilities of civic, social and political expression on the street and in the public sphere are they helping to create.

The document concludes

Ultra-conservatives are growing in influence and there will be both pressure and the temptation to fall back into self-censorship, but the UK arts community can help shore up fragile changes and build a sustainable cultural ecosystem.

The UK arts and cultural sector has a clear opportunity to play a supportive role. Its work can help to span the gap between the established and the emergent, the institutional and innovative, to support the negotiation of emerging ideas and to offer ongoing opportunities for people to play their full  part as active citizens.

This is a bit of an odd document.  It comes out of the Arts side of the Council rather than reflecting an overall organizational strategy.  It presents itself as a research report but there is very little evidence of the research itself in the report.  There’s no description of who has been interviewed. We don’t get a sense of who is supposed to be talking and where they fit into the broader context.  There’s no attempt to compare across countries and what is really strange: there isn’t a single quote in a report called ‘voices of the people’ .   I’m not sure that it’s very effective in presenting either the research or the call to the UK arts sector to get involved.

Stephen Stenning the regional arts director in the Middle East and North Africa provides a bit of an update here.


Parliamentary Committee Gives the FCO a Kicking

April 13, 2012

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee has just put out its latest report on the work of the Foreign Office, the BBC World Service and the British Council.

The headline is that the Committee is impressed with the job that the FCO has done given that they don’t have any money.

Many of the specific points in the report won’t surprise readers of this blog

On the cuts

In this context, we conclude that the lack of detail provided by the FCO and the BBC World Service as to exactly how the spending reductions target set by SR2010 will be met is disappointing. While there is no doubt that meeting the targets set by the Spending Review will be challenging and will require much planning and forethought, it is equally disappointing that the FCO has not yet planned how a reduction of £40 million, or over one-third, of its programme spending will be achieved

Translation: ‘The FCO won’t tell us how it’s going to meet its financial targets and we suspect it’s because they haven’t got a clue.’

The FCO is trying to reshape its network of posts without incurring an overall cost by selling existing building and buying new ones in priority areas

We conclude that the FCO’s internal target of achieving £60 million of assets sales per year, and reinvesting this sum back into the overseas network, must be considered extremely optimistic; for this target to be reached, the FCO will need to sell, every year of the spending review period, properties with a total value three times the total value of those properties sold in 2009-10. We believe that the FCO will not be able to reach this target without inflicting serious damage on its overseas network.

Translation: ‘We don’t believe you can do this’

 The “Diplomatic Excellence” programme, and the consequent emphasis on increased skills for UK diplomats, is welcome. However, we question whether it will be able to reverse the long-term trend for the FCO to emphasise “management” over “traditional” diplomatic skills.

If you read the reports from the FCO to the committee appended to the report you will certainly get the impression that managerialism is alive at well at the FCO

The committee is unimpressed with efforts to save money by reducing overseas postings for younger diplomats by relying more on locally engaged staff, combined with the FCO encouraging staff to take secondments to the European External Action Service the result will be a smaller and less capable service.

The committee also echoes points made here about the future of the BBC World Service  and the British Council as parts of the UK public diplomacy effort

‘Public diplomacy’ and ‘strategic communication’  don’t get a mention anywhere in the report although soft power comes up in a couple of the evidence sessions.

Despite the headline the report is less than optimistic about the state of UK’s foreign policy capability.










British Council Kicks Confucius Institutes

March 10, 2012

Earlier in the week the International Herald Tribune carried an article discussing concerns over the effects of Confucius Institutes on discussion of China in the universities that host them.   The story ends with a nice paragraph

Bruce Cumings, a tenured historian at the University of Chicago who signed a petition protesting the Confucius Institute there, said that although he is on the board of the university’s East Asian study center, he heard nothing about the institute “until the day it was opened.” But such a low-profile approach, he said, is only possible while China itself remains calm. The network of institutes “are time bombs awaiting the next Tiananmen,” he said.

What really caught my attention were some quotes from the Chief Executive of the British Council, Martin Davidson where he

 says that the comparison, often made by Confucius Institute defenders, between his organization…and the Chinese effort, only goes so far. “We are a stand-alone organization operating out of our own premises. They are being embedded in university campuses,” he said in an interview. “The real question has to be one of independence. Are we seen as simply representing the views of the government? Or is there a degree of separation?”

The story makes the point that western cultural relations organizations aren’t based on university camputes

And according to Mr. Davidson, none adopt the same homogenous approach to their native cultures found in Confucius Institutes. “No one would regard Zadie Smith or Grayson Perry as someone controlled by the British Council,” he said.

“The Chinese are very clear on what they are trying to achieve,” said Mr. Davidson. “They want to change the perception of China — to combat negative propaganda with positive propaganda. And they use the word ‘propaganda’ in Chinese. But I doubt they have to say, ‘We’ll only give you this money if you never criticize China.’ The danger is more of self-censorship — which is a very subtle thing,” Mr. Davidson said.

The full story is here