Keynote Speech - Sir Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive, British Council (Abridged)


…The reason I chose the title was because of something that Nadhim Zahawi MP said to me. He was saying that he was on the last Parliamentary visit to Syria before it all happened. He had the usual series of meetings; with the ministry of this, with business leaders and all of that. There were two meetings they had that the British Council was involved in, where they met young people from around Syria. He said they came out of that meeting and said, ‘This country is going to blow’. When they returned to the UK they wrote to William Hague, (Foreign Secretary at the time), and said there was something serious about to happen in Syria. 

Forward Engagement

…Whether we anticipated an Arab Spring or not, we certainly did not see where it was going. The question is what we should be doing, not to predict but to say, ‘This thing might happen. Maybe there is something we should be doing to reduce the chances of it happening’. And when something does happen, is there something we should be doing to make the chances of it not deteriorating more likely than otherwise? 

The next question is how we as the British Council should adapt ourselves to that world and those changes…

Origin and Purpose of the British Council

…When you go back to the [British Council’s] beautifully written 1940 annual report, what it says is that ‘the annihilation of distance in the modern world is bringing the different races and civilisations of the world rapidly and violently together’. You could write that today. They went on to talk about what the role of the British Council should be. They said we should take the cultural resources of the UK, in the widest interpretation and use that to promote the interchange of knowledge, ideas and discoveries. What they were saying was that we should create what they called friendly knowledge and understanding of the people of the UK. What they were saying was, ‘Let us build relationships, and let us do it so that whatever the UK wants to do we will get a sympathetic appreciation’, as they termed it. It was not necessarily to chase specific foreign policy objectives, but to create a networked United Kingdom... 

A ‘Show-Don’t-Tell’ Organisation

…The way we do this is by showing, not telling. We are going to show you what our values are. We are going to show you what we are like. We will not send you an email telling you; we are going to demonstrate it. If we talk about the UK being an inclusive society, the British Council has to do things in an inclusive way. We have to walk the walk… 

A Different World

…The major world challenges – asymmetric conflict, mass migration, war, climate change, technology shifts, urbanisation and growing youth populations – all shape the world we live in, whether they are in the background or foreground of that world. There are stories of change. 

We then have the added problem of 24-hour news. Things are travelling with the speed of a computer virus. It is a different world [but]

 no matter what the problem is, there is a cultural relations component... 

Theories of International Relations

…[When I did my] my Masters at George Washington University, my professor was a cousin of President Assad. He was slightly frustrated with him at the time. He is also professor of the National Defence University in Washington, and he is even more frustrated with him now. 

There are three classical theories of international relations, as I am sure some of you know. There is realism, which is about sovereign power. You need a strong economy, a good military, and at the end of the day nations are self-interested and you would be naïve to completely trust your neighbours. Institutionalists are a bit more optimistic. They say that part of a state being a rational state is realising that being part of a rule-based international system backed by institutions is a good thing. A bit of collaborative pooling is a good thing, and if you can build an institution it reduces the chance of instability. You can do things you cannot do on your own. Constructivists say that a nation is a product of its history and experience. If you can change the experiences people are having then you can change the future.

Being a good academic discipline, the theorists are all arguing with each other about which theory is correct. In reality, all three of them have a grain of truth. That is why for us it was very encouraging when the Prime Minister was talking and saying that what we needed was a ‘full-spectrum’ response to the Syria crisis. It is not a military response alone. It is not a humanitarian response alone. It is also a cultural relations, diplomatic and everything else response. We need to think about what that full spectrum looks like…

Hard Power and Soft Power

…In the spectrum of tools available to government, of course there is the military, sanctions and all of that at the hard power end. Then there is soft power. Sometimes soft power is really difficult to get your head around. In reality, it is a collection of things. People do it in different ways. You can have public diplomacy, where you engage directly with the people of another state. There is cultural diplomacy as well. Certainly in the UK, having cultural relations is a major part of that mix, and I think it is one of the things that distinguishes the soft power assets of the UK from others. 

The encouraging thing for us of course was that the Prime Minister did not just [talk about it]. Through the spending review, the government set up a £700 million soft power fund, which is in effect saying, ‘If you can come up with good enough programmes, you can bid into this and dial up some of the things you think are good’. I think there is a realisation across government that this kind of full-spectrum approach has legs. The belief is that if you can get it right, invest early and anticipate those things further down the line, then at some level you are preventing things. Public health is cheaper than surgery when you can get it right, and certainly we would say good diplomacy and public relations is cheaper than a small war.

With this comes accountability and being able to say whether it does work and that it is not just doing nice things. The big American public diplomacy guru, Professor Nicholas Cull [says]: ‘One of the greatest bargains on the Treasury’s list is the British Council’… 

Examples on the Ground


As well as having cups of tea in Whitehall while carrying the 1940 annual report, the other thing I have done over the last year is gone to see 29 British Council offices. 

One of the very recent trips was to Nigeria. Nigeria is a big country and an important country. It has huge connections with the UK. It is very important to the stability and economic prospects of Africa more broadly. Last year the population was 183 million. By 2050 it is predicted to be 440 million.

The success of Nigeria being an economic powerhouse of 440 million is one thing. Nigeria being unstable and challenged, and everything falling apart because the infrastructure cannot keep up is [quite] another thing. While we were there – bearing in mind that this is an oil-producing country – there were queues for petrol and daily power cuts. There is a long way to go [and] it is good to see the progress the new government is making. That is why we are very much engaged in working with Nigeria. 

We have been working with the police [in Nigeria] to improve how you run a police station. You log your prisoners in. You record where they are. You record their state of health. You have a unit for domestic violence and violence against women as well. You introduce a community policeman. You work with the militia, because Nigeria is quite under-policed in many ways, so you work with the local vigilantes. You do set up a little, local community scrutiny group. We were not just working with one police station, or indeed just with the police. We are also talking to the government about what a good Police Bill should have in it.

[Our Active Citizens’ Programme] is working with universities across Nigeria. If we put on programmes where students can engage, go back to their communities and do something good for the community, then we are engaging them on leadership and we are giving them skills. We have around 130,000 active citizens in our various programmes around the world today…


…Pakistan is a hugely important to the UK for many reasons. There is the diaspora, economic potential, security. We were originally working with Lahore College for Women: you cannot graduate from there without doing a class on citizenship and having done a project involving going back to your town and village and doing [a project] there. It is teaching leadership as well as citizenship.

[This] is now being rolled out to 47 other universities across Pakistan. And we are working with the Federal Education Commission to make it mandatory for all universities in the country…


…Another project where we are working with young people is in Uganda. At the cost of less than £1 per person we are working with 30,000 young people in Pallisa, which is an area in the north-east, and a divided community. There is a Christian/Muslim split. We are working on social entrepreneurship. We are not bringing aid. We are not spending money. We are developing skills. The people there are now raising their own pigs and making their own honey…

The Longer Term

…So this is not development assistance. It is slightly different. It has to have this mutual relationship, but with that comes the need for mutual benefit. That is the peer-to-peer type of relationship that we are trying to go for. And as the British Council, if an activity is not contributing in some way to the stability and security of the UK, the development of UK society, or the influence and attraction of the UK, then we are not quite doing our job. Everything we do needs to line up against one of those boxes. 

In other words, what we are trying to do is make sure we are aligned with the long-term foreign policy aspirations of the UK, but making sure they absolutely coincide with the interests of and benefit to the countries we work with. It has to be at a peer-to-peer level.

It is a long game. We are not necessarily the right people to fix a problem that needs to be fixed in six months’ time. If it is about building relationships steadily, over time. One of the things Aung San Suu Kyi says is that the reason the British Council has been so effective is that it has stuck with Burma during difficult times under a dictatorship; and we are still there. We continue to do what we did, to build relationships; and our libraries continue to be places where people could exchange information and ideas. This idea of longevity as well as mutuality is central to what we do.


Some people call that sustainability. We are big supporters of the Sustainable Development Goals. The Millennium Development Goals talked about improving access to basic education for children, which is brilliant and a very good first goal, but the Sustainable Development Goals talk about needing sustainable education systems: we need high quality primary education but also high quality secondary education, secondary skills and higher education as well.  

We are huge supporters of that. It does not mean that we see ourselves as a development organisation. However, framing a lot of what we do in terms of the SDGs is important… 

Cultural Engagement

…There is a piece of research we are doing on Shakespeare. It is 400 years since William Shakespeare died, as I am sure you know, and he has been a fantastic cultural asset for the UK. What we are trying to get our heads around is just how much of a cultural asset he is. 


Some figures that you will not have heard before: we surveyed a large population around the world, 78% of whom said that they had come across and experienced Shakespeare’s work. Three quarters of them said that they liked it. One third of them thought that it reflected well on the UK as well. That is a great cultural relations impact, for somebody who died 400 years ago. 

However, there is something else. You may have heard of the Robben Island Bible, which was not a Bible but a disguised copy of the complete works of Shakespeare. Nelson Mandela put his signature on his favourite line of Shakespeare from Julius Caesar: ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once’. 

It not just that people get Shakespeare. We bring high-quality UK arts and culture around the world because they are still relevant. 

We know the UK is really good in this field. We are currently top of the Soft Power Index, and we are determined to maintain that position. 

So what do we need to do to be different? We need to be better at evidence. We have to maintain this authentic mutual benefit idea. We have to sustain things over time. We have to stick with things. It has to work with individual, community and institutional levels; we have to be able to bring all of those together. One of the core skills we need to continue to develop is the ability to partner: with private sector, public sector and civil society organisations, in 115 countries…

Positive Future Impact


…The next question is, ‘What is coming down the track?’ I will offer three things as equally important top priorities. 

The first is education. If we focus on helping the next generation of young people to have a brilliant education, improving education, or even some education, then we will be doing something important. I mentioned Nigeria, where the school-age population at the moment is 70 million. It depends who you believe, but around 40% of that school-age population do not go to school. 49% of adults cannot read or write. That 70 million is going to be 96 million in 15 years’ time. So in 15 years’ time it has to be a third bigger and better, just to stand still. There is a huge challenge there, and I could give you similar numbers from Egypt and Pakistan as well. So the education system has to be one of our top priorities. 

Linked to that is the youth bulge, and its effects. In an article in Foreign Affairs in March, I think, [there was an article] based on some research which says that if you look at people who pick up a gun and join ISIS, there is a surprising lack of former humanities students. They are completely under-represented. So what are humanities students getting that people who did chemical engineering, like myself, are not getting? Are we teaching [enough] critical thinking? We run a conference in Hammamet, and one of the young ladies there was saying, ‘I was brought up to obey. I have to obey my parents. I have to obey my brother, because he is a boy. I have to obey the Imam. I obey.’ Her way of pushing back on that was engaging with civil society. Other people push back in different ways. We can help education ministries that clearly want to do the right thing by sharing the UK’s experience and knowledge in this area…


…The second priority is related, but it is about what happens when you are not in school. It is about the next generation of young Arabs and Muslims. Our Young Arab Voices programme, which we run jointly with the Anna Lindh Foundation, teaches people how to set up debating clubs. They set up the debating clubs, they run debating competitions, and young people learn to disagree and make points without falling out with the person they are disagreeing with. It is hugely powerful… 

Russian Relations

…Then there is our relationship with Russia. Russia has always been an important country for the British Council, maybe especially when diplomatic relations are not at their warmest. That is when cultural relationships come into their own. The Yuri Gagarin statue was put up outside our office in 2011. It is now at Greenwich at the Royal Observatory. It was a gift from Roscosmos, the Russian space programme, and it was unveiled on the 50th anniversary of Gagarin meeting Harold MacMillan in London. You do not have to have gone to the recent Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum to know how rightly proud the Russians are of their space programme.

Going the other way, we had a UK year of culture in 2014, and the plan is that we can build trust, knowledge and understanding by working together consistently over time. We are hoping that next year will be a year of science, and then a year of education after that... 

The UK's future in the EU

…We live in a networked world, and I think it is important that the UK remains engaged with multilateral institutions. That means the Commonwealth, NATO, the UN Security Council, and the EU. If you do that kind of political analysis that I was doing earlier, and if you look through the realist lens, the institutionalist lens, the constructivist lens, then what is the test you would place on the European Union? Is it helping the UK’s security, prosperity and influence? For me there is no question that the EU has helped make sure there is not a continental war in Europe. It is quite a long period of peace that we have had, and it started with the integration of coal and steel, and then the Common Market for goods, free exchange and movement which allowed ideas and collaboration to flourish and bind us together – [changing us] from a continent with a history of not understanding each other and of warring with each other, into having decades of peace. That did not happen by accident. People worked at that, and what is now the EU was a big part of it. You could say the same about the Common Market, which set common standards for goods and for trade, and opened up trade to the British economy. It meant you did not have to fill out forms every time you crossed a border, and it made lots of connections easier. It allowed Britain to influence many of those common European issues.

A question for me is whether we would want to be outside the room when people are getting together to talk about countering terrorism. What would happen if we were not in the room when the common market for services is being developed? Would we not want to be in that room? Equally, what do we tell the 10-20,000 young people from Britain who every year get the chance to study abroad through the Erasmus Programme? If you look at security, prosperity and influence – and I am a constructivist by nature – at least you can do that analysis, and it puts me in a position of saying that institutionally we agree with the Government line of being in an improved and better EU, and arguing from inside the club, not from outside.

Concluding Remarks

All in all, if you look at this cultural relations landscape, the UK is in a really good place. The partners we work with, and our friends at the Foreign Office, are a big part of that; but the British Council are part of that as well, and we should be very pleased and proud of what we are doing. We are, though, at a crossroads. With the realisation that some of the things we do are effective in the long term comes the responsibility and accountability to do it. The job we have over the next few years is to demonstrate that impact consistently well. I think we are able to do that. We need to develop ourselves into more of a thinking and listening organisation. We have a fantastic network of 8,000 people around the world, and it is important to be sensitive to what they think. We can try and anticipate what the future will be like. We should be part of that conversation. And we should be asking what a good response might look like, and what our role might be in making it happen.

We need to demonstrate that it is worth having listened to us, and that each and every activity we do has an impact that benefits the people we are working with – and also benefits the United Kingdom.