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Moving the goalposts? Photo ©

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September 2019

People everywhere say that they want equality and diversity. But this may mean different things in different places. International engagement requires empathetic understanding of this area. It also requires practicing what we preach. 

The importance of diversity

British Council polling has consistently revealed that far and a way the most important value that young people all over the world think should be supported and encouraged is ‘equality and diversity’. The data, gathered from 18-35 year old across the G20, shows that 30% of them identify equality and diversity as the most important value to them, followed by ‘co-operation and tolerance’ on 15%. 

This is an area in which the UK enjoys a comparative advantage over other leading countries. 56% of respondents said that people from the UK ‘value diversity and cultural difference’ – more than for all the other major countries in the study

Similarly, being ‘open and welcoming’ to other people is the leading driver of trust in people from the UK, with ‘Valuing Diversity and Cultural Difference’ another important factor. In turn, greater trust leads to higher willingness to do business with the UK. This is an area in which the UK enjoys a comparative advantage over other leading countries. 56% of respondents said that people from the UK ‘value diversity and cultural difference’ – more than for all the other major countries in the study (China, Russia, India, the US, Germany, and Japan). 

Yet it is less clear that ‘diversity’ always means the same thing in different places. The British Council has a presence in over a 110 countries and territories, each one with a different historical and cultural background and often with a different set of understandings of and challenges relating to diversity. That is complex and fascinating. It does not require a retreat to cultural relativism in order to address the resulting challenges and tensions. What it does require is cultural sensitivity and flexibility. 

A commitment to Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (‘EDI’) supports and is reflected in cultural relations. But it must be reflected in the behaviour of organisations practicing what they preach. EDI requires sustained discipline, self-regulation, and authenticity: a combination that is difficult, but possible – and very important if the nuances of diverse cultures are to be navigated and engaged with successfully. 

Practicing what we preach

A new book on ‘Global Diversity Management’, Özbilgin, Bartels-Ellis, Gibbs (Eds) has just been published. The book draws on the latest research and the experiences of British Council staff around the world. 

In his foreword, British Council CEO Ciarán Devane identifies three reasons why taking EDI seriously within institutions is important. First is simply that it is the right thing to do. Second is that it opens up the institution to the widest range of talent and reduces the risks of succumbing to groupthink. Third, and most important in the field of international engagement, doing the right thing is the right thing because of the nature of the organisation’s work. 

As an organisation, the British Council attempts to nurture friendly knowledge and understanding between the UK and other countries – that is it conducts cultural relations. It wishes those it partners with through its work to think well of the UK. Not just England or London, or the country’s ‘elites’. Not just the majority ethnic or demographic group. Not just those of one sexual orientation or faith background. Not just those who don’t have a disability. 

Furthermore, as the book makes clear, it is impossible to be an important and effective contributor to ‘soft power’ or diplomacy and to making people feel positive about the UK without actively demonstrating respect, interested in, and receptiveness to the full range of their backgrounds and cultures. It is fundamentally necessary to be generous, open, empathetic, assertive, constructively curious, and all the things that support feeling valued and mutual trusted. This will partly be a function of organisations’ own policies and workforces. 

It also risks perceptions that – after centuries of colonial relationships based on one exported set of values – the UK (or perhaps the ‘West’) has now simply shifted the moral goalposts, avoiding having to make amends for past actions whilst subtly ensuring its own continued perceived superiority, lecturing about or imposing a new set of values on sometimes more traditional societies in what amounts to a neo-colonial escalation of self-defined virtue. These dangers must be carefully navigated

Being seen to ‘export’ EDI poses dangers. It leaves the UK and its institutions open to charges of hypocrisy, particularly in the many parts of the world in which it has historically been seen to use discrimination to justify imperial hegemony or economic exploitation. It also risks perceptions that – after centuries of colonial relationships based on one exported set of values – the UK (or perhaps the ‘West’) has now simply shifted the moral goalposts, avoiding having to make amends for past actions whilst subtly ensuring its own continued perceived superiority, lecturing about or imposing a new set of values on sometimes more traditional societies in what amounts to a neo-colonial escalation of self-defined virtue. These dangers must be carefully navigated.

Yet the book suggests that navigating these difficulties can bring real rewards. There are both increasing demands for fairness and increasing evidence of the benefits of equality and diversity, including financial and social benefits. Furthermore, however imperfect the UK its cultural institutions are, our own checkered history gives us something to share with and offer to others in this space. In order to be a credible conduit it is vital to be open minded and sensitive to other perspectives, whilst committing to continuous improvement and ensure that our own house is in order. This book highlights this commitment. 

With thanks to Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Advisor, and Fiona Barton-Ellis, Head of EDI, British Council

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