Kate Ewart-Biggs’ mission with the British Council is to build lasting connections between the UK and other countries through arts and language. Coming from a diplomatic family that represented Britain abroad, from a young age Kate recognised the influence an individual has on building positive relationships between places and peoples.
Kate’s father, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, was UK ambassador to Ireland before being assassinated by an IRA landmine. After his death, her mother, Baroness Ewart-Biggs continued to advocate for peace in Ireland, ultimately gaining a place in the House of Lords. “Though our diplomatic life came to an end very suddenly, my mother continued to use her global public platform to advocate strongly for better connections between people.” As Kate tells me, mutual respect is crucial to form these connections.
Having spent her childhood in France, this early international experience, as Kate says, “shaped my view that the world is a wide place.” Having learned to read and write in French before English, Kate considers herself a ‘global citizen’, someone whose identity transcends geographical borders. Her work with the British Council has taken her all over the world, including Indonesia, Uganda, Tanzania. I ask how she adapts to the cultural landscapes of each country to carry out her work. She stresses the importance of language: “even if you don’t speak the language very well, trying and making the effort is a really important aspect of integrating yourself into the community.” Before working with the British Council, Kate worked for a feminist organisation helping street girls in the North of Brazil. She describes the exhilarating challenge of hearing new words and looking them up in a dictionary – “the days before google translate” – discovering how words shed light on cultural values. The word which kept cropping up was the Portuguese ‘gente’, meaning the collective ‘us’ as opposed to referring to people in general. Kate tells me how the collective community atmosphere is far stronger abroad than in the UK. “I have always been fascinated by what makes different cultures operate, the norms and things which glue communities together and the customs which really matter.” In Tanzania, Kate tells me, there is “the whole greeting process of how are you, how is your family, etc. Though this seems slightly protracted to reserved Brits, without it people won’t want to engage with you because they think you are being really rude.” These small cultural factors can make or break the positive relationships you attempt to form with other countries.
Some contributions from the British Council that Kate has overseen include the fantastic work done for women and girls in areas where their educational opportunities have been cut off. Kate tells me about an education programme in Pakistan called EDGE (English and Digital for Girls’ Education) which gives digital and English skills to thousands of girls inside and outside of the education system. The programme has been extended to Afghan refugees who have been cut off from education as well as women and girls facing educational barriers in Bangladesh and Nepal. EDGE ensures that girls from marginalised communities can make educated decisions in order to better contribute to the betterment of their society. Kate enthusiastically tells me that as a woman and the mother of a daughter, these opportunities for women and girls is one of the most important contributions the British Council can make to developing countries.
Yet challenges facing the British Council’s work are paramount in today’s turbulent climate of war and prejudice. The safety and security of staff in warzones, Kate tells me, is the British Council’s primary concern. Once people are protected, culture must be preserved as well. ‘When a country’s people are being destroyed, their culture is being destroyed too.’ Kate is proud to have overseen the profiling of Ukrainian arts and culture in the UK, and tells me that through the British Council’s management of the UK’s Cultural Protection Fund, a similar agenda is underway to protect Palestinian cultural assets once the brunt of conflict is over. “People want a sense of optimism and opportunity. We have to think of ways in which the British Council can support the rebuilding of countries and enable staff to continue working so they can feel that they are making a contribution to what is happening around them.”
I was curious how the expansive communities created by the British Council counter the racial prejudice that still exists in our societies. Kate is adamant that liberal middle-class bubbles often don’t want to acknowledge that racial prejudice still exists. Her solution is to ask questions. Learning to listen and acknowledge instead of placing people in judgemental binaries helps spread progressive ideas. She says this becomes more difficult as now “there’s nothing in the middle. There’s no nuance, only binary choices. My experience is that you have to ask questions.” Simple questions such as “what do you mean by that?” Or “what’s underneath that statement you’ve just made” allow people to challenge assumptions without creating hostile binaries. Simple acknowledgements make a world of difference.
My final question to Kate is what advice she has for students who seek to expand their communities within the constraints of a ‘conventional’ working life. She says to seize any opportunities you have to learn a language. “Having a language under your belt makes you stand out from other people. I’m also a great advocate for travel, earning money wherever you can and exploring the world.” Even though the divide between those with and without parental resources is increasingly larger, find ways to travel cheaply. “Don’t be in such a hurry. Explore before settling down. Enjoy the world.”