World culture

[OPINION] British Council at 45: Celebrating cultural relations, but why and for whom?

Lotus Postrado
[OPINION] British Council at 45: Celebrating cultural relations, but why and for whom?

Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

'Differences, complexities, diversity, and the multipolar aspects of our world are to be celebrated, not feared'

From taxi drivers and immigration officers to my friendly neighbors and family, the work of the British Council still takes some explaining. 

The organization I have come to love is celebrating its 45th year this 2023, but cultural relations is still a concept difficult for many to understand. Its definition is as complex as the field itself, and so, when I talk to people, I try to veer away from the technicalities and instead tell stories – examples of how we’ve worked in the country, and its impact on people’s lives, including my own.

For almost five decades, the organization has established itself in the Philippines as the leader in international education and cultural relations. From its humble beginnings in the 1980s with the British Council Library in New Manila, the organization has transformed alongside technology and the needs of the people that it promised to support. In the ’90s, we opened our Information Center; in the early 2000s, a Knowledge Learning Center in the then developing Ortigas; by 2010, an IELTS Learning Resource; and now, in the 2020s, providing online resources accessible for Filipinos anywhere, any time. One of the main facets of cultural relations is knowledge sharing, and through the years, we remained a reliable source of cutting-edge information for both UK and Filipino audiences. We continue to explore and expand where we can bring impact – from market insights for international education to the UK’s vibrant arts and creative industries, and all matters that can further strengthen the UK-Filipino linkages. 

Our work has continuously empowered individuals by providing life-changing study, career advancement, and job opportunities and our stats speak for themselves. Over half a million people realize their dreams through our English assessment exams. Over 300 UK and Philippine institutions benefit hundreds of researchers, academics, artists, culture workers, and civil society groups. Our work has made major contributions to the Transnational Higher Education Act of 2019 and the Philippine Creative Industries Act of 2022. Just this 2022, we have reached over a million people, through activities and online engagements, and this continues to rise every year.

But behind all these numbers are the stories and lives of Filipinos whom we have touched through our work. From encountering people who spent hours in our libraries, to meeting thriving scholars and grantees whom we have worked with, these anecdotes capture the essence of what we do.

My journey within the organization mirrors that of so many – a process of discovering my identity and potential through the challenges and opportunities offered by engaging with different cultures and values. For 15 years, I have worked in different organizations: from NGOs, government, regional, private, and now, an international entity. My path did not make much sense back then, but reflecting on it, I can now identify a common thread that runs through it all: a passion to introduce much-needed change that opens and creates opportunities for others. I believe I came to this field because cultural relation is exactly what I experienced; a celebration of diversity that brings out the best in you.

As the first Filipina to become the British Council Country Director, I am in a leadership role right at the dynamic intersection between the UK and Filipino cultures. Unlike my predecessors, I am privileged to hold both in-depth knowledge of the UK and an intrinsic familiarity and local insights into my beloved Philippines, its people, and culture. That understanding is what I draw on when I lead my team, ensuring our work generates meaningful and impactful engagements between the UK and the Philippines. Pioneering change is at the heart of what we do, and it is a source of great pride that I can, with my wonderful team, create more spaces for connections, opportunities, and creativity.

There are many moving pieces and complex systems when it comes to cultural relations, but at the end of the day, it’s truly just about learning from each other, understanding differences, and working together for the benefit of the future generation. It is a testament that being different from one another should not divide us; all the more, it is our differences that broaden our perspective and help us bring significant change for a better future.

Differences, complexities, diversity, and the multipolar aspects of our world are to be celebrated, not feared. Through working inter-culturally, we can create our powerful narratives in life where friction, struggle, insecurity, and otherness act as a catalyst for social and cultural change, integration and re-shaping of relationships to create purposeful transformation in ourselves and others. 

So, for whom are cultural relations? It is for us, our future, and the brighter days ahead. As for the British Council, we have witnessed how it has brought a change in the past 45 years, and we are committed to continue working through the years to bring out the best for the UK and the Philippines. I sincerely thank those who have joined us at different stages of this wonderful journey and for making this 45th year such a proud and joyous one. Here’s to celebrating diversity and the years to come! –

Lotus Postrado is the first Filipina Country Director of the British Council in the Philippines. 

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