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‘We are going around the world, building friendships and trust’: Scott McDonald

The Chief Executive, British Council, on his India visit, speaks about forging connections, having a 100-country network across the globe and what it means to have a Prime Minister in Rishi Sunak

Scott McDonald, Scott McDonald british councilIndia has, sort of, moved from this status of trying to learn and getting best practices to becoming very confident, said Scott McDonald. (Photo: PR handout)

The British Council celebrates “India/UK Together, a Season of Culture” this year to mark the 75th year of India’s independence. This partnership extends to culture and the arts in a refreshing new way, with a focus on education, digital innovation, science, and literature. We speak to Scott McDonald, Chief Executive, British Council, to understand how their experiences on the ground inform their programmes and why building connections matters. Excerpts:

What is the role of culture in a pandemic? How does it play out for the British Council?

Our job is to build connections, understanding and trust between the people in the UK and the people in the rest of the world. That’s why we exist. We have three tools to do that. Generally, arts and culture is one, education is the other and the English language is a third. But let’s just talk about the arts and culture bit for now. We connect professionals, organisations, initiatives, and projects in the UK with projects in the rest of the world. This enables people to have discussions and open conversations, quite subtle at times, behind the scenes, like when you show a movie or read a book. I think it enables you to share your values and beliefs and enables you to hear the ideas on the other side. And by that, you challenge yourself and come away with a slightly different perspective on the world.

Could you tell us about the journey of the ‘Vaccines Injecting Hope’ exhibition, which is currently showing at the National Museum in Delhi? Will it travel across India?

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This exhibition had all sorts of wonderful things that came out of it because that’s a science piece of work. But we’ve linked art into it to show how you can communicate science through art. For instance, the story of the three Mysore princesses painting (an oil painting of Mysore royalty that shows one of the ladies baring their left arm as a salute to inoculation) is just amazing, it’s almost 200 years old. Art makes the whole (science) thing more human. When culture is linked to science, you often come up with a better solution.

Scott McDonald, Chief Executive, British Council, at the VIH mobile showcase. (Photo: PR handout)

In a polarised world, often fraught with complexities like in Israel and the West Bank, for instance, how do you work in such situations?

We run arts programmes in many such territories. But almost everywhere, there are two sets of people. There are about 10 per cent of the people, on both sides, who unfortunately dominate most of social media. But when we actually go out and talk to people, we see that more than 80 per cent are in the middle. They essentially want to make improvements and work together. We try not to get caught up in the skirmishes at the end. We keep the focus on art and getting people educated.


But often it’s never a bilateral way to see the world, is there? It’s usually quite unilateral.

I don’t want to use the word bilateral. I think we’re incredibly sensitive to this at the British Council. We have a long and often complex history with the countries we work in. And there are lots of sensitive things around those relationships. So, we really have to work hard to show that we’re not just here working to benefit the UK, we’re here to benefit us both.

Since the method of education is very different in the UK, as compared to other countries that you work in, even in India, how do you plug in?


What we try to do in the countries we work in is to understand what are the education challenges you have. We work in nearly 100 countries, and our education experts get to see 100 examples of how people are developing an education. We’re learning from all 100 of those systems. We see what works and what doesn’t in various spots.

Scott McDonald, Chief Executive, at British Council Delhi office. (Photo: PR handout)

You’ve travelled to India before as well. How have you seen the socio-political landscape changing?

India is so large and sprawling and diverse, it’s sometimes hard to put a finger on exactly what is changing. But India has sort of moved from this status of trying to learn and getting best practices to becoming very confident. It’s basically saying, we actually have best practices so we can learn and partner, we also have a lot to teach, and a lot of strengths. And I think India is very much on that journey.

My last question is about your impressions of the new PM (Rishi Sunak).

For those of us living in the UK, it looks like we have a bit more stability for the moment. It’s very exciting and he being of Indian origin, it kind of reminds the whole world that we are also a really diverse country; we’re a mix of all things. It seems pretty hopeful.


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First published on: 29-11-2022 at 10:50 IST
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