“PORTUGAL has tremendous potential. The question is: can its people realise that potential?” asks Rosemary Hilhorst OBE, the current British Council director, who has been working for the worldwide educational organisation since 1986.
Hilhorst, who is also a physicist, believes that the Portuguese need to learn to be competitive in today’s modern world, especially now that the country’s traditional textile industries are up against cheaper labour forces in India and China. “It’s tough when contracts go to other countries or even when your own service industries choose to locate service and call centres in countries like India,” she said.
The physicist believes that investing in education is crucial for Portugal’s success and is glad that the British Council here can play a vital role in teaching young people the English language, necessary to do business abroad. “I have met exceptionally talented young people. Now they have access to educational opportunities and work placements, and are prepared to work hard from college and university onwards,” she continued.
Hilhorst has made it to the top through dogged determination, hard work and sheer creativity. During her time in the British Council, she has travelled the world and worked in extremely challenging environments, such as war-torn Sudan and developing Tanzania. “The Sudan was, and continues to be, an extremely poor country, faced with enormous problems and is often ignored by the rest of the world,” Hilhorst said.
She was in Sudan in the mid-eighties (when there was a veneer of democracy before the fundamentalist government took charge), taking her first overseas posting as a deputy director of technical education. “The civil war in the south was going on, yet the country was almost being totally ignored by the world’s media,” she recalled. Nevertheless, in a country with spectacular desert scenery, she took pleasure in taking her then young children out camping.
Living and working in Tanzania was another challenge, but for different reasons. “I’d already had a spell in Tanzania, in Dar es salaam, for two years in the early 1980s and was to go back in 1997 until 2000 as a British Council director. It was interesting to see how the country had changed during that time, as it opened up to increased trade with its larger neighbour South Africa.” In Tanzania, she was involved in various development and educational projects for the UK’s Department of International Development.
Hilhorst also set up a new British Council operation in Bratislava, Slovakia, which she ran between 1991 and 1994. “We found a building that took us a while to refurbish, but we got it up and running in a year,” recalled Hilhorst. The British government funded the project and an architect based in Bratislava had been identified. “Three of us ran the project and we had to keep a strict eye on the budget. I learnt a lot about how one sets up something like that, from start to finish,” she remembered.
But it was Hilhorst’s work on the Connecting Futures Project that proved the most challenging of all and eventually paved the way for her being awarded an OBE in 2003. The initiative was in response to the tragic events of 9/11. The project, which continues today, began with a team of three people, including Hilhorst, and was aimed at promoting dialogue and understanding between young Muslims and non-Muslims in the UK and other countries.
“After September 11, there was a degree of concern about the way young Muslim people perceived the West and were perceived by the West,” she explained. There was a general anger and lack of understanding on both sides of the cultural divide and the British Council discussed what could be done to help rebuild relationships. “The British Council didn’t, originally, have a well-defined and clear-cut blueprint for the project, but I was given the task of putting together a team of full-time and part-time helpers,” she recalled. “We started developing activities and networks, which culminated in a conference, in February 2002, that brought young people from the UK and Arab countries together,” she said.
Today, the project that was fronted by Hilhorst has proved enormously successful in fostering Arab-UK understanding, through cultural, media and arts projects, workshops and activities. It has provided a platform for open dialogue on seemingly intractable cultural, social and political questions. Chris Graeme