The UK and US are investing in Egyptians' English language skills to foster greater engagement with the west, but are the limited reach of these schemes undermining their value? Jack Shenker reports from Cairo
-Taken from 'The Guardian Weekly'
-Cairo - May 2009 (originally published in April)
Sean Keegan remembers with a faint sense of horror the moment when he was asked what the word for ‘Sphinx’ was in Arabic. In front of a live studio audience, with the clock ticking, he tentatively ventured the only answer that came into his head: “Ahmed”. His inquisitors burst into laughter; the whole exchange will shortly be broadcast across Egypt on national radio, part of a programme which draws over a million listeners a month.
But why is a mild-mannered Englishman from the BBC taking part in quizzes on the largest state radio network in the Arab World? For Keegan, editor of the BBC World Service’s Islamic World Team and producer of BBCe!, an hour-long weekly show aimed at improving the English skills of 16-35 year olds and carried by two major Egyptian stations, the answer is straightforward. “Cultural dialogue brings credit and value back to Britain,” he says. “Probably in an immeasurable way, but it’s preferable to the other extreme, which is keeping ourselves to ourselves.”
Keegan’s perspective is shared by policy-makers in London and Washington and a growing army of administrators responsible for rolling out state-sponsored ELT initiatives in Egypt, all designed to bring tangible benefits back to the countries funding them. Some feel uncomfortable with the label ‘cultural diplomacy’; others put terms like ‘Western values’ and ‘hearts and minds’ at the centre of their work. But although the explicitness of their aims may vary, the overall trend is clear. From teacher-training programmes in the Nile Delta to English tuition classes in the poverty-stricken villages of Upper Egypt and the opening of language centres at the heart of Al-Azhar University, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Islamic world, Egypt is awash with vibrant and often competitive schemes – many paid for by British and American taxpayers – to increase and improve the learning of English as a second language.
The man overseeing the US State Department’s Access Programme in Egypt since its inception two years ago knows that explaining to Americans why they are funding English teaching for underprivileged children in the southern city of Asyut, to the tune of $2,000 per student, isn’t always easy. “There are Americans who would say, ‘why?’ Especially at a time like this,” acknowledges the official, who prefers not to be named. “But it does do a lot of good. A lot of people in America don’t think about how people’s views and feelings about the United States in other parts of the world impacts on them.” The problem is that ‘good’ is hard to quantify, a point made by sceptics who doubt the current crop of English Language Teaching (ELT) schemes in Egypt will produce any lasting gains for funders or students.
One of the difficulties ELT providers face is the limited scope of their programmes. In its first wave 182 Egyptian teenagers have graduated from the Access scheme, a drop in the ocean in a population of 80 million. Apart from a limited scholarship programme in the US for a small fraction of the intake, no follow-up ELT schemes are planned for students attending the course. For David Wilmsen, a Professor at the American University in Beirut who was formerly involved in the distribution of US-funded ELT contracts in Cairo, the narrow reach of Access points at a wider flaw at the heart of state-sponsored English teaching. “The major impression I came away with was that they throw a lot of money at these programmes and when the money dries up, so does the programme and the benefit that anybody may have gathered from it,” he argues. “It’s the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism; you’re just looking at the next quarter, not the long-term.” The US embassy official rejects that criticism, claiming that it is ultimately the Egyptian Ministry of Education which is responsible for teaching English at a mass level. “In what rational world is the fact that there are only 200-odd students on our scheme an argument for not carrying out that scheme at all?” he asks.
Across the Nile at the British Council, talk of using ELT as a public diplomacy tool is studiously avoided. “It’s not about selling Britain, or trying to better one’s own interests,” insists Paul Smith, director of the council in Egypt, where it has had a presence longer than anywhere else. “We’re living in a world in which culture has moved to the centre of things in people’s minds, and politics itself has become almost a subset of culture – the things that really animate people today are confusions and uncertainties about other people’s ways of living,” he explains. “Politics is merely an expression of concern about those questions of identity, and so the idea of creating cultural understanding has gone from the namby-pamby to being at the heart of security.” Hence ELT training – which the British Council largely funds by charging students for courses, although there are outreach teacher-training programmes in the Nile Delta paid for partially by the British government – is conceived of as a means of enabling Egyptians to partake in that cultural debate, a debate in which English is the lingua franca.
Framing state-sponsored ELT schemes in these terms hasn’t shielded the British from local backlashes. The opening of a teacher training centre by the council in the medieval institution of Al Azhar produced a raft of negative headlines, despite the fact that the centre was launched at the request of the Grand Sheikh himself. “I think certain responses are unavoidable,” says Keegan, who has also encountered hostility to Britain’s ‘state media’ having a presence on the Egyptian airwaves. “Some here are very suspicious of us; they fear ulterior motives and say ‘what is your government trying to do?’” He believes that although there are differences between the way in which American and British-led ELT programmes in Egypt tend to operate, the contrast in style when it comes to talking about the aims behind the programmes owe more to historical context than to fundamentally conflicting policy goals. “Britain has an imperial past of which at various times it’s uncomfortable with, and unlike with the Americans perhaps there is a reticence about this past that which leads us to steer clear of ‘cultural imperialism’,” he observes.
With demand for English teaching rocketing in Egypt – the British Council already educates over 20,000 a year at its main teaching centre and holds another 2,000 on waiting lists – the market for state-funded ELT initiatives, and their potential to be used as a form of ‘puppet diplomacy’, is only set to grow. And judging from the latest reactions, there is little doubt they will continue to prove divisive. A recent article in the New York Times about the US-funded Access scheme provoked a withering response from the local blogosphere after quoting a 15 year old alumnus of the scheme as saying Access had taught her to respect differences. “There’s nothing wrong necessarily with the idea of ELT as some sort of political tool,” says Wilmsen. “But this idea that you can come in and teach critical thinking, bound up with all this ‘changing hearts and minds’ jargon - who says it’s going to do any good? Who says that teaching Egyptians to think critically is going to change their attitudes towards, say, Israel or America?”
The US Embassy official in charge of the Access programme is himself aware of the potential for disagreement with those he is educating, but relishes that challenge. “We can’t teach critical thinking without living with a little dissent,” he concludes. “We’re giving them a tongue to talk back to us, and it’s a bold thing to do.”