Looking back at nearly 25 years since her first steps past the doors of the small Hanoi office of the British Council in Vietnam in 1994, Cao Thi Ngoc Bao cannot believe she has come such a long way. Now Director of Business Transition at the British Council, Bao has grown up with the organisation and remains committed to its humanitarian values and to make positive contributions to its collaboration project.
Setting foot in a “global family”
In the 1990s when Vietnam started to open its doors to the world, Cao Thi Ngoc Bao knew she had an aptitude for and loved the English language. Despite having passed the exam to a ‘Block A’ college, she was determined to sign up for an in-service higher training course for English teachers at Hanoi National University of Education. At college, she took every opportunity to practice English: “I was working part-time at galleries, travel agencies, and Quoc Hoa Hotel in Bat Dan Street, where I met many international guests. I realised over time that progressive people wanted to contribute to society and move up.”
Having graduated in 1994, Bao told herself that she would work for a foreign organisation, without even knowing how one functioned. The British Council was just in the country for less than half a year and was struggling to find the employees that met its standards. Bao filed her application, passed the interview round and was accepted. “When I was taken in, we had only four people on the staff, including just one Vietnamese national, working in a small room and a modest information desk about the UK at No. 1 Ba Trieu Street Building” she said.
The British Council office moved to Cao Ba Quat Street in 1996. In the farewell party for the outgoing first country director, everyone wondered ‘what will the British Council become a few decades from now and what will happen to us’ she recalls. Bao knew she would be working at the British Council until she retired.
In 2018, Bao – now Director of Business Transition at the British Council Vietnam – can confirm: “I almost didn’t notice that I have been with the British Council for 25 years now. Everyone asked me why I was at a same place that long. Wouldn’t that erode my skills and knowledge? I didn’t think so, because every day is different. I have been trusted with new projects, listened to, able to raise new ideas and explore new perspectives in what I’m doing.”
By 2018, the British Council in Vietnam has built up a 270-strong staff, nothing short of a miracle from just four members those years ago.
Throughout the programmes and projects she was part of, Bao realises the British Council has unique values that have kept her around for the past 25 years.
Five core common values: The five values the British Council has upheld include professionalism, creativity, valuing people, integrity and mutuality. These five values have been richly reflected in all British Council programmes as well as internally across the organisation, as employees are given the opportunities to grow and nurture those values.
Leading the way: The British Council pioneers exploring unchartered territories, including introduction of the social enterprise, global citizen, innovative industry and cultural industry concepts in Vietnam.
Sustainable and cross-cutting: The British Council supports Vietnam’s priorities, while also highlighting UK achievements in the best way possible and leaving solid platforms for its partners to build on for long-term benefits. While programmes and projects may vary, beneficiaries are consistently maintained. For youth, for example, the British Council has programmes for capacity building, training, governance, personal development, media and communication, social enterprise and innovative industry. For teachers and researchers, available initiatives include exchanges and partnerships between institutions, the Exchange Programme research facility, High Education Links and Newton Fund.
Connectivity for mutual benefits: The British Council works as an interface between different organisations, from government agencies, non-government organisations and various groups from Vietnam, the UK and other countries. Engagement, sharing, connection and contribution from diverse groups are constantly encouraged. To this end, the benefits of British Council programmes are inclusive, covering not just a particular group of beneficiaries.
Trust: Once trust has been built with a Vietnamese partner, the British Council will receive strong support, respect and assistance. This comes from the passion and professionalism of staff and the organisation’s transparency through its commitments to actions for mutual benefits. It is common with the British Council that its programmes are often not well funded, thus successful implementation requires commitment and resource sharing between different parties. Trust and shared responsibilities between partners are of utmost importance.
Equality, diversity and inclusiveness: The British Council integrates and encourages equal engagement from different genders and involvement from vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities, indigenous groups and LGBT groups in programmes. It opens opportunities for people and believes everyone has their own potentials and that with the desire, resolve and the right circumstances, they will shine brightly.
The environment factor: The programmes encourage good treatment of the environment and mitigation of damaging effects.
Listening to demand: Most British Council programmes are built on a need-based harmony that requires respect for diverse views and long-term bonds with partners to maximise mutual benefits without following a stereotype approach.
Improved sustainability: The British Council’s wish is that outcomes and achievements of programmes are sustained and developed among individuals and entities benefiting from the projects. It has been very successful in realising such expectations.
In the ‘ecosystem’ of the global family
Bao also shared internally within the British Council, good values were made visible since inception until now. She said the British Council is like a global family.
Be open, listen and respect: The early days of a foreign organisation in Vietnam were far different from now. Few people knew about Vietnam and vice versa. It was lucky there was a culture of openness for both sides to share and listen. The UK has strengths on regulatory and system building, while Vietnam is highly adaptable. Vietnamese national employees have to take on roles of ambassadors: to help Vietnam understand the values imported from the UK and create benefits for both sides. These ambassadorial roles have and are being played well, due to the balance of values between the two countries. That balance is, in turn, created by many different factors, such as the eagerness to learn by staff, understanding, dynamics and respect for personal values of leaders. But above all, as everybody is operating in a same open, trusting and straightforward environment, they all can achieve good results in what they do.
Support from the global family: For example, when I work in one line of business, there are other colleagues also working on that line of business in other countries, like programmes on the youth or social enterprise programme. I meet different people and learn. I find that in multilateral relationships, knowledge does not just come from Vietnam or the UK, but from diverse countries. When I face challenges in programme implementation, I can call for help from the region or around the world.
Empowerment: As a global organisation, the British Council has sharpened its strategic vision, through which it empowers its local staff in Vietnam to adapt such vision to the actual local context for the best interests of Vietnam and the UK.
Contribution: I work not just because I have responsibilities in what I do, but I am happy to be able to do it and contribute. Sometimes, I worked almost around the clock or went on survey missions for a month for the VTTN programme (Vietnam English Teacher and Trainer Network – an initiative to improve the quality of English teaching in Vietnamese middle schools by the British Council and Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training), where I was in a different province each day. But I was not tired. All I wanted was for the surveys to provide the most unbiased findings to engage as many teachers in the programme as possible.
Balance in work and life: A unique feature of the British Council, perhaps a key element that keeps her in the organisation is how everybody respects one another’s personal inclinations, lifestyles and views, which provides a platform for harmony and helps every individual to find a balance between the needs for entertainment and enjoying life with work, despite the massive pressure and volume of work involved.
Owing to the humanitarian values that have been created, maintained and developed over the past 25 years, Cao Thi Ngoc Bao and her colleagues at the British Council have achieved positive changes. They are encouraged to learn new things, grow up every day and have opportunities to contribute to social well-being. “I am proud of such developments,” Bao said, with bright eyes. Naturally, she and other staff members of the British Council in Vietnam are a source of inspiration that imbues all its programmes and projects, in its family and community.
“With the British Council, I witnessed the increasing advancement and opening up of society.”