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These articles, papers, and comments are about Vietnam, its people, its culture, and its economy.

June 2, 2021

Two Lessons I learned from Nelson Mandela

I once had the privilege and pleasure to sit beside the late President Nelson Mandela for over two hours.

Around noon on the day, the presidential entourage arrived at the lunch venue and was duly met by the official greeting party. Official handshakes all round. As Mandela turned to walk into the hotel he spied three youngsters standing to one side of the hotel entrance and asked: “Who are they?”

I replied that they were my children. I had arranged for my three young children to stand in a place where they could see him arrive – but be out of the way. Clearly my ‘out of the way’ was not out of Mandela’s eyesight! 

He walked over to them, much to the consternation of his security detachment! Shaking each by the hand the President asked their names, were they in school, and advised them to study hard. Each of my children remembers that day, the occasion etched in their memories.

Then we walked into the hotel. Every hotel employee along the walk was greeted. Hotel security staff. Cleaners. All received the same smile and personal hello. Finally, into the hall where hundreds of guests were seated at tables for lunch, rose to applaud his entry. He greeted each VIP guest seated at the high table in turn.

During the lunch, despite the strenuous efforts of security to keep them away, there seemed to be a constant stream of people sneaking up to the high table to say hello or to ask for his autograph on his book or their menu. Each was graciously received and walked away clutching his signature.

Egalitarianism at work. Everyone was treated equally. Whether he spoke to them for just a few seconds or for longer, each person was the only person in Mandela’s world for that brief period of time. Direct eye contact. A smile and greeting. Maids and ambassadors (and my young children) all treated alike – with warmth and dignity as if it were his honour to meet them.

As lunch was ending, I rose to give a brief speech of introduction to the great man – speaking over the background noise as lunch plates were being cleared and coffee being served. He then rose to give his address. But before he opened the leather cover that contained his prepared speech, he turned towards the high table to thank me for the words of introduction and commenced speaking in direct response to something I had said – including that well-known story about being given his own coffee cup on his first day of his new job – later learning the reason why he was the only person in the company to have his own coffee cup!

He must have spoken for about 10 minutes. During which the room was silent. Even the waiters and waitresses, who surely could not understand a word, not just because their English might not be up to scratch but even for the best of English speakers Mandela’s accent required us to listen carefully. 

Not a plate was moved. 

Not a cup placed on its saucer.

Nor a coffee poured. 

Everyone was listening to the great man speak.

Finally, he turned to the prepared address. At that point I noticed that the wait staff started to move once more. The service staff once again set about their duties.

Afterwards, when I discussed this observation with my Thai colleagues they explained. Thais understand ‘heart’ (indeed there are hundreds of words and phrases in the Thai language using the word ‘heart’). When he was talking at the start they could feel this was a great man speaking. From the heart. His own words. And they needed to pay him respect. Then, when he turned to the speech they could sense this was not him speaking any more. These were someone else’s words. They no longer needed to show respect.

I was reminded of this lesson when years later a colleague returned from a function where our CEO had given a speech that had been written for him by the same colleague. I asked how the speech had gone. “Quite well,” came the reply, “He read it as if he meant it.” I wondered if the waiters at that lunch had stopped while he was reading the speech.

Authenticity. People can sense when what you say is from your heart.

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February 16, 2021

Let’s make all kids wag school!

Is it time to stop tinkering and introduce radical changes to our education system?

Einstein may not have actually said it but surely we can all agree that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different result?

Reports today reveal that the Ministry of Education has called in the Royal Society to stop the rapid decline in student maths scores. Yet the same article reports on a young lass who is now more confident in mathematics as she has started to attend Numberworks – a private tutoring service that is growing. Why?

In Kate Newton’s article “Marked Absent: The attendance freefall in New Zealand’s schools” she presents data that should shock all New Zealanders. The charts show a persistent decline over the past decade but the number of absentees in 2011 should surely have required urgent addressing: only 70% of year 9 students attending classes regularly was not a call for immediate action then?

She reports that Education Minister Chris Hipkins is at a loss to explain it. “It’s really difficult to know why … We just know that attendance has been falling.” Can’t really blame him when his Ministry provides him a briefing paper which doesn’t include one mention of the subject.

Dr. Simon Smelt, in a response to her article writes: “Schools are increasingly failing to retain students during compulsory education ages – we need to know why.”

Duh!

The late Sir Ken Robinson speaking in October 2010 pointed to a probable explanation.

“Our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth. They are being besieged with information and calls for their attention from every platform; computers, from iPhones, from advertising hoardings, from hundreds of television channels and we are penalising them now from getting distracted from what? Boring stuff at school – for the most part.”

It doesn’t take a genius to point out that in the decade since then the ‘calls for their attention’ has multiplied – there was no TikTok, no Snapchat, nor Instagram when he spoke.

Maybe we should encourage more kids to wag – but under supervision? 

In a George Monbiot article “Rewild the Child” he reports that “King’s College London found that children who spend time learning in natural environments perform better in reading, mathematics, science and social studies.” Exploring the natural world makes other school subjects rich and relevant and gets apathetic students excited about learning.

Studies of the programmes run by the Wilderness Foundation UK, which takes troubled teenagers into the mountains, found that their self-control, self-awareness and behaviour all improved. 

Ofsted, the UK schools inspection service, reports that getting children out of the classroom raises “standards, motivation, personal development and behaviour.”

New Zealand is an ideal place to encourage outdoor activities away from ‘boring school stuff’. Let’s not hear all the reasons why not and all the difficulties that such activities might impose. 

Where’s the first maths teacher who will announce to her or his class “We are all going to wag this lesson” and instead take his class to the nearest park and give students an interesting assignment like “Who can find a great example of the Fibonacci series for me?” 

If we spent more time making learning attractive and fun, appealing to the natural curiosity and creativity of our children, we might not only reduce wagging but also produce more school-leavers who can contribute – and then, possibly, we wouldn’t have to finance the New Zealand Now efforts trying to attract immigrants with skills necessary for our economy.

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Out of sight, out of mind?

An ad on TV urges Kiwis to say goodbye to oil by changing to electric vehicles and machinery.

Emotive stuff. A spokesperson for the advertiser says: “We don’t need to be importing and burning fossil fuels for transport when we have better, healthier and cheaper options.”

Hmmm, healthier – for whom? I wonder how electric car owners feel when they see this picture?

Picture: Congolese kids picking up Cobalt mud.

There is a dark side to modern technology: cool smartphones; flat-screen TVs; laptops and notepads; and the network, built upon millions of hard disk drives scattered around the world, which allows us to surf the web, work in the cloud, stream movies and have visual calls and meetings. We do our bit to reduce CO2 emissions – so, we replace our energy-inefficient incandescent light bulbs with low energy LEDs. Energy companies promote renewable energy increasingly powered by wind farms.

But what do we know about the materials needed to drive these innovations?

An environmental reporter once asked: “what links the battery in your smartphone with a dead yak floating down a Tibetan river?” The answer is Lithium. The mining of Lithium in many countries as far afield as China and Bolivia is causing damage to local environments, particularly water sources.

Cobalt is a key metal in modern batteries, especially those used for electric cars and wind turbines. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home of more than 50% of the world’s cobalt – child labour is widespread. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Tesla and Dell are named in a US lawsuit brought by families of children killed or injured while mining in the DRC.

Few will know what Rare Earth Elements (REE) are. Although labelled rare they are not especially so in nature. The 17 elements go by some very unfamiliar names such as Scandium, Lanthanum, Neodymium and Ytterbium but they underpin modern technology – including wind turbines, hybrid and electric cars, computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, lasers and high performance magnets.

The chemical properties of the REE make them difficult to separate from surrounding materials and from one another. These qualities also make them difficult to purify. Current separation methods generate a great deal of harmful waste to extract just small amounts of REE from the ore. Waste from the processing methods includes radioactive water, toxic fluorine, and several acids.

Picture: Toxic slurry being pumped into a REE tailings dam in China

Improper management of mining waste (tailings) can lead to many types of disaster to the local environment. If a dam is not constructed properly there can be runoff poisoning the local water supply. Poorly-built tailings dams collapse from time to time releasing their toxic waste – killing people and submerging villages and farmland.

Picture: Mud released by a failed tailings dam in Brazil. 270 people died.

Residents are seen in an area next to a dam owned by Brazilian miner Vale SA that burst, in Brumadinho, Brazil January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Washington Alves – RC1A8C3B5800

The mining industry consists of several western giant multinationals (Glencore, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Anglo American) and a multitude of smaller local entities. The mining community has been making efforts to clean up their act. The Responsible Minerals Initiative has 380 participants, yet the industry is still plagued by major disasters (including in mines belonging to some of the world’s largest mining companies) and face accusations of ‘greenwashing’ – selectively reporting their progress on sustainability.

The most recent mining disaster is Rio Tinto’s destruction of 46,000 year old sacred aboriginal sites in Western Australia. An Australian government report concludes:

“The events immediately preceding the destruction of the rock shelters also reveal Rio Tinto’s legalistic approach to heritage protection, including a self-interested reliance on outdated laws and unfair agreements containing gag clauses prohibiting PKKP from critiquing the operations of the company and restricting their rights to access state and federal heritage protections without first obtaining the company’s consent.”

As we all seek to reduce our environmental footprint we need to be aware of the system impact of our actions. We may feel happy with our new electric car – but are we happy that villagers in China suffer from skin sores and lesions caused by REE-tailings water contaminating their water supply – or that Congolese kids are missing out on education digging up cobalt to help power their batteries?

We don’t need to stop technological progress but we can take steps to get companies to clean up their act. Let companies know that we care and keep pressure on them to be transparent about their supply chains – are these as sustainable as they claim their end-products to be?

Second – recycle. Switzerland’s e-waste recycling system is a model for the world – how are we doing here? The issue facing recycling of e-waste should provide enough fodder for hundreds of university research projects – not to mention chemists exploring green chemistry solutions to mineral extraction. What did you do with your old phone?

Last, we can support the international NGOs such as International Rights Advocates, Earthjustice, and Greenpeace, often working with UN organisations as well as local action groups, to force mining companies to literally ‘clean up their act’ and take greater care of the environments and the people where they mine.

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July 21, 2018

Something everyone should read

I think her idea is a great one – maybe the world should explore making this compulsory for all school-leavers …

“One idea would be a public service program that would encourage or require young Americans to spend a year after high school in another community, far from their own, not “helping” members of another group but interacting with people with whom they would normally never cross paths, ideally working together toward a common end.”

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2018-06-14/tribal-world

October 19, 2016

Education For The Next Economy – a personal view

The challenges faced by business and society in the rapidly-changing 21st century require skills and capabilities that our education system, essentially fit-for-purpose in the 19th Century, struggles to provide. In this brief paper, presented at the Rotterdam TED-Rotterdam Clean Tech Delta forum on October 5th, Ron sets out a personal vision of how a business school might be restructured to provide graduates who will be better able to meet these challenges but also capable of continually retraining managers.

To download the paper, click here.

Education for the next economy.