Abandoned in Gaza?


The publication of HPG’s new report Sanctuary in the city: urban displacement and vulnerability in the Gaza Strip coincides with the immediate aftermath of the Israeli military operation Pillar of Defence. The operation saw 450 homes destroyed or severely damaged; nearly 3,000 people are still displaced and living with host families.

When the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005, many humanitarians expected that displacement would diminish. This has been far from the case. Israel has expanded its ‘buffer’ zones along the border and military operations have continued. In 2008 Operation Cast Lead destroyed or damaged an estimated 58,400 homes and displaced 120,000 Palestinians. Meanwhile, the election of Hamas in 2006 prompted an Israeli and Egyptian blockade and caused major donors to implement a policy of diplomatic isolation.

Such measures have had a drastic impact on the lives and livelihoods of people in Gaza. Joblessness is common, public services are deteriorating and the physical environment is becoming increasingly degraded. GDP in the Gaza Strip in 2011 was lower than in 1994. High rates of unemployment mean that there is an attrition of skills and the population is becoming increasingly dependent on aid.

Poor Palestinians whose homes have been destroyed or damaged have few options but to wait for reconstruction housing built by the state or international actors such as the UN. While building materials enter the Strip through Hamas-sanctioned ‘black market’ tunnels, the UN and international NGOs are prevented from buying them by the isolationist policies of donors. This means that they must rely solely on coordinating imports of construction material with the Israeli authorities, which is time-consuming and costly. As a result, many Palestinians have spent years in limbo on UN-funded rental assistance. While rents have risen sharply in the last few years, these subsidies have not.

Large families are accommodated in small living spaces, whether in rental accommodation or hosted by relatives. As poverty in Gaza deepens, these overcrowded rooms are becoming pressure cookers of domestic stress and anxiety.

Palestinians who are displaced in Gaza can expect very little help from the three political actors with a role in preventing and addressing displacement. Although most international legal opinion maintains that the law of occupation imposes on Israel a number of duties to protect civilians and property in Gaza, Israel does not recognise these responsibilities. Since it lost control of the territory to Hamas in 2007, the Palestinian Authority retains very little capacity to influence policy on displacement in Gaza.

Lastly, this research suggests that Hamas’s support for the displaced is uneven, and often determined by political affiliation and wealth. (Hamas has also been undertaking forced evictions of people living on state-owned land, often without adequate concern for due process, consultation or compensation.) There is therefore huge pressure on the informal support of kin and local organisations, and international assistance assumes a large role in addressing both emergency and long-term needs.

The degree to which international organisations can work with the Hamas government to develop more constructive policies and stronger institutions is limited by the so-called ‘no-contact’ policies imposed by donor governments. The pitch is also queered by the ambiguous applicability of anti-terror legislation, under which organisations might incur criminal liability for humanitarian or development programmes that are deemed to ‘materially benefit’ the Hamas government.

After events such as Pillar of Defence the humanitarian community provides a good emergency response in Gaza, under difficult conditions. On an ongoing basis the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) provides basic services to approximately 70% of the population who are registered as refugees, and in times of crisis provides (relatively) safe haven and assistance to the population at large. But many agencies, especially large providers like UNRWA, are questioning how they can keep up with growing humanitarian needs in a formerly self-sufficient population, especially in a world with less appetite for either the financial cost of addressing the consequences of the conflict or the political price of tackling its root causes.

*‘Displacement and vulnerability in Gaza’ is the latest publication in a series of studies into urban displacement under the title Sanctuary in the City? Simone Haysom [2009] did an MPhil in Environment, Society and Development and is a research officer with the Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute. Picture credit: Journalist Mohsen and Creative Commons.


Vietnam’s technology revolution


Behind an unmarked door on the second floor of a new commercial park located just a few blocks north of the border from Ha Dong province is the Hanoi branch of VietGest, one of a thousand companies in Vietnam’s burgeoning software development industry. The small four-room office houses a young team of 15, average age 25.  The software developers enjoy air conditioning on full blast in their room. The support staff and junior software engineers make do with fans to stave off Hanoi’s sweltering heat.

VietGest is part of the rapidly growing USD $2.3 billion dollar software and digital content industry in Vietnam. According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communication, the industry has grown an average of 20-25% year over year since 2001.  As India grows wealthier, global companies have begun looking elsewhere for low-cost technology outsourcing opportunities.

NeoIT cites IT labour costs are 40% less expensive in Vietnam than in China and India. A.T. Kearney’s Global Services Location Index and KMPG Advisory predict Vietnam will be one of the next outsourcing hubs for software development.

The Vietnamese telecom giant FPT also dominates the global outsourcing provider market in Vietnam. Its outsourcing team of 3,800 brought in $62.5 million last year. Nguyen Thi Dan Phuong of FPT said: “Our market share is roughly 21% of Vietnamese outsourcing to global market.”

Growing technology industry

While FPT may cast a long shadow, a myriad of software companies of different sizes, histories, and target markets characterise the vibrancy of Vietnam’s growing technology industry.

VietGest represents a start-up.  Hoang Viet Tung, 30 years old, and Vu Minh Tuan, 28 years old, founded the company in 2010, when the pair returned home after studying abroad in Switzerland. VietGest specialises in serving French-speaking companies. Tuan runs the Hanoi office while Tung manages a team of 50 in Ho Chi Minh City.

After FPT, the second largest software outsourcing company based in Hanoi is VietSoftware International (VSII), which started as a subsidiary of VietSoftware, Inc. and spun off as its own company in 2006.  VSII is IBM’s biggest Offshore Delivery Centre (ODC) in Vietnam. The core team has been in outsourcing since 2000 and it has grown to 200 engineers. Like most other providers of global outsourcing, VSII executive leaders trained abroad.  CEO Le Xuan Hai, who co-founded VietSoftware, studied in Australia and worked in Germany while Director of Global Business Development Tran Luong Son earned his PhD in Russia and his Master’s in the US.

In terms of high tech development, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is to Hanoi what Silicon Valley is to Seattle. One of the industry’s pioneers is TMA, a privately held company based in HCMC with 1,200 engineers. TMA is among the small number of Vietnamese software companies with more than 1,000 employees. Bui Ngoc Anh, a rare female in a male-dominated world, started TMA in her living room with six engineers in 1997. Today, her husband, Nguyen Huu Le, runs the company. Le is a Vietnamese Australian with an Australian doctorate and 22 years of experience at Nortel. Le said TMA pulled in $22 million in 2012.

All three companies share a sense of national pride to prove through providing outsourcing to global clients that Vietnamese software engineers are among the best in the world.

Le said: “The vision of the founder was ‘To Be One of the Top Offshore Developers and help put Vietnam on the World Map of Offshore Development by Exemplary Quality and Customer Focus’.”

Regardless of company size, Vietnamese software companies that provide outsourcing face similar challenges. “First, competition with peers from other emerging countries, notably India,” said Tran Tai, a RMIT Vietnam lecturer. “Second, difficulty in recruiting enough IT talent to satisfy larger projects. Third, considering the shrinking margin, some firms are looking at developing their own IT products. However, sales and marketing is a key issue.”

Although English is widely studied, Vietnam lags far behind India in this area.

Le said: “Even though the level of verbal English communication of Vietnamese ICT engineers has improved significantly, there’s still a gap with the need of international business.”

Business management

Then there is learning the language of Western business management.

When TMA started in 1997, there were just a few Vietnamese software companies that specialised in outsourcing.  Le said one of TMA’s biggest challenges was “to build a company with Western management style in order to compete in the world market. Vietnam’s software industry at that time lacked experience in modern management practices and international business”.

Embracing Western leadership styles himself and in true Silicon Valley fashion, Le is dubbed “Chief Mentor” at TMA.

To better serve their foreign clients, Vietnamese software outsourcing providers strive to understand what their clients value and how they work and think.

In Asia, the belief “leaders are born” prevails while in the West, many assume “leaders can be made”.  To simulate some aspects of the work environment of their foreign clients, all three companies employ “soft skills” training. While “hard skills” means technical expertise, “soft skills” requires having Emotional Intelligence and knowing how to interact and build relationships with others. The concept of “soft skills” is still so foreign in the Vietnamese workplace that no Vietnamese name exists for it; the original English must be invoked.

Those with strong soft skills will be able to bring out the best thinking, creativity, and innovation in others.

Tuan said: “We are influenced by our Asian culture. We’re more careful, risk-averse. We’re not as flexible.” Acknowledging their cultural tendencies, VietGest takes extra conscientious efforts to train their staff.

On Saturdays, the VietGest employees participate in additional soft skills or non-technical training researched and organised by alternating team members. This way, more team members get opportunities to lead and VietGest does not need to hire outside resources.

VietGest has a unique policy of encouraging anyone who wants to be team leader to try it for a month and if the candidate and the team feel it’s a good fit, the candidate may remain in that role. Although several have tried, Tuan said: “No one has wanted to stay. But after the month, the person has greater empathy and appreciation for what it takes to manage a team.”

Talent pool

While the number of students choosing to study information computer technology has increased by 70% since 2006, the talent pool is still very limited. Companies must make cost-effective decisions in their recruiting strategy to remain competitive.

VietGest works with local universities to find interns from whom they will hire. Tuan said he prefers “fresh” engineers that he can train.

At VSII, Hai and Son said they like to hire engineers with at least a few years of experience who share their long-term vision of the company. VSII is competing for talent not just with local companies but with foreign giants in Vietnam.

Many of our engineers studied or worked abroad or worked for foreign companies here before coming to VSII. They are the future of the company,” said Son.

TMA has the most robust system for recruiting and training. Aside from hiring from interns, they have their own training centre, from which they recruit the best students to work for TMA.

Vietnamese companies that specialise in outsourcing have the added challenge of trying to get their employees to approach work like their foreign clients while incentivising and managing the team in ways that make sense to the Vietnamese.

Vietnamese culture puts a high value on community and family. VSII sponsors family trips and rents a two-storey room inside a multi-company office complex to serve as a cafeteria exclusively reserved for VSII employees.

Renting a separate cafeteria is a great expense, but it makes our employees feel special, valued, and respected,” said Hai. The room is decorated in bright citrus tones with plastic ivy hanging from the ceiling and a sign in English that reads “Have a Good Lunch”.

There are even gifts for the children of VSII employees. Whenever a VSII employee gives birth, she is presented with a silver spoon. In the Vietnamese context, the spoon is used for cạo gió or “spooning”, a form of Vietnamese folk medicine where repeated pressured strokes are applied with the smooth edge of a spoon or coin over skin lubricated with a medicinal oil.

When Vietnam first began outsourcing software development services, companies faced challenges building trust and brand recognition globally.

Improvements to Vietnam’s legal system in recent times mean foreign software developers can have greater level of confidence outsourcing to local developers provided they follow good business practices and ensure they localise their contracts suitably,” said Giles Cooper, a partner at the law firm Duane Morris Vietnam.

Le believes the biggest challenge that remains is still in winning new clients through marketing and sales. “Few companies have an overseas presence so sales and marketing activities mostly come from Vietnam, which is not very effective in attracting foreign clients,” he said. TMA has five overseas offices along with its six domestic sites.

Smaller companies are following suit. VietGest is about to expand its sales force in France to more than 20 people and they plan to open an office in the US in the future. They expect their company will grow by 120% next year.

Amid predictions Vietnam’s economic bubble will burst, companies in the outsourcing sector are confident they will not be hurt because “they rely on revenue from foreign clients and reinvestment, not heavy capital inflow”, said Tai.

If the promises for Vietnam’s outsourcing potential holds true, VietGest may find itself needing more office space soon.

*Julie Pham [2001] is a management consultant and did a PhD in History. This is an edited version of her article Vietnam’s Tech Industry Strives To Prove It’s A World-Class Hub Of Outsourcing Providers which was first published on www.forbes com. Picture credit: dream designs and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

Towards modern alchemy


Monday, October 8th 2012 could have been a morning like any other in the Gurdon lab, save for a few unique exceptions. To begin with, this was the first time my supervisor, Sir John Gurdon, had ever been late to one of our weekly lab meetings. John is ever punctual and almost never late for anything, nonetheless our own group meetings – he can oftentimes be found minding his watch as lab members trickle into the room. When he eventually joined the meeting that morning, after having taken a ‘complicated phone call’, nothing further was mentioned and he proceeded to ask questions about the topic being presented. However, shortly thereafter with the announcement at 10:30am, the director of the Gurdon Institute, along with what felt like half the institute, burst through the doors to our meeting room, exclaiming, “John, do you realise that you have just won the Nobel Prize!” As waves of cheering could be heard throughout the floors of the institute, it became readily apparent that none of us would be able to focus much for the remainder of the day.

What John accomplished over 50 years ago – cloning the first animal, the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), 30 years before the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep – was revolutionary and many in developmental biology did not believe his results at first. Nevertheless, according to the Nobel Assembly, the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for “groundbreaking discoveries [that] have completely changed our view of the development and cellular specialisation. We now understand that the mature cell does not have to be confined forever to its specialised state. Textbooks have been rewritten and new research fields have been established. By reprogramming human cells, scientists have created new opportunities to study diseases and develop methods for diagnosis and therapy.”

Not bad for a young high school student who, while at Eton in 1949, had said about him in a now infamously scathing report card: “I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous…it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who have to teach him.”

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is a bit curious too in terms of timing. This particular prize represents one of the longest times to the award (Gurdon at 50 years) and one of the shortest (Shinya Yamanaka at six years). Furthermore, John’s seminal paper describing the famous cloning experiment was published the very year that Yamanaka was born (1962).

It is still startling to think that Yamanaka’s discovery of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells was published only six years ago. With iPS technology, human embryos may no longer be needed to generate embryonic stem cells; rather a handful of factors applied to almost any cell can transform it into an embryonic-like stem cell that can then go on to become almost any tissue in the human body. In just these few years – during which I went through undergrad and medical school studies, and am now embarked on my PhD – this technology has already revolutionised the fields of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine. To see these metamorphoses in the span of my professional education thus far has been both startling and amazing. If this is what just half a decade has brought, what will the next few years bring in terms of scientific discovery and innovation?

My current PhD work in the Gurdon lab is looking at the interface between John’s technique, nuclear transfer, and Yamanaka’s, induced pluripotency, which are both methods of generating embryonic-like cells. Specifically, I am screening for and identifying factors – those missing links between the two systems – via nuclear transfer that can improve the generation of iPS cells. If perfected this could bypass the need for stem cells from human embryos in research and therapy. From this work, I harbour a growing vision for the future of regenerative medicine.

A new revolution in modern medicine is about to dawn. In the coming years, we will be able to create customised cell lines to screen drugs in ways we never could before. In the coming decades, additional advances on these technologies will allow us to regenerate or even replace lost tissue or organs. The day will come when, if a patient needs new heart tissue, we will be able to grow it from his or her own skin cells; modern alchemy, if you will. Of course, there are still limitations that must be overcome before these technologies can be applied safely to patients, but we are moving ever closer to the realm of therapeutic possibility.

These are certainly exciting times that we live in – for science, medicine, and the human frontier.

*Stan Wang [2011] is doing a PhD in Surgery.