Masdar and Armenia: Towards a better Future, when one is sorely needed

15.12.2021 | 10:55 Home / News / Articles /
John Harker is a world-renowned conflict resolution, social engagement and international development expert. He was Nelson Mandela’s special advisor and helped him set up South Africa’s National Development Agency. He has served as Executive Director of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, representing Canada’s diplomats and trade commissioners as well as Advisor to the Chair of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) Governing Body. More recently he has served as president of Cape Breton University, where, among other things, he created the Centre on Sustainability in Energy and the Environment, a campus in Cairo and an office in Beijing, in partnership with China’s National Development Research Council (NDRC).

This year of 2021 has been a trial for much of Humanity as it confronted both the Covid-19 Pandemic and startling evidence of Climate Change.

On a personal level, I have spent the year not in travel by airline, but interacting via zoom, or Skype. It never used to be like this!

In 2010, I paid my first visit to Abu Dhabi. I was accompanying the Premier of my Canadian Province, Nova Scotia, on a “trade mission” to the region. We two were privileged to meet with the Executive of ADNOC, the national oil and gas giant.

I well remember one particular interaction. The CEO told us that the company now met all appropriate international standards, for the industry and for responsible companies.

Needless to say, we voiced our appreciation, but I went a step further. I offered the hope that before too long, ADNOC would not only meet international standards but would play a key role in developing the standards.

I think this intervention was appreciated. It was certainly meant. What led to it?

In 1999, the Foreign Ministers of Sudan and Canada met in New York, at the UN General Assembly. They agreed that an Assessment Mission should be sent to Sudan by Canada in order to fully appreciate the impacts on Sudan and its people of the presence in that country of Canada’s largest oil and gas company, Talisman Inc., and this in a time of civil war.

I was chosen to lead that mission. I was well known to the Canadian government as having a record of dealing with complex international issues.

To illustrate, when the Senate of Canada investigated the misconduct of Canadian peace-keeping troops in Somalia, I was appointed as Advisor to the Chair of the Inquiry. The Minister of Defence at the time of the peace-keeping mission had later served as Prime Minister of Canada, and the Senate Inquiry was both serious and sensitive.

Later, when the Foreign Ministry was asked to identify someone able to advise the post-apartheid government of South Africa on sustaining civil society while creating a National Development Agency, I was nominated, and then spent a year as Special Advisor to the Presidency in Pretoria.

And immediately prior to the Sudan assignment, I was in Kosovo, on behalf of the Peacebuilding Fund jointly operated by Canada’s Foreign Ministry and its International Development Agency, assessing the prospects for inter-communal reconciliation.

But Sudan. Many civil society groups in Canada were highly critical of Talisman’s presence in Sudan and were vocal in calling for government to outlaw this.

The report I wrote was presented to Parliament by the Foreign Minister, and covered thoroughly by the media, print and broadcast.

I did not call for Talisman to be forced out of Sudan, and one direct consequence was that its share price on the stock exchange rose significantly.

I did call for the company to change its behaviour in specific particulars, and it carried out a thorough overhaul of its “Corporate Social Responsibility”, nowadays understood as “ESG”, the environmental, social, and governance impacts of corporate behaviour.

The assignment in Sudan was not totally one of fact-finding, as evidenced by my last “engagement” before leaving for Canada.

Our Foreign Minister asked if I would be willing to meet, in the bush, with a senior guerrilla commander, whose forces could pose a danger to Canadians working in the oil zone.

I accepted the challenge and flew to the guerilla commander’s base of operations.

He quickly said that I was his hostage and would remain so until Talisman left Sudan. Then he said, no, he was inclined to shoot me right away. He said he suspected that I was a Moslem. I said, no, I was not, but even if I was, that gave him no right to kill me.

After a few moments of loud shouting among my hosts, I sensed a change. Perhaps it had all been theatre, but, before long, I was free to go.

We walked back to the airstrip and before I boarded my plane to fly to the UN air base in Kenya, the Village Headman handed me a spear, saying I had earned it.

The whole experience did have an impact on me; I spent a year writing and speaking about Extractive industries and Corporate Social Responsibility; I was asked by lawyers for both sides in a New York law suite to comment on Talisman’s Sudan behaviour, and I wrote a peer-reviewed article on all this published in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

And I looked back on my “career” and felt that I had met and handled many short-term crises and should perhaps see how well I could handle longer-term, continuing, responsibilities.

Which is why I accepted the challenge of leading a university in need of change, but change with a purpose.

When I became a university president, it had potential, but little potency. We had only ten “international” students. When I retired, we had more than one thousand, from 44 countries.

We were the first Canadian university to partner with local entrepreneurs and open a campus in Cairo, and I was particularly proud that we were also the first university in Canada to hold a degree-granting Convocation in a “First Nations”, or Indigenous, community.

Throughout this time, I traveled extensively, including visits to Abu Dhabi. Much of the travel was related to a development of great significance to me.

The university had on its staff individuals with experience in the oil and gas industry. This we built into a vibrant partnership with ExxonMobil, who then asked that we create a private company with which Exxon could develop formal ties. We did, and LearnCorp International became Exxon’s “Go-To” provider for LNG training.

And I was pleased to serve as Chair of the Board of Directors, which, I admit, gave me much to think about concerning CSR, or as is said now, ESG.

But while all this was going along, another Extractive power-house came to town.

Xstrata, now incorporated into Glencore, visited the campus, seeking my support for their intention to re-open a shuttered coal mine located a few kilometres away.

Asked if I would issue a statement in support of this plan, I said I would, but only if they first publicly voiced company support for “good corporate citizenship”.

Soon after that, the lead company official told me that Xstrata, Anglo-American, and BHPBilliton had joined together to purchase from ExxonMobil an open-pit coal mine in Colombia, Cerrejon.

Would I, he asked, draft for them a Human Rights policy to be used by the operating company at Cerrejon?

This I did, and then I was asked to consider participating in an independent review of the Impacts of the mine.

So, I actually chaired the review, and drafted its Report, one which was well received, both by the corporate owners and the international critics of the mining operation.

One element of the Report related to a township, Tabaco, held to have been very badly treated by mining. It figured in a formal complaint lodged with the OECD.

In the Report of the review we had undertaken, it was recommended that that the operating company, Cerrejon, hold talks with the Tabaco community, and I was pleased that these two “opposing” parties jointly asked me to serve a Facilitator of talks between them.

The talks then resulted in a mutual agreement after a few months, and the OECD National Contact Point in Australia (home country of one of the Owners, BHPBilliton) was kind enough to pay public tribute to my efforts in securing this agreement and thus enabling the NCP to dismiss the complaint lodged against the Owners of the Cerrejon mine.

I was, much later, approached to lead a review of a mining project in Armenia, Lydian’s Amulsar venture, and the individual who approached me had, it turns out, been a member of the “Owners Committee” for the Cerrejon mine and was well aware of my rigor and objectivity.

One final point about Cerrejon. I am on record as urging the operating company to seek to focus on Solar power as an element of its operations, and this grew out of and assisted my university role.

I was, at the time, busy with establishing a centre on sustainability in energy and the environment, and I was able to introduce its key people to faculty at the then Masdar Institute, uniquely a Solar-powered facility.

I should also mention that my interaction with this Institute led, when I retired from the university, to my being invited to Abu Dhabi to lead Masdar’s 2014 BP Seminar on Innovation.

My interest in renewables and innovation has continued and is very much on my mind today.

Concerning Armenia, I am on record as advocating that this linkage between Renewable Energy and Innovation in an era starring the “Internet of Things” be central to government’s stated intention to foster a “high tech” economy for Armenia, which would have to be partnered by an embrace of education and training, and I am convinced that Masdar, the company, could stimulate both.

And stimulate a necessary engagement with ESG across the economy.

My abiding commitment to ESG is what propels me to pen these thoughts. And prompts me to admit that I do not think of ESG as simply Risk Management, but as the opening up of prospects for “purposive dialogue” between and among “stakeholders” which can enable companies and communities to achieve great things, to the benefit of all.

And, yes, I do want Armenia to meet the needs of its people, as I hope was signified in an article I wrote for publication in the Armenian Mirror Spectator, a magazine where I set out during the conflict with Azerbaijan some thoughts about Armenia as a land-locked country and ancient seat of civilization.

But earlier than that, in 2019, an opinion piece of mine was published, before Covid, in the mass-circulation China Daily. I wrote it after a visit to China at the invitation of the China-Europe Association for Trade and Economic Co-operation.

In it I proposed the creation of an “Electric Vehicle” highway between China and Europe, which would call for the experience and ingenuity of the world of Masdar.

A new Silk Road indeed, and thinking of it takes me back to my first visit to Armenia, when I was lucky to stop at a fourteenth-century “caravanserai”, built to house the intrepid travellers between China and Europe, building global trade and economic co-operation!

I hope that the partnership between Masdar and Armenia will, in fact, impact positively on not only development in Armenia, but also on international co-operation, so vital today.

And partnerships such as this will surely multiply in coming years; witness, for example, news that Saudi Aramco is to invest almost US$1 billion to acquire 30% of the Sudair 1,500 megawatt solar project which is due to come on line in 2022, a pivotal year for us all.

A recent study undertaken by university researchers in the UK, Europe, and the US has established that Solar panels on half the world’s rooftops could meet our planet’s entire electricity demand. And reduce our carbon footprints.

Responsible companies in the Solar power universe are going to be essential to meeting the challenge of Climate Change, and they will very likely have major impacts on necessary innovation, including those in education and social progress.

Masdar is no stranger to that reality, and I believe that it can be a hugely important partner to an Armenia that has much to contribute to just how humanity meets the challenges facing it. Beginning in 2022!
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