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Q&A: New British Ambassador Gareth Ward on Improving Education, Inspire Me Festival and Human Trafficking

Gareth Ward took up his role as the British Ambassador this July. He’s already enamored himself to the Vietnamese public on social media through his Vietnamese language skills, and photos of him having his haircut on the street or eating porridge.

We sat down to talk with him about his experiences so far, his priorities and expectations as the British Ambassador for the next four years, and the Inspire Me Festival he’s promoting, which is arguably the biggest event the UK embassy has ever organized in Vietnam.

The festival will include a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra, a ‘tube station tunnel’ and numerous NGO, education and food stalls. The event was originally going to be held this weekend but has been postponed until November as a state funeral will be held for former party leader Do Muoi.

You've done a lot to prepare for being the British Ambassador in Vietnam, including reaching a respectable level of fluency in the language. There seems to have been a warm response on Facebook?

That's right. I've really enjoyed meeting people on Facebook. I think it's a platform that's used very widely here and so I've quickly had a lot of positive feedback. People like to see me doing everyday things like getting my haircut on the street or eating porridge. But obviously, I've also been talking about some of the bigger issues that we're involved with here, too. I think having Vietnamese is helpful because it's a difficult language — you don't need me to explain that. And when people make the effort to speak it, Vietnamese people really appreciate it.  

OK so let's talk a bit about the festival that's coming up in November. What are your expectations for this event?

So I think this could be the biggest event that Britain's ever organized in Vietnam. We're expecting hundreds of thousands of people in Hanoi. When we repeat it in Ho Chi Minh City in a month’s times, it'll probably be a slightly smaller scale but nonetheless tens of thousands of people. And we're expecting that people will get a flavor of education, of Britain's creativity, of music and dance. And they will also be able to see how Britain works on important international issues like the illegal wildlife trade.

You mention Britain's creativity. To what extent do you want to promote this kind of creativity in Vietnam?

So, I think the Vietnamese government has a clear plan to increase innovation in society and to work on higher education in particular. Vietnamese school systems have improved massively and have reached a high standard and now they want to push their higher education further. So that's an area where Britain's got strengths. Now, in terms of creativity in film and music and so on, I know Vietnam looks a lot to South Korea. But Britain does well in terms of the reach of our popular music. I think there's a lot to learn around this — the government can't make creativity happen, but it can create a safe space where creativity can flourish. That's the way I'd like to talk about it with Vietnam.

One of the most well-known ambassadors here recently was Ted Osius, who was of course particularly well known for his support of LGBT rights. Is there a cause you are particularly passionate about and want to support?

Definitely education, but in the wider sense, and that includes research and innovation. I think the next generation in Britain and in Vietnam are going to be operating in a totally new job market, with the rise of artificial intelligence and so on. I think there's human potential — human resources here in Vietnam, but there's not yet a system to stimulate world-class research. If I can do something in that area and increase the number of research partnerships between British researchers and Vietnamese researchers — that would be a legacy that I would like to have.

Your tenure is for four years, possibly longer. What are your expectations for this period?

Given the speed of change in Vietnam. I expect that in four years’ time, the middle class will be bigger, there will be more co-operation internationally, and Vietnam will be active in the UN and in ASEAN. So I'm expecting that this will become a more complex and more important job as time goes on. And that’s a good place to be because some international issues move very slowly, but I think Vietnam's development is not one of those.

How would you say the relationship is now between Vietnam and the UK?

We have a strategic partnership, which means that we recognize that we both have an important role in the world and we're willing to talk about any issue. I think on the trade and security side we have increased the level of our contacts and government discussions in recent years and we will do so even more in the run-up to and after Brexit. And on the people-to-people side — tourism and education are very dynamic, but I'm also conscious that there are other countries in the region that are very attractive, so I want to promote Britain and show Vietnamese people that you can look further afield to Britain and find things that are interesting.

One issue that has affected the UK and Vietnam is young Vietnamese being trafficked to the UK and being made to work in nail bars and on cannabis farms. Is this something you plan to focus on?

So we are working with Vietnamese authorities to try and exchange information and improve the law enforcement response. Because human trafficking is a global problem, not just related to Vietnam. But you're right, there are quite a number of Vietnamese who get referred to our national mechanism for victims of trafficking and we want to protect the victims and prosecute the gang lords and the perpetrators. But that requires a good exchange of intelligence, so we're working to strengthen that and to make sure that the great majority of Vietnamese people who travel to the UK for tourism and to study are able to have a safe time and the small number who are trafficked are protected and that we raise awareness at the Vietnamese end of the dangers of trafficking.

For more details about Inspire Me Festival click here.


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