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Really? Maybe not...

America is a bit like Marmite – you either love it or hate it. But one thing is for sure, it seems as if everyone has an opinion about America. How great America is or how bad it can be. It all comes down to the problem with America. What is the problem with America?

Well, as a start, part of the question relates to a little thing called dependency. They are the big guys on the block. Pretty much “the dude”. They sneeze and we catch a cold. And we are a bit like the media – we build them up and then want to shoot them down when given half a chance. Why? Because we can’t live without them. We are dependent on them. And that makes us pissed and jealous. But that’s not the problem with America.

The simple answer is that we know that the problems of the world won’t be solved without America. Whether we want peace or the end of poverty or someone to deal with global warming or a fairer world trade regime – it doesn’t mean jack shit if you don’t have America inside the tent. Oh we can ask the Europeans to do their bit or ask African leaders to be a bit more responsible or get the Chinese cut their own carbon footprint. The reality is that none of that will work if America doesn’t come and play. It’s always better to have them in the tent pissing out than having them piss on our little parade.

We can’t solve it or deal with it at a global scale without America. That’s part of the problem. But that isn’t the problem with America.

Part of the problem is that sometimes we don’t like the answer we get from big brother America. Want a global legal system dealing with global crime? Sounds like a good idea. But a bit toothless because America refuses to sign on the dotted line. Want to stop landmines from blowing kids up after a war? Great! Get an international treaty to deal with that. But we know it will continue to give the bad guys a cop-out as long as America refuses to support it. Want to deal with those computers being dumped in Africa and the kids inhaling the fumes of burning computers for copper? Let’s all agree to keep our electronic shit at home then. Sounds like a great idea. But pretty useless because America doesn’t support the idea. That’s a problem. Sometimes we don’t get the answer we want. And we don’t like it.

Sometimes it just looks like America is in it for themselves. Thinking about what is best for them. What America needs. Instead of thinking of what we need. But that is not the problem with America. That’s just a problem with those darn humans.

Tell me. What do you want from life? Have you noticed how that involves you? Most answers are about the self. The human aspect. Sometimes it’s materialistic things we want – a bigger car and a bigger house and a  bigger telly and more bigger things. Supersize my life. But even those nice warm fuzzy answers are all about the me inside. A peaceful life and some love. You are thinking of you. And your only interest in the outside is how they might impact on your life.

When your government decides to help those on the outside. Do you bitch and remind them of the problems at home? Do you constantly try to tell your government how to make the world a better place or just your little world? I don’t mean the one off donation or being pissed at your government not doing more about Zimbabwe. We all have our moments of madness. Most of the time it’s just me-me-me isn’t it? Oh you cloak it in nice fuzzy language and make as if it is for the whole world. But it’s really about what is good for you and your country in most cases. I haven’t seen it any other way. I don’t judge this. I’m not saying it is wrong. I’m just saying…

Oh I know there are groups out there doing work on a global scale. Mostly crap like global religious fanatics. But I am talking about the good stuff. Making the world a better place. Even when working on these issues you think of yourself and your way and not the others and their way. Or try to find an “our way”. Oxfam? Love them to bits but over 90% of senior management in the UK was British. Sorry, that’s not really global. It’s just colonialism cloaked in goodness. Like the original one. Greenpeace? The luxury of fighting for whales while people die of hunger. None of these people are bad. They are just in it for themselves. But cloaked in goodness and all things nice.

Now what is wrong with that? What is the problem with that?

What is the problem with us?

What is the problem with America?

Maybe we are asking the wrong question here. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking what the problem is with America. Maybe the question should be what’s the problem with us.

Maybe the problem with America is that they are just a little bit too much like us. Americans are just a tad too much like me and you. Just your average people trying to live a decent life. Their life. Maybe that is the problem. Maybe the problem is that America is in all of us. America is us. And we are America.

Yes, the problem with America is us. You, me and our American friends. All of us. That’s the problem.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that once we realize we are all one then we start looking after ourselves.

All of us.

Us Americans.

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I know. Many of you will tell me, as you have, that this election has nothing to do with us foreigners. That it is all about America. The American choice. The American future. And you are (mostly) right. This is your choice. This is about the American future. This is about America.

But it does have something to do with us Johnny Foreigners. We do have a stake in this. Why? Because most level-headed people in this world still look to America for direction. We still look up to America. We look for guidance. We look to America for leadership in this crazy little sphere of ours. A beacon we can follow. A little light in the dark world of wars, hunger, poverty and injustice.

Others might not acknowledge that this is what they want from America. But they know that this is what they need and this is what they want. Think about it. If not you then who? The UK? Come on. It’s just a sh*tty little island and a has-been world power. Overtaxed and oversensitive – and trying to punch above their weight. The days of colonizing the world is over, but we won’t forget. And we won’t allow them to direct us and lead us. Not with their history. And do I need to remind you that even they follow you. Even when their people don’t want the war – they still followed.

France? Too French. No, seriously. Too many Frenchmen. You don’t get anything done over there – and they are in the same boat as the UK. A spent force. Germany? No thank you. We haven’t forgotten yet. Italy? Haha. Running out of options here…

All of them will deny it. But they know. They know we need America to lead. And all of us in smaller little countries know. And people fighting for justice know. We all know we need America. We need that light to shine on us. That light we can use to point to. Show people the hope of a better future. A world where I can look at my countrymen and say, “Look, I know it is tough. But keep on pushing forward. We can be a little America.” A world where I can help the poor and the marginalized and say, “Look, I know it is tough. But don’t give up hope. Don’t give up on your dreams. Keep on pushing forward. You to can have the freedom of an America.” A world where I can hold the hands of the dying and oppressed and say, “Look, I know it is tough. But you have the just and the right on your side. You are not alone in this cold world. You are not dying for nothing. There is a better future for your children. And their children. Keep on pushing forward. You to can have a life to live like an American.”

You might not want to give it. And you might not want to play that role. But that is not for you decide. Sorry. You have no choice. You are the superpower and with that comes influence. And most of all, with that comes impact. Impact on the world and the people who live there. So I might be harder on you than on anyone else. But that is because I love you. Because I know how much I need you. How much you mean to me. I hold you to a higher standard. Because I know my hope lies with you. My hope of a better world. My hope of a just world. I know it isn’t fair that I expect more of you than from others. But that just life. I think you are the greatest and for that reason I hold you to the highest standard. When I buy food at Whole Foods I expect more than from Wal-Mart. When I buy a Cadilac I expect more than from a Chrysler. When I buy business class seats I expect more than from economy class. That’s life. I hold you to higher standards because frankly, you are our only hope in this world. AWithout you I have no future. And my people have no future. And no hope.

We look at you and know that somehow you are on our side. We don’t want a China. We don’t want a Russia. We want a world of freedom. We want a world where we can talk about the World of the Free. So we need the Land of the Free.

We don’t want a Bin Laden. We don’t want Mugabe. We want leaders with vision. And we want leaders who sometimes look at us little people of the world and smile. I know you have your own issues you want sorted. And I don’t want to take that away. I just want a little light to shine on my path. Just a little warmth from standing next to you in this dark cold world. Just a little smile. Every now and again.

Yes. I know. There are people out there who don’t want this. Who wants their own little world to oppress. But most of us in this world just want a life to live. And a life to love. With little interference from those above us. A land we can call our own. A country we can be proud of. A world that has a little bit of space for each and every one of us. A world where we don’t have to look over our shoulder when we run. Most of us just want to be American. Wherever we are.

But right now we are lost. We walk around aimlessly in this world. Stumble from one hope to another. We look to America but we don’t see the light. We look to America and we don’t feel the warmth. And we are rudderless. We are without hope. Without direction. We need you America. We need you more than you will ever know. But we need an America that is strong. That is just. And that is right. If you don’t – then no one will.

We need an America where freedom reigns. Where the government doesn’t tap into phones. Where people can say what they want and when they want. I never liked it, but always understood that people can say what they want in America. I come from South Africa. And we have a history. A history that reeks of racism and hate. And here in America you have the KKK. Never got it. Never got why you tolerate that. And then I understood. That your freedom comes at a price. A price of allowing people to say things that you might not like. But that is the price of freedom. And we need that. We need that to show the world what ultimate freedom looks like. The freedom of tolerance and living with differences celebrated. But do you still have that?

We need an America where the rights of people are protected. Where the people are the people. And the people govern. Through their leaders. A true democracy. A democracy for the people and of the people and by the people. A democracy we can look up to and say. That’s how the people rule. That’s how the people rule. But the voices in DC. Oh, those voices in DC. The corporate voices drowning out the voice of the people. We need an America where the people rule. Do you still have that?

We need an America where war is the last option and not a preemptive action. Where peace rules before war. Where America goes to war as a last resort. An America that find new ways to break down the walls of injustice. The way America helped break down the walls of Apartheid. An America that broke down the Berlin wall. An America that broke down the communist regime of the old USSR. That’s the America that we need. And that’s the America that shows us how to bring peace and justice to the world. Without war. An America that goes to war with the support of the free world. Like we did in the war against Afghanistan. But not in Iraq. We need an America that uses the carrot more than the stick. Do you still have that?

We need an America where rights rule. Where people are treated with respect for human rights. Even when they don’t show that same respect themselves. An America that is morally and ethically above those who will murder and terrorize the free world. Because that is what the free world is about. We don’t sleep with pigs. Because we know it is a slippery slope when we do what they do. We need an America that doesn’t torture. Even when they torture us. We need an America that stands for more than what they stand for. An America does does less than they do. We need and want an America that says torture isn’t right. No matter who you are. Torture is for those who hide and those who are cowards. And those who have no respect for the people of the world. And who have no respect for the freedom and rights that go with that. A torture free America. A message of hope. Loud and clear. Do you still have that?

We need an America that shows no fear. Who are never scared at what others might do. An America that says, “Bring it on. Is that the best you can do?” An America that fears nothing. Because it is an America that can never be bullied or terrorized in their hearts. An America that stands for more than a single action. We need and want an America that is strong. That tells us and shows us that no matter what is thrown at them, America will always stand tall. Stand proud. An America we can stand next to because we know together we have nothing to fear. Nothing to fear but fear itself. An America that knows no matter how many times sick people fly their airplanes into buildings and plant bombs on trains, America will stand tall and not be scared. They can hide. But that can’t strike fear into the hearts of America. Do you still have that?

We don’t need you to be perfect. Nobody will ever be perfect. You’ll always have a Texan talking to loudly when visiting our shores. Or an oil company that forgets their responsibility. We know Reagan wasn’t perfect. We know Clinton wasn’t perfect. We know Bush Sr wasn’t perfect. Hell, we know Nixon wasn’t perfect. But we always knew that they were just and they were true to us. Always there for us. Always saw us as their partner – even when we don’t agree. But now? Now we have a world divided. A world that looks to America and doesn’t recognise the one we loved. Because it is an America that tells us there is but one way and that is their way. Not in partnership. But in forceful domination. We need an America that says it wants to be our friend and be part of a greater good – even though we know you don’t really need us. But do you still have that?

We need an America with a vision. A vision of a better world. A vision of a better future. A different future. Different from where we are today. All divided and alone. We need that America that can point us to the path we will walk. Walk hand in hand. Together. Do you still have that?

And we need an America that knows what a vision can bring. The power of a vision. The power of tomorrow. The power of hope. The power of change. Not looking back over our shoulders, but looking ahead to the path we create. The power of the people. We need to know that you have a vision. Not a vision of a better version of the past. But a vision of a better future. Like when you moved west. You didn’t want to build a new England. Or a better version of the East. No. You went west to create a new world. Of hope and change. A world still undefined. But a new world nonetheless. But today. Today you show us leaders who look back and have no vision. Do you still have it?

Yes you do. You still have it. You hold in your hands an America we can follow and look up to. An America that will be that light and banish the darkness. An America that will embrace us with the warmth of love and life. An America that smiles at us and holds out a hand. An America that is the land of the free. An America that is ruled by the people, of the people and for the people. An America that changes the world without us knowing it. An America that says no to war and yes to peace more strongly. An America that says no to torture and yes to justice. An America that shows no fear. That shows power without abuse. An America that can take us into the future without fear. That brings hope to the hopeless. Justice to the oppressed. And change to a dark world.

America. It is your world. Your choice. And we have little say. We have only hope. Hope you will remember us. Your friends who need you. We are watching. And we are waiting. We hope we can walk this path together again. Be wise. Be strong. Be just. Be free. Be American.

You choose. I just hope that you choose wisely. You choose and we hope to follow. We have little choice…

‘…Starbucks in Beijing’s Forbidden City is brewing a storm in China, with outraged local media reporting that 70 percent of people would rather not sip the American chain’s frappuccinos in the footsteps of the Son of Heaven.’ Sounds like an article of just a few months back and a recent issue – Starbucks and the controversy in the Forbidden City that led them closing that store a few months back. But in fact, this article is from CNN report of 2000 ‘Starbucks brews storm in China’s Forbidden City’. Seven years later the issue blew up again and forced Starbucks to close the store. In the intervening seven years, Starbucks remained in the Forbidden City and had a very low-key approach in this location. There was no branding on the outside of the store, but once you got inside, you knew you are in Starbucks.

The easy way out was for Starbucks to close the store and expand to other locations. One store won’t damage their business – not with over 12,000 stores globally. But what did they do wrong? The mere presence of Starbucks in the Forbidden City was seen as an insult to Chinese culture and history. It was not about what they were doing or not doing. Everyone agreed that they were a good company, doing good things. But they are not Chinese. Similarly, in many places in Africa, people are starting to complain that Chinese companies are exploiting them and not respecting their culture and history. But don’t think that this just occurs in the developing world or in emerging markets. Remember the US stopping a certain Middle East company investing in the ports in the US a few months ago? This is one of the key challenges facing companies in a globalized world. How do you become local and global while expanding your market?

Are you a multinational or a US/UK/Chinese (fill in whatever country might be disliked in the marketplace) company that operates globally? Too often companies claim to be multinational, but they are driven by the culture of their origin. Very, very few companies are actually MULTInational in the way they operate and are managed. To become multinational they need to ensure that both the ‘numbers’ and the people make sense. It is fine to say that 90% of the people in their African/Asian/etc. offices are from the host country, but this still leaves two questions: (1) the 10% left – are they mostly senior management, and how senior are they? (2) Is the head office comprised of mainly western (mostly white males) or do they reflect where they operate?

How do you bring these cultural influences together to make your company truly MULTInational? It may require melding the Western model, which is largely focused on the individual with say an African or Confucianism culture of East Asia. What is the best way to manage the company, and interact with employees, communities and customers? At the moment, companies are not asking these questions as they think ‘diversity’ is a numbers game about ethnicity and not the way you do business. Until we start seeing ourselves as global AND local in the way we run our business, the idea of being a Chinese company, an American company, or an Arab company will continue to divide businesses and customers.

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I spend the last few days in NY and then Washington (sorry for the lack of blogging over the last few days – but I have a day job). I attended a few conferences that dealt with sustainability, climate change and everything else that the closest tree might need a hug for. My rants on that in the next few days. But I thought I would take some time out to go and watch a movie. And one without the kids. The last movie I saw on the big screen was about a big, bad ogre stomping through the woods, breaking trees and doing whatever harm he could to the environment – all while he was trying to become king while no one wanted him as king. And no, I am not talking about the Bush environmental policies.

I decided to go and see a movie that fit my image. You know, this caring, sensitive guy. The Brad Pitt of Africa. Minus the good looks, money, body, fame, star quality – okay, nothing like Brad Pitt. But I digress. I went to see FLOW – For Love Of Water. All about water and the problems we experience and will experience with water. It is serious stuff – water. We need it like oxygen. Can’t do without it unfortunately. And most people in this world do not have access to clean water. And kids die from drinking dirty, polluted every single day. Such a basic thing. You can turn on the tap, but they don’t even know what a tap is if it hit them in the throat. We are starting to run out of water in our little world. And it is again the poorest of the poor who are suffering and who will pay the ultimate price for this problem. You pay a few cents for your water – they pay with their life. So you can see I am pretty serious about this. It is a bigger problem in Africa than climate change or anything like that. And I was ready to fight the good fight for the umlungu who made this movie. Ready to go out and shout – Go with the FLOW! But alas, like so many other things it just left me more frustrated than what is good for me. Where do I start? Let’s start at their opening scene.

It takes place in my country – South Africa. In KwaZulu-Natal. Out there in the bundus. It shows a pretty picture of a small village on top of a hill. And then they start talking about the struggle people have in getting water. That they have to walk for miles to get water at the closest river. And then it is most likely dirty water. Of course it is all the governments fault. They don’t provide running water for the village. Oh, wait – there is a tap. But then the violin starts playing again. The tap doesn’t always work. People turn

 on the tap and have to wait for many minutes, maybe even for 30 minutes before the water starts running. And the narrator starts talking about how water should be provided to these villagers and it should be much better than what they have at the moment. Back off umlumgu. Let’s have another look at the scene. The bits you “forgot” to tell us.

Let us start by looking at the scene behind this village. What do you see? Another hill next to it. With another village. And this is repeated for as far as what the eye can see. They forgot to tell the moviegoer the proper name of this place. The Valley of a Thousand Hills. YES! There are hills everywhere. And villages on top of each hill. And it is high up. So here is your bloody problem with the tap water. They have to pump it all the way from the town that is 100s of miles away. And pump it uphill to a thousand 3 to 4 family villages. Problem one – because of the length and angle of the pipes the water runs back and settles when the tap is not running. So it takes a while for the water pressure to build up when you open the tap. Secondly, because you have to cover so many villages with one pump you just run out of power and water pressure. If 100 villages open the tap then there just isn’t enough pressure to serve a new one. A problem? Of course, but this was always an interim measure while the government tries to connect EVERYONE in South Africa. And it is still a damn lot better than walking to the river – I can promise you that. Don’t bring you western “easy-tap” attitude into our homes and say that this is all wrong. Your idea of what it should look like is based on your experience of having clean easy to use taps. Ours are having a tap. Really, KwaZulu-Natal have bigger things to worry about than how long we have to wait for the tap to work. It has the highest HIV/Aids rate in South Africa – rather think of how the hell do we get medicine and medical services to those 1000 villages where the roads are dirt roads and the people walk from place to place.

They then moved the scene over to Gauteng where they interviewed a guy who acts like an activist. I know him. I have had some experiences working with this guy in South Africa. He is no activist. He is a wannabe. He’ll sell his mother for a cause. He shouted a few slogans, but never got to a point. Why pick him? Why not pick someone who are actually respected in this field in South Africa – or why not the trade unions who have been fighting the water issue for more than 10 years already. No – you picked the guy who gave you the soundbite. Or rather a bark without any bite.

The movie wasn’t bad though. They addressed an important issue. And did so better than Black Gold – the movie about coffee. The India section was particularly good. But my experience of watching the South African bit and knowing their lies made me think that maybe they are lying elsewhere as well. There are more on South Africa – like the privatization debate, the price people pay (or rather don’t pay) etc that they did not cover in a transparent and open way. But I won’t go into that – I still have a flight to catch tonight. But a few more issues.

What’s with the bunch of white guys and girls? Every single time they interviewed a “global” expert they spoke to some or other lame westerner from the US or Canada. And when they went local? They’ll speak to a local person AND one of the so-called experts. Really. We don’t need a Canadian speaking on our behalf. And Canadians do NOT know everything about this world. They are not brighter than us. And I don’t care if you call her the Nader of Canada – we didn’t like Nader to start off with.

I went to the Premier of the movie. Impressive hey? Sorry – no red carpet. Only bad popcorn and hot tap water. But they did have Irena Salina there. Yes! The director. She’s French. So I guess that makes her even more untouchable in NY. Someone who cares and who has a cool accent. And after the showing they had a panel session with a few knowledgeable people their. All white. Damn. And damn again. They had Nader-Light from Canada there and someone from Corporate Accountability International (uh, not so international though – they work on almost only US issues) and some hippie from go-knows-where. I had no problem with the CAI person. She was young and passionate. And pitched her organization and their issues. The passion is still burning bright and making her miss a few key issues – but she was okay. Nothing wrong with passion – she’ll learn how to direct it a bit better in future. And we all have our hang ups. But the bloody hippie? Come on. He had his bushy hair and beard and all. And spoke about Thales (Greek philosopher of water and the “first” philosopher) as if they were mates. And he made about as much sense as what Thales would right now – in the original Greek. All about harmony and how he is bringing this gift of water knowledge to us, man (man said in that hippie smoked up way). Back off baby. Go get a haircut and stop smoking that weed. You know that it takes way too much water to produce your plant of wisdom. And in your case the ratio of water to wisdom does not make a pretty picture, man.

But not a single person from Africa or Latin America or Asia or remotely remote. No. All from around here and San Francisco. With all their wisdom. You could have saved the hippie from San Francisco and flown in anyone from my hometown and get more insight. Or just walk down the road to the UN to get a development voice. It just gets to me how they always have better ideas for how we should work and how others should help us. No. Talk to us baby. We suffer, not you. We know what we need and know how to get it. we have been doing it for longer than you. You with your tap and all.

But the thing that got to me the most? The blame game. They just kept on going on and on about the bloody problems in the world. The movie and the panel. How it is the fault of this one and that one. How the world is coming to an end and it is all the fault of the others. Where is the bloody solution? Not once did they actually come up with any solution. Actually, the movie did. They showed a guy in India who used traditional knowledge to make water work in the most wonderful way in a water scarce area. Clean drinking water and water for agriculture and everything. And that was it. No solution to the global problem. Just a few rants and raves and no solution. If only they brought that guy from India to the panel – he would have given them a few solutions. Oh sorry – he was busy solving the water crisis and couldn’t make it.

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I won’t comment on whether I believe in unions or not. That’s for another time and another debate. And I think my time in the unions might affect my opinion. But I do have a concern about the impact that attitudes towards unions can have on a business – especially a global business.

I don’t know how often I hear US companies say that they don’t need or like trade unions. That it is their business and they will make the decisions. Or that they like to develop a personal relationship that is more like a family. That people working for the company are not workers, but rather partners or associates. ‘Unions are not for us thanks. We look after our workers and believe in the personal relationship between us and our partners’ – standard responses by businesses in the US. And these are good businesses. Not sweatshops or the companies you would put on your black list. No, these are companies I, and most people, admire and like most of the time. Companies we don’t mind supporting or work for. Companies we hold up as leaders in the field of development, environment, stakeholder engagement and everything else you want to throw in the hat. Companies that inspire us. And I just don’t get it.

Yes, unions in the US might not be the friendliest of the bunch – and they have their own reasons. But the world is different the minute you step outside these borders. You might have strong feelings about unions and their role in the US. But they are viewed differently outside these borders.

You run the risk of killing your business if you believe that Europe is a key market and you still believe that trade unions have no role to play in your business. Go to Germany and France and people love their unions. People are proud of being a member and unions have huge influence on communities and politicians. Hey, they even participate on the board in many companies.

In most Scandinavian countries unions are part of official political alliances on national and local levels. They help decide what money goes to what programs and they support union movements all over the globe. The local political leader will most likely be a union leader as well. In these countries unions are seen as key to development and foreign policy. Remember, we are talking about social democracies here.

And political alliances between governments and unions are also common in places like South Africa. Here the largest trade union federation COSATU is also an official ally of the ruling ANC government. In fact, they played a key role in electing Zuma as the new ANC leader over current President Mbeki. They didn’t like Mbeki’s economic policies and selected someone they felt they could control a bit more. And union members are part of the official Ministerial WTO team of negotiators. They are embedded in the government. And South Africa has unionization rates way above 80% just to make things a bit more difficult in case you decide you don’t like them.

Also, why would you want to tell your suppliers that their workers should have freedom of association in places like India, China and Mexico when you don’t want that back home? Yes, unions are mostly limited or controlled (and sometimes hunted) in some of those places, but the principle of freedom of association should be consistent for both you and your suppliers. Your suppliers won’t feel that committed if you don’t walk the talk.

And to make things even more difficult they use a a different language when you leave these borders. It’s not brother and sister anymore – it is comrade. Again – no comment from me whether this is right or wrong – you just have to live with it. And learn to celebrate 1 May as Workers’ Day – a global celebration of workers and their rights, just not in the US.

So, if you decide that you don’t want unions in some of your overseas offices you might just as well close your shop and walk away from the global market. You have to think and act like a global player if you want to play oas a global player. Love them or hate them, but you can’t operate efficiently in these countries without them. Remember that, and you might become trusted and build a loyal workforce – become the ‘comrade boss from the big office’.

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