Keynote speech by Dr Matt Reed, CEO AKF India at the 2015 graduation ceremony in Hyderabad | Aga Khan Academies

Keynote speech by Dr Matt Reed, CEO AKF India at the 2015 graduation ceremony in Hyderabad

25 May 2015

Headmaster Fisher, Respected Guests, Esteemed Graduates: 

The first time I set foot at an Aga Khan Academy, some six years ago, I was viscerally struck by the incredible symbolism of hope and respect that the Academies represent. 

The campus seemed to say: this country, your youth, these students merit an institution of the highest quality and integrity. They have the intelligence and the talent and the potential to transform countries and lives through their creativity, their values, their service, and their leadership. 

And so I am truly honored to be here today and to have this opportunity to celebrate with you, to recognize your achievements, and to help launch the next phase of your lives. I am confident that you will draw on all you have learned here, intellectually and emotionally, as you find yourselves, you find your ways in the world, and in so doing shape all our futures. 

Dr. Fisher asked me to speak today about the future. That seems appropriate: commencement is, after all, a ritual that helps us mark a transition, a moment of passage. This Academy, which has framed so much of your lives in recent years becomes today part of your past. And so we gather to celebrate that passage and to send you into your futures with love, pride, and confidence. 

This is an institution founded to form a new generation of Indian leaders. If that is your charge, what challenges will compete for your attention?

The litany is as familiar as it is daunting: 

  • Climate change is real and growing. The period from 1983 to 2012 was the warmest in 1400 years. The concentration of carbon dioxide, methane and similar gases is higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years. By mid-century, food security will be affected by shifts in crop production and marine life. Extreme weather and related natural disasters will become even more common. Displaced populations will place new stress on inland and urban areas. And as often happens, the least developed countries will suffer the most dislocation and disruption.1 Mid- century is just thirty-five years from now, when you will be in your 50’s. 
  • Water scarcity: Of the planet’s 7 billion people, 1.2 billion already live in regions with absolute water scarcity. By 2025 – just ten years from now – two-thirds of the global population will live in water-stressed areas.2 (And this is before the full effects of climate change even begin to be felt, at mid-century). 
  • The shifting balance of power from West to East, from North to South, that offers hope to many millions in this part of the globe, is also destabilizing old alliances and the balance of powers. It has produced new tensions on the frontiers of Europe, in the South China Sea, closer to home on the borders of Arunchal Pradesh, and fuels a cyclone of sectarian animosity and violence in the Middle East as autocrats fall and rise again and proxy wars produce dangerous headwinds blowing back their way to other parts of the world.  

With a list like that, there are more than enough reasons for despair, if we seek them. But despair is not the right emotion for a commencement and it is not a helpful attitude when facing the greatest challenges of our times. 

Despair about the future is certainly not why His Highness the Aga Khan founded these Academies and remains committed to expanding them.

And it is absolutely not why each of you was chosen to come here for this experience. 

We are all here because we believe – indeed, if we are to shape the future at all, we must believe – that progress is possible and that each of us can play a role. We must acknowledge and analyse these challenges if we are to address them, but we must not despair or give in to debilitating cynicism. Change is hard, change is sometimes slow, change can be frustrating, but positive change is possible. 

As an historian by training, I usually turn to the past when I want to think about the future, to look at the direction of history and what it tells about our realm of possibilities. When we do that, what trends can we also see?

Solid evidence of significant global progress in human health, infant death, life expectancy, human freedom and poverty reduction.

  • Overall human health has improved around the world in the past sixty years. And there is no country in the world where infant mortality has not improved since 1950.3 In just the past 20 years, global childhood mortality has decreased by 41 percent.
  • Average global life expectancy has increased almost fifty percent in the past six decades. According to the WHO, life expectancy has improved for every income bracket, in every country, between 1990 and 2011 – your lifetimes. 
  • In 1990, an area the size of Belgium was razed out of the Brazilian rainforest every year. Today, thanks to tough legislation and even tougher implementation, deforestation has fallen by 70%. The Economist points out that this has prevented some 3.2 billion tons 

of carbon from being released into the atmosphere, the equivalent of one year of emissions for the entire European Union.  

  • In the past thirty years, poverty has declined by what the World Bank calls, “an unprecedented rate.” In 1981, 40 percent of the world’s population lived in abject poverty, on less than $1.25 per day. Today, that has dropped to 14 percent. 

That poverty statistic is rather astonishing. 700 million less people are now living in poverty every year. Much of that is due to rising incomes in China and in India. But it is a change that has taken place in just three decades. 

As someone who works for a development network, please do not misunderstand me. 1.2 billion people worldwide still live in extreme poverty and several billion more remain impoverished. In India alone, despite all its progress, half of its children are malnourished, their growth stunted and their health in danger. Those numbers are unacceptable. They are unacceptable because we know that progress is possible: the statistics I have cited demonstrate that these problems are not intractable and that they can be addressed. 

The irony of history today is that some aspects of this progress – rising incomes in Asia and Africa; growing competence everywhere and therefore more global competition; higher expectations of fairness, justice, and transparency - all contribute to a wider sense of instability in global relations, a sense of faster environmental degradation, and a sense of greater inequalities between rich and poor, especially within countries. We are living in a period of fundamental change and transition, making all our lives feel a bit more uncertain. What does the future hold, indeed? 

And so we have come full circle, back to this ritual of commencement: the passing of one phase to another. Where do each of you fit in that very big picture?  

I think the first thing to underscore is that while many of the changes or challenges I have pointed to are global in scale and sometimes in nature, their effects are always local. That is also where the most innovation happens and sometimes where the most effective change can happen. If there is one thing that I have learned in the Aga Khan Development Network, it is the collective difference that inspired individuals can make, one-by-one, community-by-community, step-by-step. 

  • Here in India, I think of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and its partners in Southern Gujarat, which worked with thousands of village organisations over a decade to help rehabilitate a river basin, replenish aquifers, provide safe drinking water, and double the agricultural output of farmers. The result: better health, increased incomes and food security, and greater social cohesion among communities of different faiths, castes, and tribes. 
  • I think of the Ahzar Park in Cairo where the Aga Khan Trust for Culture created a green, public oasis on the site of a centuries-old dump near some of Old Cairo’s oldest mosques and monuments, as well as one of its poorest neighborhoods. As His Highness noted in a recent speech there, the project has been a “trampoline” for wider development in the neighborhood, bringing 17,000 visitors, providing jobs for 1000 people, helping increase incomes in the area by 27 percent – one-third faster than elsewhere in Old Cairo. 
  • I think of Pamir Energy in southern Tajikistan, founded by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development in 2002. It was the first public-private partnership for energy in Central Asia, showing that communities in formerly communist countries will pay market rates for services that used to be free if the quality is high, the provision is dependable, and the prices are fair. Today, it is exporting clean hydropower to villages in Afghanistan across the Panj River, places that had never before been electrified.  
  • And finally I think of Northern Pakistan, where over the last 40 years, multiple AKDN agencies have worked in partnership with local communities to clear and create arable land and improve crop yields; provide clean drinking water; promote education, especially for girls; and provide basic health services, especially to prevent infant- and maternal-deaths. The community-led approach developed there has been so successful that it has become a paradigm for rural development elsewhere. Its influence can be seen in national programmes of the Government of Pakistan, in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, in various Indian states, and at the World Bank, among others. 

The lesson from AKDN? Civil society is vital. All of these were achieved by people coming together, harnessing private energy for public purpose. Such change is only possible one person, one organisation at a time. And as I am sure you have learned at the Academy, it starts with you: with your creativity, your passion, your values, your leadership. 

And so twenty years from now, I count on being able to add the numerous achievements of the graduates of the Aga Khan Academies to that list. 

It may sound like we expect a lot. At one level, we do. But we are also confident that you are up to the task. And we know that the best way for you to fulfill your potential for service and leadership is to spend some time over the next few years at university understanding what you love to do – what are those things you lose yourself in, that absorb you totally, that push you fully? Because it is by harnessing that passion and linking it to social ends that you will be able to work the hardest, test your limits, be the most creative, and make the greatest contribution. 

And so this is a day on which we come together to celebrate each of you graduates – your accomplishments, your talents, your dreams, and your potential. All of us wish you the best, give you our support, and perhaps most importantly, we believe in you. 

Now, as I come to the end of my remarks, I want to make a predication: twenty years from now, you will not remember a word I have said today. Not one word. But what I hope you will remember when you think of this graduation, is that feeling of being loved here, of being taken seriously here, of being respected here for your ideas and your character and your aspirations – and that these feelings will have helped sustain you in times of doubt, at moments of adversity, when you needed inspiration.  

And I hope very much that twenty years from now, you will give this same gift, your gift of confidence and optimism, to another generation of graduates of the Aga Khan Academy, or those elsewhere in India, or wherever you choose make your homes and make a difference.  

Congratulations again, and thank you.