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Commencement | Rajiv Shah Address to SIS Graduates

Commencement Address
(as delivered)

American University School of International Service

May 12, 2012

The Honorable Rajiv Shah
Administrator, United States Agency for International Development

Good afternoon. Thank you. A special thank you to President Kerwin for conferring this degree. I never quite finished my dissertation in graduate school. This has special meaning. Let that be a lesson to everyone here. I'd also like to thank Dean Goldgeier for your leadership, AU chair Jeff Sine for your friendship, strong leadership, and outstanding example of what alumni from this great institution can do, and SIS chair Allen Fleischmann, a good friend and colleague.

Of course, most of all, I want to thank and congratulate those of you that are part of the 2012 class of the School of International Service, and welcome you to the community of graduates as you get through this ceremony.

As you probably had to explain to your grandparents earlier today, I'm Raj Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. Hopefully that explanation was a little easier than usual, because unlike many of the audiences I speak to most of you have actually heard about USAID. How do I know? Last week I sent out an e mail to our agency staff telling them I'd be here and asking alumni to share their experiences with me. I expected to get a handful of replies with alumni telling me about their favorite classes or the name of a popular hangout that I could mention for an easy applause line. But then e mails started flooding in from Angola and the Philippines, Lesoto and Bolivia, from a gender advisor working to ensure pregnant mothers have access to HIV drugs so their children are born AIDS free, and from a member of our cutting-edge mobile partnership team helping to transform Haiti into one of the first mobile banking economies.

After reading those e mails, two things became very clear to me. First, as soon as this speech is over I need to take my family out to Guapo's for some Mexican food. Second, and far more relevant, SIS grads don't just sit on the sidelines. They get out in the field and learn about the world by actually seeing and interacting with it. E mails I got didn't talk about popular classes. They talked about peace-building internships in Northern Ireland and trips to the Thai Burmese border.

Your choice to study at SIS allowed you to learn from great professors and talented classmates, and you've already demonstrated in early and inspiring commitment to serve. That's not just a throw away line. I mean it when I say I find your choice at this age in your career inspiring. When I was in your position, I didn't have the awareness or commitment to make that choice. I spent nearly all of my academic life pursuing a degree in medicine. Even though I knew deep down that development work and international service felt more satisfying to me personally.

It wasn't until I finished medical school and took my board exams that I finally decided to take a bit of a leap, packing my car, driving to Nashville, Tennessee, to volunteer on Al Gore's presidential campaign. As a new volunteer, most of my peers were high school interns. We spent a lot of our time together at the local public library, searching microfiche about Al Gore's historic record. You may not know what microfiche is.

But suffice to say, this was not the high stakes policy making and campaign experience I was expecting. I soon felt lost, thinking that I had just wasted a quarter of a million dollar education without any real chance to make a meaningful contribution to public service. One night, just as I was ready to quit and come back home, I decided to call the two people who knew me best, my sister Amy and my fiancee Shiva. They told me exactly what I needed to hear: Stick it out. You wanted this opportunity. You gave up a lot to get it. You need to see it through.

As you leave SIS, you will likely come to a similar crossroads. International service is not filled with tremendous financial rewards, nor is the work life balance what most psychologists would call healthy. The true rewards are the relationships you build, the experiences you share, and seeing those you helped along the way. I had enough sense to listen. I stuck with the campaign, and as a result built some of the closest and most rewarding friendships I have.

It was those friendships that led me to work at the Gates Foundation begin my career in international development. When I started at the Gates Foundation, I spent a lot of time exploring why millions of children were still dying around the world from preventable diseases like measles or pneumonia, when simple vaccinations could easily save their lives. The system for financing vaccines was broken and some colleagues and I audaciously thought we could help fix it. Our idea was to pool vaccine funding commitments from donors and sell them on capital markets, giving aid agencies more flexibility to investment in immunizing children. I drafted a proposal for how this new scheme would work and send it off to my new boss. As I sat in my first one on one meeting with Bill Gates, I felt nervous, with good reason. As he fished for my proposal out of his bag, I could see it was covered in red ink. In quick succession he detailed the flaws with a quick line of reasoning. He wasn't alone. As we sent the idea to experts in the field, we kept getting the same response: This will never work. It's not well thought through and it's not realistic. Those experts were right. At the time our proposal was unrealistic.

But that was the point. When you choose to tackle the greatest challenges the world faces you are by definition choosing an unrealistic goal. Your job is to turn that reality on its head, to make the impossible possible. So we kept at it. We got smart people to help us answer Bill's tough questions, and during three years of work we earned his and other leaders' support. Today, the International Finance Facility for Immunization has used capital markets to raise nearly $6 billion to immunize kids around the world, saving 4 million lives over the last six years.

To me, that lesson was simple: If you want to tackle really big problems, you have to be willing to endure the natural skepticism the world will throw at you. I've been thinking a lot recently about that experience. We're at a time in global history where our appetite to dream big and tackle our greatest challenges can seem limited by austerity and uncertainties about the world around us. It would be easy in this environment to look at problems like global hunger, failed states, and extreme poverty and lower our sights. But as President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made clear, America's global leadership cannot be taken for granted. It must be earned. We have never been a country satisfied with taking the easy route. We rid the world of smallpox, fed hundreds of millions during the green revolution, and launched the largest humanitarian rescue in history in Haiti.

Under this administration we will continue to expand the reach of human dignity, because there are other trends at work today. More than ever before, people from all walks of life and all corners of our nation are inspired to tackle these challenges. Students, such as yourselves, are oversubscribing to courses on global health and development. Religious groups are raising money to buy bed nets and fight child trafficking. Entrepreneurs invest and yield social returns. At the same time, economic growth in the developing world has taken off, making investment in places like sub Saharan African more profitable and likely than ever before.

Over the last few years, we made difficult but necessary reforms in USAID to tap into these emerging trends. We've developed new scientific partnerships with universities and research labs, allowing us to use satellite data to predict floods in Bangladesh and assess famine risk in Africa. We're partnering with financial institutions to unlock capital for local entrepreneurs allowing new companies to reach international markets. We've launched an innovation venture fund to invest in technological breakthroughs like mobile banking and adopted a relentless focus on concrete measurable results, which is helping us earn bipartisan support in Congress even during difficult times.

All of these reforms mean we're playing a much more central role in our country's national and economic security, hopefully keeping the world focused on tackling big problems, like global hunger and child survival.

Tonight, nearly 1 billion people will go to bed hungry, and several hundred million children will be amongst them. For those kids under the age of 2, we now know that that chronic malnutrition is a lifelong curse, literally harming the way their brains develop and limiting their educational and economic potential. Last year this brutal fact was drawn into stark relief as the world's worst drought in 60 years struck the horn of Africa. That drought put over 13 million people in dire risk, uprooted over 300,000 people who journeyed to refugee camps, and ultimately, coupled with the poor and predatory governance in Somalia, led to the death of nearly 30,000 young children.

Along with Dr. Jill Biden and Dr. Bill Frist, I traveled to meet with affected families in a refugee camp in Kenya. While there, I talked to mothers who had suffered brutal 100 mile treks on foot, and I spoke to a little boy whose younger brother perished earlier that very same day. The suffering wrought by last year's famine was tragic, but the larger tragedy is knowing we can actually end this type of extraordinary human suffering. We know how to beat severe hunger and malnutrition. By helping poor farmers get access to better seeds, fertilizers and irrigation we can help them grow more crops, boost their incomes and escape extreme poverty. That same day in Kenya we met with agricultural scientists at a research lab that had developed improved maize varieties. By applying those new varieties to the western part of the country, they more than doubled local food production and helped keep millions of people from requiring food aid during an emergency.

President Obama launched Feed the Future, this new effort to move from food aid dependency to self sufficiency and growth in 2009. And in just three years, in 20 countries where we're working, we've seen agricultural productivity gains that are eight times higher than the global average. As a result of these efforts we're on the verge of mobilizing dozens of companies, from multinational firms like Unilever to small farms to invest billions of additional dollars in a vibrant African agricultural system. With that kind of support, we can move tens of millions of people out of a state of poverty and finally prove that hunger can be conquered.

We face a similar massive challenge when it comes to assuring every child reaches their fifth birthday. This year, over 7 million children will die before that special moment. And that a child born in the developing world continues to be as much as 15 times more likely to perish than one born in industrialized countries. These children may be born into different circumstances, but their families suffer exactly the same immense pain, insufferable anguish and tragic loss that we would.

Thankfully, what is true today that wasn't just a few years ago is that we now have the technology and knowhow to change this brutal fact of life. New vaccines against diarrhea and pneumonia, bed nets for malaria, nutritional supplements for pregnant women and young women, and a few other things that add up to about $30 and fit inside a backpack could save nearly 6 million children's lives a year. We believe that it is now possible to achieve an incredible goal in human history, eliminating preventible child death.

In June, we'll be co convening a global summit on child survival with the government of India and many, many other nations here in Washington. India is a country that has seen rapid economic growth, but slow gains in saving children's lives. By bringing the world together against this goal, we hope to accelerate progress and achieve this outcome. To raise awareness about this effort we're asking people to visit our website and post pictures from their own fifth birthday. I posted mine. If you get a chance to see it, you will understand it took some courage to do so.

But through that simple act we want to remind people that no matter where we live around the world, we're united by the basic desire to give our children a bright, promising future. When you confront persistent challenges like hunger and child death, or witness tragedies like the earthquake in Port au Prince or last year's crisis in the horn of Africa it is easy to get discouraged. It's easy to face a challenging economy or a job that's less inspiring than you'd hoped, or feedback that's more critical than you care to hear and lose your sense of enthusiasm.

But you made a very important choice to attend the School of International Service. You chose to forgo the easy rewards, to skip the clear path, to throw the full weight of your intellect and creativity at the world's toughest challenges. Remember that choice. Remember what drew you into service in the first place. Remember what you accomplished today, and draw from it the confidence you need to transform unrealistic goals into inspiring realities. Remember the word commencement actually means a beginning. And though the journey you're beginning today will be long and challenging, though it will be at times dispiriting, the reward of helping a poor farmer sell her crops and feed her children, or giving a citizen the chance to vote for the very first time, or meeting a young girl or boy who is alive because you didn't give up, makes this the most meaningful journey you can take.

To the class of American University School of International Service I say congratulations for what you've already accomplished, and thank you for the journey you're about to begin.