Commencement Address by Dr. Rajiv Shah, USAID Administrator, at the School of International Service, American University

Saturday, May 12, 2012

[As prepared for delivery]

As you’ve probably had to explain to your grandparents, I’m Raj Shah, Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.

Hopefully that explanation was easier than usual, because unlike many audiences I’m asked to speak to, most of you have actually heard of USAID.

How do I know?

Last week, I sent an e-mail to our Agency’s staff, telling them that I’d be at SIS and asking alumni to share their experiences.

I assumed I’d 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 and Lesotho and Bolivia.

From a gender advisor working to ensure pregnant mothers have access to HIV medication so their children are born AIDS-free.

And from a member of our cutting-edge mobile partnerships team, who’s helping transform Haiti into one of the world’s first mobile banking economies.

After reading these e-mails, two things became very clear to me:

First: as soon as this speech is over, I need to take my family to Guapo’s for some Mexican food.

Second, and far more relevant: SIS grads don’t sit on the sidelines. They get out in the field and learn about the world by actually seeing it.

The 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 has allowed you to learn from great professors and talented classmates, and you’ve already demonstrated an early and inspiring commitment to serve.

That’s not just a throwaway line—I mean it when I say I find your choice inspiring.

When I was in your position, I didn’t have the awareness or courage 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 public 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 leap, packing my car and driving to Nashville 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 at the local public library, searching for articles about Al Gore’s record on microfiche.

You may not know what microfiche is—but suffice it to say, it wasn’t exactly the high stakes campaign work I was expecting.

I soon felt lost, thinking I had just wasted a quarter-million-dollar education without any real chance to make a meaningful contribution in public service.

And one night, just as I was ready to quit, I decided to call the two people who knew me best: my sister Ami and my fiance Shivam.

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 necessarily 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 help along the way.

I had enough sense to listen—I stuck with the campaign and as a result, built some of my closest and most rewarding friendships.

And it was those friendships that led me to work at the Gates Foundation and begin my career in 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 pneumonia when simply vaccinations could save their lives.

The system for financing vaccines was broken and some colleagues and I 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 invest in immunizing children.

I drafted a proposal for how this new scheme could work and sent it off to my new boss.

As I sat in my first one-on-one meeting with Bill Gates, I felt a bit nervous—and I had good reason.

As he fished my proposal out of his bag, I could see that it was covered in red ink.

In quick succession, he detailed its flaws with a tough and aggressive line of reasoning.

And he wasn’t alone. As we sent the proposal around to experts in the field, we kept getting the same response: “This will never work. It’s unrealistic.”

And those experts were right. At the time, our proposal was unrealistic.

But that was the point.

When you choose to tackle the greatest challenges facing the world, 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 has used capital markets to raise nearly $6 billion to immunize children around the world, saving 4 million lives over the last six years. To me, the lesson was simple: if you want to tackle really big problems, you have to 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 mission in history in Haiti.

And 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 the challenges of development.

Students are oversubscribing to courses on global health and development.

Religious groups are raising money to buy bed nets and fight child trafficking.

Entrepreneurs and investors are working to develop businesses that can generate profits and yield strong social returns.

At the same time, economic growth in the developing world has taken off, making investment and trade with places like sub-Saharan Africa more profitable and likely.

Over the last few years, we’ve made difficult but necessary reforms at USAID to tap into these emerging trends.

We’ve developed new scientific partnerships with universities – allowing us to us satallite 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 young leaders in Uganda and Egypt to start businesses and tap into international markets.

We’ve launched an innovation venture fund to invest in technological breakthroughs like mobile banking and off-grid solar energy.

And we’ve adopted a relentless focus on concrete, quantifiable results, which is helping us earn bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

All these reforms mean we are playing a much more central role in our country’s national and economic security—and hopfully—keeping the world focused on tackling big problems like global hunger and child survival.

Tonight, nearly one billion people will go to bed on empty stomachs, over 200 million of them children.

For those under two years old, we now know that chronic malnutrition is a lifelong curse, literally harming the way their brains grow and develop and irreversibly limiting their economic potential.

Last year, this brutal fact of life 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 at dire risk, uprooting over 300,000 people who journeyed to refugee camps in search of aid. Coupled with poor and predatory governance in Somalia, it led to the death of nearly 30,000 children.

Along with Dr. Jill Biden and Dr. Bill Frist, I travelled to met with affected families in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya.

While there, I talked to mothers who had suffered brutal, 100-mile plus treks on foot and I spoke to a little boy who’s younger brother had perished earlier in the day in a camp medical facility.

The suffering wrought by last year’s famine was tragic. But the larger tragedy is knowing that 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, fertilizer and irrigation, we can help them grow and sell more crops, boost their incomes and escape extreme poverty.

That same day, we met with agricultural scientists in Kenya that had developed stronger crop breeds that more than doubled food production in certain parts of the country – helping to keep millions of people from requiring food aid during the emergency.

President Obama launched Feed the Future – our new effort to move from food aid dependency to self-sufficiency –in 2009. In the 20 countries we’re working in, we’re already seeing agricultural productivity gains are eight times higher than the global average.

As a result of these efforts, we are on the verge of mobilizing dozens of companies—from multinationals like Unilever to small African firms like Ethiopia’s Omega Farms—to invest billions of dollars in African agriculture ahead of next week’s G8 meeting of world leaders.

With that kind of support, we can move tens of millions people out of a state of poverty and finally prove that hunger can be beaten.

We face a similar massive challenge when it comes to ensuring every child reaches their fifth birthday. We know that this year, over 7 million children will die before that special moment and that a child born in the developing world is as much as 15 times more likely to perish than one born in America.

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 know-how to change this brutal fact of life.

New vaccines against diarrhea and pneumonia, bed nets for malaria, nutrition supplements for pregnant women and young children, and a few other things – mostly low-cost technologies that only cost about $30 and fit neatly inside a backpack – could save nearly 6 million children a year.

We believe that if we can reach kids with these simple interventions, then we can achieve an incredible goal: eliminating preventable child death.

In June, we’ll be co-convening a global summit on Child Survival with the Government of India—a country that has seen rapid economic growth but slow gains in child survival—to bring the world together behind that goal.

To raise awareness about this effort, we’re asking people to visit our Web site and post pictures from their own fifth birthday.

Through that simple act, we want to remind people that no matter where we live around the world—we are united by the basic desire to give our children a bright, promising future.

When you confront persistant 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’s easy 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 SIS.

You chose to forgo the easy rewards…to skip the clear paths…to throw the full weight of your intellect and creativity at the worlds 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 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’s School of International Service, I say congrualtions for what you’ve already accomplished…

…and thank you for the journer you’re about to begin. 

Washington, DC

Last updated: September 26, 2017

Share This Page