Skip to content ↓

Challenge is to create planetary equity, Wolfensohn says

James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, giving the Commencement address.
James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, giving the Commencement address.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Following is the text of the Commencement address delivered by James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank Group.

President Vest, members of the Corporation, the faculty, the administration, graduates, your families and friends: let me first say how deeply honored I am to be here in what is essentially a family celebration, a celebration for each of you on your achievements, a celebration at a very important moment in your lives, a moment when you are reflecting, a moment when you're looking forward.

I feel deeply honored to be here, particularly as, when I came this morning, I recalled with my own personal pleasure my first visit from Australia in the mid-'50s when I came past this wonderful building looking to buy a copy of Paul Samuelson's book on economics to try and help me get through a course a little bit down the road. And this was an occasion for me when I, for the first time, put reality to my expectations and hopes derived in Australia about academic excellence, about opportunity, about a chance to come and work within a great country and in a great community, and to do so with the possibility of developing my own career.

This is indeed a great institution, an institution that has enormous achievements in sciences, in social sciences, and achievements, which have been marked by many previous Commencement speakers and by the world at large.

But it's also an institution which is engaged very much not just on its past achievements but on its future.

And we, at our institution, feel very privileged to have relationships with you and, in particular, on what I think may well be the most significant advance that this institution will ever have--the advance in relation to the opening of your courses in the MIT OpenCourseWare program in which we're engaged not just with our African Virtual University but, hopefully as the years progress, in making possible the underlying knowledge, experience and education forces that there are in this university. Let me say that from my point of view, working in the Bank, dealing with the issues of development, that this contribution may well be the greatest thing that you've ever done. And I congratulate you and applaud you for the opening of this prospect not only to this country but to the world.

I have come here this morning as you might gather a little bit nervous--nervous because of the reaction to the World Bank, nervous because I see being held up grade cards with F on it. I'm particularly nervous about that I might tell you, because personally, I got too many of them when I went through university. And I thought that at this stage my record would be forgotten. And to be reminded of it as I come here today is a cruel blow. So, I would ask you just as a matter of personal dignity if you'd turn it the other way. It'll allow me at least to recognize that in the last 40 years I've come some distance.

I've come some distance not in terms of academics but in terms of being able to take some of the values, some of the experience that I learned in this city, and have the opportunity to apply it to a world that has been ever-changing and different. And it's to that that I'd like to address just a few remarks to you this morning.

When I came to the United States over 40 years ago, I conceived of the world as a bipolar place--as a place in which there were the rich and the poor, a place in which there was the developing world and the developed world, the north and the south--a world that was divided.

I conceived my own career as something that I reviewed in essentially personal terms. I wanted to get a graduate degree. I wanted to deal with the issues of my own personal poverty. I wanted to deal with the questions of building a career, and I also thought because I came from a distant country and I knew just a little about development, that it was the right thing, the moral and ethical thing, to take an interest in those less fortunate in the developing world.

I felt comfortable on my graduation day, as I'm sure you do today, in my achievements. I felt comfortable that I was behind a wall, that I had made it and that I was now going to advance with all the sense of confidence that you get from the sort of achievements that you have remarkably made this day. And I thought of this other part of the world as being a world to which I would give part of my life and then I'd come back and develop my life behind my wall.

I've learned in the last seven years that the world is not bipolar and simple. That is the sort of thing that many of you students this morning were talking to me about and caused some reaction very often to my own institution. The notion of globalization, the notion of the shrinking of the world has occurred most significantly in this 40 years since my graduation.

And today, the world is a different place. For any that thought that you could live behind the wall, September 11th was a moment when reappraisal had to take place. This was a moment when our country and indeed the world was shocked and shaken to recognize that events in Afghanistan, events in distant parts of the world, events in Islam, events in those areas where people were under pressure and disadvantaged were not issues that could be conveniently kept outside a wall but, in fact, were issues that impacted on us, on our part of the developed world, that the notion of two worlds is no longer real, that whether it be in environment or in health or in crimes or in migration or in drugs or in communications or in terror, issues in one part of the world become issues in another part of the world.

And for my own organization, which focuses so much on the question of poverty--for our organization, the question is one of equity and social justice in that other part of the world, and how does it affect us in the privileged world.

Well, if anyone had doubts, September 11th, I believe, made us recognize the reality that was there on September 10th, which is that poverty somewhere is poverty everywhere, that global issues are local issues, that issues of development are issues not just in developing countries but issues for us.

The numbers are compelling. We have a planet of 6 billion people. Five billion of the people live in developing countries. Three billion of the people live under $2 a day, and inequity is very clear. I have just come back from a trip to East Timor, Mongolia, China and the Middle East through central Asia. Each of these countries is different, but each reflects a sense of inequity and uncertainty, although also a burgeoning area of hope for many people.

But for all too many, the question of inequity finds its evidence and finds its manifestation in hostility, in reaction, in a sense of abandonment. And that is an issue not just for those countries. It's an issue for us.

And as we look forward to the lifespan that you will have over the next 25 or 30 years at least, our world becomes a world of 8 billion people. Seven billion people will be in the developing and transition economies 25 to 30 years from now. This is not a static situation. This is a situation where the 5 billion have 20 percent of the global assets and earnings, and it's not a situation that can continue. It's a situation which is essentially unstable, and it's not a distant issue.

And so, my message to you today is really a single and simple message. It's a message to say to you that whatever you judge of institutions like the Bank or contributions of people of my generation, your challenge is the challenge of planetary equity. Your challenge is the challenge of taking the experience that you have had, of the education that you've had, of the careers that you're seeking to build, and view them not through the lens of a world that exists behind a nonexistent wall but to look at your future as a world in which your aspirations, our dreams, are interdependent with those less fortunate, wherever they are.

It is not an issue you can avoid. It's an issue that you not only can grasp but to which you have been trained to advance.

Let me give you just one minor example drawn from a different institution and try to put in perspective what you've learned. I was in Georgia with a recent graduate in the field of development and agricultural technology. We visited a farmer in a field, and this rather confident young man, getting out of the car, went to the farmer and in pretty good Georgian said to him, "If I can tell you how many sheep are in your field, will you give me one?"

And the farmer in equally good Georgian responded, "Yes, I'll be glad to."

And my young graduate friend looked around and, with a quick review, said, "There are 873 sheep in your field and they're healthy."

And the farmer said, "That's the most amazing thing I have ever seen. You're correct; take one."

Well, he bent down, picked up an animal, started walking to the car when the farmer said to him, "Sir, if I could tell you which university you went to, would you give it back?"

And my colleague said, "Yes."

And he said, "Well, you went to Harvard."

And he said, "You're right, how did you know?"

He said, "Well, you picked up my dog."

And my concern, ladies and gentlemen, is that you don't pick up the dog, that you use your education with humility or with openness, with concern, because the issue of poverty, the issue of development, the issue of equity is your issue. You cannot avoid it. It's the issue of peace, and you--all of you here--have been trained to make our world a better place.

I have great confidence that you will do that, and I hope that as you go forward you will give thought not to the World Bank but to the issue of equity, social justice, poverty and peace. Thank you so much.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 12, 2002.

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News