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Commencement address by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Director-general of the World Trade Organization describes the need for combining science, social science, and policy to meet the challenges of our time.
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MIT Commencement speaker Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala stands at the podium, with flags in the background.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala MCP ’78, PhD ’81 is the director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and former finance minister of Nigeria.
Photo: Adam Glanzman

Below is the text of WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala's Commencement remarks, as prepared for delivery on May 27.

President [Leo Rafael] Reif,

Chancellor [Melissa] Nobles,

Faculty, staff, parents, friends,

And most importantly, the graduands of MIT's Class of 2022.

I could not be more honoured, or more delighted, to be here in Killian Court with all of you today. It is a bittersweet day because this is the last commencement of a wonderful President and a good friend, Rafael Reif. I want to take a moment to pay tribute to his academic, institutional, and thought leadership these past ten years. The MIT model, which President Reif has done so much to develop, is influencing higher education and research around the world.

A testament to this is the number of former MIT professors and staff now in senior positions at other top universities. To take just a few examples:

Former Associate Provost and Vice-President for Research Alice Gast is now President of Imperial College, London, having previously served in that role at Lehigh University.

Subra Suresh, former Dean of the School of Engineering, became President of Carnegie-Mellon University after a stint in the Obama Administration, and now leads the prestigious Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

All of you will remember Provost Martin (Marty) Schmidt, who was recently appointed president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

And I have to mention someone I remember as a young professor of environmental studies in no other than DUSP, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning: former MIT Chancellor and current Harvard President Lawrence (Larry) Bacow. President Reif Symbolizes what is so respected about MIT around the world. Human centred science and innovation for the challenges of today, but also looking ahead for the challenges of tomorrow and the decades to come. Rafael, we wish you well in your new endeavours.

As I stand here, memories are flooding back.

On my first day of graduate school as an MCP student in DUSP in September 1976, I must give a shout out to DUSP (Hello DUSP). I remember going to the international student's office, worried about how I was going to cover my tuition and board for the second semester and thereafter, my father had paid for my first semester. I was met with wide smiles and open arms by the wonderful staff in that office. They told me not to worry, and that once they get an international student in, their job is to make sure that student graduates. They would help me find the means, an RA or TA position or a loan. They were proud, they said that international students had the best loans repayment record among all the students and so I shouldn’t worry. I should just concentrate on my studies. They had my back! You can imagine what a warm and fuzzy feeling that gave me, especially since I could reliably say that not every Cambridge based institution was as welcoming at that time. So, began my love for this great institution on whose grounds we stand today.

In 1981, I again stood where you are today, having finished my PhD in regional economics and development under the supervision of a cracker jack dissertation committee, led by Professors Alan Strout, Karen Polenske and Lloyd Rodwin, that was as caring as it was demanding.

I was heavily pregnant, (virtually 9 months) with my first child when I defended my dissertation. Writing the dissertation itself had been rocky with lots of tearful weekends as I struggled with my data and SPSS. (Does anyone remember that?) I clearly remember Alan telling me after I submitted my first chapter that it was below my usual standard and I should tear it up and start again. I spent all weekend in tears before picking myself up and starting over.

In fact, I am convinced they only let me get away with the defence because of that baby. I let them know I was due any moment and I could have the baby any day, maybe right there during the defence. They looked terrified and you can imagine how quickly it all went so they could get me out of there. By the way, this is a good trick to try, but unfortunately it will not work for you men.

MIT has helped make me who I am today. I know how hard each of you has worked to get here. I hope that as you embark on this journey called life, you will return one day, as I have done, with good feelings and these same words: "MIT helped make me who I am today".

On top of the demands of one of the world's most famously rigorous academic institutions, your time at MIT has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. All of you have had to adjust and adapt.

A pandemic is not something I had to deal with as a student, but my education was also interrupted when I was young – by civil war in Nigeria. I did not go to school for 3 years from the ages of 12-15 as my family ran from place to place in Biafra, to escape the 'bombs and shelling. The images we see from the war in Ukraine today remind me of the suffering I witnessed and endured then. My family made it through but lost everything and had to start over. I was able to go back to school. But my parents made clear to me that education is a privilege – and with that privilege comes responsibility, the responsibility to use it for others, not just for yourself. It is a lesson I still carry with me every day.

Now, I'm not here to tell you what to do with your lives. But I am here to say that the world needs your smarts, your skills, your adaptability, and the great training you have received here at MIT. The world needs you for innovation, for policy making, for connecting the dots so implementation can actually happen. So let me say a few words on combining science, social science and policy to meet the challenges of our future.

The difficult and uncertain times we live in have been called a 'polycrisis' – simultaneous, compounding crises in the economy, the environment, public health, and international security.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still with us. Soaring food costs were threatening hunger in poor countries even before the war in Ukraine made the situation much worse. And heatwaves from South Asia to Europe are already lowering this season's farm yields in countries like India – yet another reminder that climate change is here!

MIT – the university, its faculty and researchers, its students, and you, its freshly-minted graduates – sit squarely in the middle of providing the multi-faceted solutions we need to the challenges we confront.

Let me explain why. A common thread running through many of these challenges is the central role for science. We need technological innovation to get us out of the holes we are in. At the same time, for the kinds of problems we're dealing with, new inventions, and new ways of doing things, will have an impact mainly to the extent that they are scaled up across dividing lines of income and geography. We don't just need vaccines; we need shots in arms across the world to be safe. We need new renewable technologies, diffused not just in rich countries, to fight climate change, but also in poor ones. We need new agricultural technologies built adapted to local conditions and culture if we are to fight hunger. In other words, we need innovation, but we also need access and diffusion.

We need to get the science right. And we need to get the domestic and international policy frameworks, the incentive structures, and the public and private investments right, too. MIT, of course, is perched at the cutting edge of both science, social science and public policy.

To buttress the case I'm making, I want to look at some scientific and public policy issues associated with the COVID-19 response, as well as climate change. As a proud MIT alum, I will also look at how the MIT community has been working on these 21st century problems since at least the 1970s. As Director-General of the World Trade Organization, I shall link this to where multilateralism and trade has been a force for good, amplifying and diffusing new ideas and new technology. But I shall also comment on where international cooperation has been falling short in getting policy frameworks and solutions right.

Turning now to the global challenges, it's clear that a few of President Reif's big preoccupations – getting the innovation we need, and speeding up the time between new ideas and commercialized products – are directly relevant to the road we are travelling now as a global community and to the road ahead.

When we look at The COVID-19 response: we see we had good science, but not so good politics and policy.

We knew a pandemic was overdue – Bill Gates even gave a famous TED talk about the risks back in 2015.

But we weren't ready. This has been made painfully clear by the roughly 15 million excess deaths worldwide over the past two and a half years, as estimated by the World Health Organization.

At the national and international levels, we hadn't made the necessary health system investments. Nor had we put in place the governance arrangements and early warning systems needed to identify and contain potentially dangerous new pathogens. In other words policy wise, pandemic preparedness was, on a global level, totally missing.

But we were fortunate that scientists were better prepared. Science enabled us to address "a global public bad", thereby saving millions of lives.

Safe and effective vaccines came online in the space of mere months after the novel coronavirus was identified. But this seemingly overnight success was years – decades even – in the making. And MIT was at the heart of this story.

At MIT's Center for Cancer Research in the 1970s – back when Kendall Square was still mostly warehouses and factories – future Institute Professor and Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp discovered RNA splicing. His work revealed the potential of messenger RNA, the technology behind the most effective COVID-19 vaccines.

Around the same time, another future Institute Professor, Robert Langer – D.Sc. in chemical engineering, MIT class of 1974 – began decades of pioneering work on the drug delivery of large molecules, including mRNA. In 2010, he participated in the founding of a company that aimed to do something totally new – to develop modified RNA therapeutics. That company struggled for years, high on promise but low on cash, until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and Moderna's vaccine made it a household name.

But even though the world got the innovation it needed and it was successfully commercialized, we fell short on access. When vaccines became available, we did not prioritize the most vulnerable populations and frontline workers in all countries.

Instead, much of 2021 saw what WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus described as, and I quote, “a handful of rich countries gobbling up the anticipated supply as manufacturers sell to the highest bidder, while the rest of the world scramble[d] for the scraps.”

As with lifesaving HIV/AIDS drugs twenty years ago, people in poor countries, especially in Africa, found themselves at the back of the queue for COVID-19 vaccines. The COVAX facility, which I am proud to say I participated in birthing, as an ambitious attempt to avoid a repeat of that experience, by getting vaccines to poor countries at the same time as rich ones, was frustrated in its goals by vaccine nationalism and a lack of international solidarity.

While global vaccine supplies have now increased, the lag in getting this to poor countries allowed apathy and vaccine hesitancy to set in, leading to a situation where on the back of weak health systems, only 17% of people in Africa, and 13% of people in low-income countries, have been fully vaccinated, compared to 75% of people in high income countries. Since we all know that no one is safe until everyone is safe, the risk of more dangerous variants remains real because of this public policy lapse and the lack of timely international cooperation.

Climate change is another problem that we cannot solve without scientific innovation – and diffusion.

We have made real progress. Solar and wind generation costs have plummeted – with trade and international competition playing important roles in driving costs down. But storing that energy is still expensive, so we still need breakthroughs there – like we do on cutting emissions from marine and air transport, from industry, from buildings, and from agriculture and land use.

We also need more uptake of existing green technologies: For all the Teslas we might see around here, only 4.5% of vehicles in the US are electric.

But MIT researchers are at the forefront of research on batteries and energy storage. The MIT Energy Initiative is working to meet energy needs while minimizing climate and other environmental impacts. The Future Energy Systems Center is doing research on every imaginable aspect of the low-carbon transition, from how to produce hydrogen at scale, to assessing zero-carbon options for moving freight over long distances. The D-Lab is helping bring energy to off-grid communities. MIT urban planners are thinking about how to make the megacities of the future both livable and sustainable.

So science and innovation are hard at work to help bring solutions to an existential threat of our time. A threat that science also helped to elucidate with the wonderful work of the IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But to make these innovations transformative and central to decarbonization of the world, international cooperation is key and once again the world is failing. Six months ago, at COP26 in Glasgow, it became clear that the rich world is again unable and unwilling to fulfil the pledge it made in the Paris Accords of 2015 to put together financing of $100 billion a year to support poor countries, (whose contributions to carbon emissions have been minimal,) to help them make the transition to a low carbon future by taking advantage of new renewable and other technologies.

It is these kinds of public policy failures, these lapses in harnessing science and innovation for the greater public good that drew me to the career that I have pursued in international development. The question that I asked myself was: How can we allow people to die or to remain poor when the science and innovation to change their lives exists? And what can I do about it?

My training at MIT gave me the framework I needed to pursue the career path I followed in international development. It was training that would enable me as a practitioner and policy maker, to connect science and innovation to peoples' lives and to make a difference. Now a few examples:

At the World Bank, I had the opportunity to bring the then innovative approach of sites and services development, that we studied in DUSP, to poor urban dwellers in Spanish Town, Jamaica, to enable them build their own homes incrementally overtime, thereby creating an asset and creating wealth for them for the first time in their lives. When I worked on agriculture, it was bringing improved seeds and new agricultural technologies to poor farmers in Africa and the Middle East to enable them improve their incomes and household welfare at a pace they could not have imagined possible.

In Nigeria, as Finance Minister and working with the Minister of Agriculture, we implemented budgetary policies that put mobile phones in the hands of 2 million women farmers so that through their electronic wallets they could directly receive government vouchers that enabled them to access improved seeds and fertilizers. With respect to finance we put in place a technology based financial management solution with biometrics that enabled government to weed out millions of ghost workers and ghost pensioners, and save over $1 billion in fraudulent salary and pension claims.

When I joined Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, bridging the gap between science and public policy meant supporting the piloting of a new Malaria vaccine that could save millions of children's lives and stockpiling an experimental Ebola vaccine, giving millions more people a chance at survival, should Ebola strike again.

And at the WTO bridging the gap meant the ability to work with Vaccine Manufacturers to deal with problems in their complicated supply chains so that trade in inputs could flow freely and enable them to scale up COVID 19 vaccine production for the world. It has also meant the fight to allow more flexible access to IP rights for COVID 19 vaccines, whilst protecting incentives for research and development, so that developing countries can undertake their own vaccine manufacturing.

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Graduands, the problem solving approach I have taken in my career, my quest to bridge gaps between science, innovation and public policy, to take a bit of risk, to try new approaches, has paid off in a rewarding career whose satisfaction is the ability to serve others. So in these uncertain times, in this complex world in which you are entering, you need not be so daunted if you can search for the opportunities hidden in challenges, if you can take some considered risk and try new approaches. Create new pathways, and if you can connect the dots in disconnected approaches to problem solving.

Let me conclude by saying that you have all succeeded in making it through in truly extraordinary times. To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, you have made what seemed impossible, possible! Your parents and faculty are rightly proud of you, so am I. So, go out into the world and embrace the opportunities to serve! I wish you all the very best. Congratulations once again and God speed!

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