New York

13 May 2018

Deputy Secretary-General's commencement speech at Columbia School of International and Public Affairs [as prepared for delivery]

Good morning everybody! 

It’s a great honour to be back here with you all to congratulate and celebrate with you.

My thanks to Dean Janow, to the Board of Trustees, the distinguished faculty and administrators, and to all the graduates and your families here today.

This is a proud day for you all, and I know how hard you have worked to get here. 

I know – because I taught here myself. I saw the hard work and commitment that go into a degree in public policy and international affairs – a great qualification if you want to make a difference in the world.  And SIPA graduates do make a difference in the world, whether you go to work for non-profits, think tanks, governments, the private sector, academia or in multilateral organizations – and I am happy to say we have many excellent SIPA graduates working at the United Nations.

SIPA is about both leading and serving. While these may seem very different, they are both essential to my life, and to the work of the United Nations. I know that whatever you do, you will use your advantages to increase international understanding and cooperation.

The information and the historical and analytical frameworks you studied here are just a small part of your education. What SIPA teaches, what all education teaches, is an approach; in this case, an approach of hope, respect, service and peace. That’s why I always felt at home here.

When I lectured at SIPA, I gave my students a long-term assignment that involved analyzing a national or regional issue, and identifying a solution. But the students found, to their consternation, that the problems would not behave. They would not sit still and wait for a solution. In some cases, a whole new country would be dragged into a conflict. In others, what looked like the seeds of a major problem would be resolved within months; peace would break out, and the crisis would disappear from the headlines.

In short, life got in the way of theory.

The assignment was designed to teach them that nothing happens in a vacuum, that time never stands still – and neither should we. In international affairs, it is our duty to keep our minds open, to keep learning, and to be receptive to every possibility.

That is not only a question of necessity, but of effectiveness, and of results.

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear graduates, 

I believe a Commencement Speech is expected to include some advice, so here is mine. If you want to make a difference to our divided world, which faces so many global challenges, keep your mind open, keep looking and thinking – and perhaps above all, resist the urge to embrace stereotypes or to jump to conclusions, particularly negative ones.

My whole career, indeed my life, has been based on transcending differences and defying stereotypes.

My parents were a Nigerian farmer and a Welsh nurse. I am a faithful Muslim with a grandfather who was a Presbyterian Minister. I was a single parent, I am a survivor of abuse and discrimination, and I began my working life in an architect’s office in northern Nigeria.

When I walk around this city, I’m seen first and foremost as an African matriarch, which is exactly what I am.  But I am also the second-highest civil servant in the world, deputy leader of a huge global organization. I sometimes travel with bodyguards. I can’t tell you how confusing this is for people.

You know those T-shirts that read: This is what a feminist looks like? I want one that says: This is what a Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations looks like.

And this didn’t start in the past two years, by the way. It’s been going on my whole life. When I was at school in England, people thought I came from a mud hut in an African village. When I talk to people on the phone, they’re surprised when they meet me to find out that I am, in fact, a Nigerian woman.

So perhaps I am especially attuned to the power of stereotypes to shape our thoughts and actions – and the liberating opportunities we can find when we move beyond them. 

Unfortunately, stereotypes and received narratives don’t just affect our approach to people; they can affect our views of entire nationalities, continents, even religions.

Sometimes these stereotypes serve a useful purpose – when we need a shorthand to describe or understand things quickly.

But that should never replace our desire to dig deeper; to base our understanding on a knowledge of the details; to question our own beliefs; to see a situation from the other side; and above all, to feel empathy for others.

So many of the challenges we face in today’s world stem from an unwillingness, or an inability to do this.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear graduates,

Every day at the United Nations, we are faced with seemingly impossible, intractable situations. Conflicts are deepening; we have record numbers of people on the move to escape violence. The horrific situations in Syria and Yemen, in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Myanmar, are a constant reminder of where the international community has failed. 

There is global anxiety about the threat of nuclear war. The impacts of climate change are becoming more widespread and severe, and the costs of dealing with them are draining national resources that should go towards improving health and education systems, and to reaching women, young people and others who are marginalized and isolated from progress.

Inequality is growing both within and between countries. The global economy and trading regime remain unbalanced, underscoring the need for fair globalization and inclusive growth.

Youth unemployment is at alarming levels. Young people in some countries are leaving the education system as qualified illiterates, without the skills they need to succeed. Intolerance, extremism, nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise.

Social media can provide a cushion against this reality. These platforms can help us to connect with each other, but they can also enable us to live in echo-chambers of our own making, unaware of the concerns of others, content to click on a link rather than act.
The commodity the United Nations sells is hope. But where do we find hope, in these troubled times? How can we turn these challenges into opportunities? 

The answer lies in moving beyond stereotypes and entrenched positions. We look for possibilities – and we take action.

Every day, around the world, the United Nations is playing a critical role in the service of our common humanity. We are saving lives, helping to lift people out of poverty, providing food, education and shelter to the most vulnerable, empowering girls and women and fighting climate change. 

Let me give you three examples.

First, United Nations Peacekeeping is helping countries emerging from conflict to defy the odds. 

I was in Liberia last month, where we closed the third successful United Nations peacekeeping mission in West Africa. Twenty years ago, the region was in freefall with civil wars raging in Liberia and Sierra Leone. These countries were close to failed states; their economies had disintegrated; nearly a third of the Liberian population was displaced; an estimated 80 percent of women and girls experienced conflict-related sexual violence.

Today, with the support of United Nations peacekeeping operations, we see peace and stability taking hold. Civilian institutions have been restored; hundreds of thousands of displaced people have returned home; schools have reopened.
There have been 3 peaceful elections in Liberia; two were won by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman in Africa to be elected President, and the most recent by George Weah, resulting in the first peaceful transfer of power in Liberia since 1944. 

More than 60 percent of Liberians are under 25, and I was incredibly moved to see that young people are truly the custodians of peace, as my sister Leymah Gbowee has said. They are bringing passion and energy to the work of building peace, in their communities, and in their broader advocacy and activism. 

The mayor of Monrovia, Jefferson Koijee, at age 32 one of the youngest mayors in the world, has spoken of channeling the dynamism of his generation into regenerating his city, reintegrating young people traumatized by war, and working with the media, religious communities, civil society and international partners. I wish him all the success in the world. 

Our Peacekeeping missions are high-risk and some of them have problems, which are regularly and rightly highlighted by the media. 

But it’s more difficult to highlight what peacekeeping has achieved, because that may be things that didn’t happen: preventing death and destruction, stopping crises from escalating.

United Nations peacekeeping is changing with the times. The Secretary-General is initiating reforms that put more emphasis on prevention and peacebuilding. We are increasing our work with partners, for example, in Somalia, where we work to support the African Union peacekeeping mission. And we are working to increase the number of women involved in peacekeeping at all levels. Women’s participation in peacekeeping forces reduces the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse and helps us tackle gender-based violence.  

My second example is the Paris climate agreement. Climate change is a global threat in itself, and a massive multiplier of other threats – poverty, humanitarian needs, conflict. 

It is a generational challenge that requires governments to move from short- to long-term thinking. 

In Paris, countries committed to rethink the way we look at our economies. The Paris Agreement is an incredible achievement for everyone concerned, and for our planet. 

We’re not there yet. Climate change is moving faster than we are. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are now higher than they have been for 800,000 years. 

When the Paris Agreement was signed, our shared assumption was that we had the capacity to keep the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees. We aimed to limit it to 1.5 degrees.

Scientists are concerned that this may be unattainable, unless we do more by 2020. We must dramatically raise our ambition.  

The good news is that technology is on our side, and clean, green energy is more affordable than ever.
And around the world, cities, regions, states and territories are taking climate action and setting their own ambitious targets. 

Thousands of private corporations, including major oil and gas companies, are taking their own action.
Whenever they announce a new initiative, or a new target, the Paris Agreement is the point of reference. 

Paris is the benchmark, Paris is the watchword, Paris is our guiding star in the war on climate change – which the Secretary-General has called the defining challenge of our times.

The Paris Agreement would not exist without the United Nations. And let me remind you, it very nearly did not exist. There were enormous setbacks and defeats along the way.
But the former Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and his Climate Chief, Christiana Figueres, did not give up. They got back to work, they found new opportunities, and eventually they succeeded – with the help and support of Member States and many other partners. 

And third, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is our inspiring roadmap to chart the course ahead of us and tackle the root causes of conflict.

Many of you here are familiar with the ambition and reach of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. You cannot study the future of global governance, economic development or human rights without them. The 2030 Agenda is testimony to the power of unity and vision when it is shared by 193 countries, civil society, and the business sector – all coordinated by the United Nations.

What is unique about the 2030 Agenda is that it is truly global. It’s no longer about what some countries can do for others; it’s about everyone working together towards the same set of goals. The 2030 Agenda is changing international development aid from a handout to a handshake. 

Moreover, it is not only about ending poverty and improving health and education. The 2030 Agenda encompasses key areas such as justice, institutions and governance.  It is rooted in human rights and it is universal, applying to every country.  Even the richest have yet to fully empower women or protect the environment.

I’m often asked which is my favourite Sustainable Development Goal. I say that, like my children, individually they are all special, but together, they are amazing. They can’t be separated; they are a whole and they reinforce each other. 

Ladies and gentlemen, dear graduates, 

As the Pope said, one of the biggest challenges we face is the globalization of indifference.  

If you open your eyes to the possibilities, you’ll see there are many ways to make a difference: from giving your time and energy to causes that matter to you, to advocating and standing up for what you know is right. 

You have opportunities to act locally, to volunteer, directly or through civil society organizations.  

Social media offers the opportunity to reach across borders and to join our efforts with others in the same country or around the world, through campaigns, non-governmental organizations and other online communities. 

We now live in a global village, and the United Nations is the global Town Hall, a safe space to look for solutions and reach a better understanding of each other – because we are better together than we are separately. 

Too often, our interactions drive people apart, back into their safe zones, rather than bringing them together. Too often, we dehumanize our enemies when we should be building bridges with them.

Finding solutions to the global challenges we face requires us to find common ground. That means looking for similarities, not differences. It means looking for solutions, not problems. 

Don’t accept the narrative; question the stereotype; focus on the positive and build a bridge, not a wall. 

I have spent my whole life opening my mind to possibilities and finding ways to make a difference. I have always found that as soon as I achieved one goal, like climbing the summit of a mountain, another, higher summit presented itself to me, so I looked for a way to climb that. 

Question everything; don’t accept the received wisdom; look for opportunities to make a difference, and you will find them.  

I am living testimony to the power of this principle. I challenge you all to do the same.
Thank you.