Smart Global Development Conference
Ottawa, Ontario, Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Greetings, all of you, and a special welcome to those of you who have travelled from far and wide to be here.
You missed winter—barely!
Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge that this conference is taking place on the traditional territory of the Algonquin nation.
In fact, the word “Ottawa” comes from the Algonquin word for trade, which makes sense given our location at the junction of three great rivers: the Ottawa, the Gatineau and the Rideau.
Think about that for a moment. For centuries, people have come together on this exact spot to trade goods, ideas and stories.
Today, we continue that tradition. Our theme is the role of higher education in advancing sustainable development goals.
So let me begin with a story.
It takes place a few years back: in 1981, in Karachi, Pakistan.
As you may know, Karachi is home to the Aga Khan University, one of the top learning institutions in Pakistan.
Today, the university is well known as a leader in the field of medicine, but what’s less well known is that this is partly the result of a wonderful partnership that existed between Aga Khan University and a number of North American universities including McGill in Montréal in the early 1980s.
This partnership saw renowned McGill epidemiologist Walter Spitzer and his team working closely with their Pakistani counterparts to share McGill’s lessons learned in establishing a successful community medicine model.
Thanks to this collaboration, the new Aga Khan University hospital was able to build on McGill’s experience in deploying public health services in Karachi!
Back in those days, I was serving as president of McGill, and I had the opportunity to join the Aga Khan in Karachi for the opening of the new university hospital.
I remember being so impressed by the boldness of the Aga Khan’s initiative!
The goal was very ambitious: to bring the best of Western medicine to a country with very distinct customs and traditions.
One of the most striking challenges involved the opening of the nursing school. Many of the nursing students were women, but a traditional barrier existed against the treatment of boys and men by female health professionals.
As you can imagine, this kind of challenge is only resolved by showing a great deal of cultural sensitivity. This was done elegantly and with high professional nursing standards through a partnership with McMaster University’s School of Nursing in Hamilton. In fact, the first dean of the Aga Khan University School of Nursing was a former McMaster professor.
With this story in mind, I’d like to briefly highlight three themes to help guide your discussions to follow:
Inclusivity, innovation and diplomacy.
I’ll begin with the central importance of building strong, inclusive institutions—including learning institutions—as a foundation for peaceful, prosperous, pluralist societies.
All of you understand this is a priority, but that doesn’t make it any easier to achieve.
But it’s essential that we succeed.
Here in Canada, we’re still learning.
In fact, I saw evidence of our learning in action during a recent visit to Nipissing University in North Bay—about a four-hour drive west of Ottawa on the Trans-Canada Highway.
Nipissing is doing some very interesting work in terms of being more inclusive when it comes to indigenous education.
The university has a dedicated Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, as well as:
- An Elder in Residence program
- An indigenous student lounge and sacred space
- An indigenous speaker series
- Mentorship programs
- An annual welcome powwow
- An annual gathering for prospective Aboriginal students
- An indigenous week
Also, the president and vice-chancellor of Nipissing is Mike DeGagné, who is the first Aboriginal president of a Canadian university.
I share all these details for a reason: to emphasize the fact that there’s no single way to foster inclusivity in higher education.
It’s hard work.
It calls for leadership and broad community engagement.
And it requires innovation, which is what I want to speak about next.
Innovation is one of those terms that can mean different things to different people. In this context, I mean finding creative ways to meaningfully improve our quality of life and build a more inclusive, compassionate society. It means taking an existing idea and recrafting it to do things better.
Universities and institutes of higher education are ideally positioned to contribute to sustainable development, because they’re hubs of innovation and creativity!
Let me pose two questions for your consideration at this conference.
One, ask yourselves: what does university innovation in support of global development look like? You’re much more likely to hit a specific target than a vague one, so I encourage you to be as specific as possible in answering this question.
Two, given the existing barriers that prevent universities in the global south from harnessing their creative potential, ask: how do we allow that innate creativity to flourish?
I’d like to share one great example of international innovation in learning that I’ve witnessed as governor general. It’s called the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS, and it has three main goals:
To promote mathematics and science in Africa
To recruit and train talented students and teachers
To build capacity for African initiatives in education, research and technology.
In 2013, I visited AIMS headquarters in Cape Town with Jean Lebel, President of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Canada has been a strong supporter of the AIMS initiative through Jean’s and the IDRC’s leadership.
Also, in Waterloo, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics has formed a unique partnership with the AIMS-Next Einstein Initiative on its global outreach efforts.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, Perimeter Institute director and physicist Neil Turok, the 2016 winner of the American Institute of Physics’ John Torrence Tate Award for International Leadership, donated his cash prize to establish a new scholarship for AIMS students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Neil, who hails from South Africa and is a founder of AIMS, boldly set out early in his career to establish learning institutions so the “next Einstein” could come from Africa. By fostering international collaboration, he has helped to make the dream of higher education real for so many students on that continent.
This brings me to my third and final theme: the diplomacy of knowledge.
The diplomacy of knowledge is simply this: the process by which distinct peoples and cultures come together and improve lives by sharing knowledge across borders and disciplines.
And as I learned in Karachi more than three decades ago, the Aga Khan is a wise practitioner of this brand of diplomacy. He understands that ultimately, sustainable development is an exercise in applying knowledge and diplomacy in equal measure.
You can’t have one without the other!
When we succeed, the results can be remarkable.
By the way, if you want to read more about my admiration for the Aga Khan’s leadership, you can read all about it in the letter I wrote to him in my new book of letters titled The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation. The theme of that letter is how the diplomacy of knowledge can lead us toward a smarter, more caring world.
If you take one thing from my remarks today, let it be this: ask yourselves how your organization can make a unique contribution to a better world through knowledge diplomacy.
One project we have been working on is the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship program. This program is leveraging Canada’s Commonwealth ties to create international study opportunities and globally minded citizens both here at home and abroad.
The goal: to create a dynamic community of globally minded leaders.
I think we’re well underway!
Let me close by summing up:
And let me thank you all for being here to discuss smart global development.
Have a productive conference—I wish you the very best with your important work.