Dr. Sania Nishtar's Keynote Speech at Convocation 2019

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Welcome, Graduating Class of 2019!

Assalamualeikum and a very good morning.

I want to thank the Vice Chancellor for a very generous introduction. I want to thank you for honouring me, and giving me this opportunity to share this very special celebration with you. I want to congratulate all the graduating students because you are at a very important inflection point. Today is what marks your entry into practical life, into the practical world.

Many of us who are at the head table here, have made that journey many years ago. Many of us, who tend to get the rostrum, have the ability to give unsolicited advice; so I hope you don't mind if I reflect a little bit on my own experience, on how I entered into practical life and what I thought was important and what I now think is important based on those reflections.

If you want me to summarise, in a nutshell, I think that there are two attributes or qualities that you learn over the years, which are absolutely critical for success and fulfilment in your practical life. Those attributes and qualities are humility, integrity and thirdly, what the Vice Chancellor called purposive learning. I would like to build upon further and say, it is knowledge-based agility. I have learnt through my practical experience, that if you combine humility with integrity and the commitment to learn, and then adapt accordingly, your chances of success - and not just success - your chances of fulfilment, are much higher in practical life.

I just want to reflect on my first day as a resident, because I'm a doctor by training. On my first day as a resident, I was on call as a junior casualty medical officer. I had never worked in a casualty before. At 2 am in the morning, I got a call to resuscitate a young boy who was 14 years old. There are parents in this hall, and I’m a parent myself, and I still remember the anguish on the face of those parents whose son was almost dead. His mouth was frothing, he had no heartbeat, he had a straight line on an ECG, and I knew I had seconds to revive him.

That day, that boy survived not because I was the best graduate of the class. He did not survive because I had memorised all the chapters. He did not survive because of my knowledge and skills. He survived because I made a decision within two seconds to let go of my ego and to stand back and let the paramedics take a lead on the resuscitation. If I had taken a lead on resuscitation, that boy would have definitely died.

So, perhaps, it's a very unusual message I'm giving you while reflecting on my own past experience in practical life and professional life: if you develop the ability to let go of your ego, at several inflection points when it's time to take decisions in professional life, when it's time to take certain actions, then the likelihood of you delivering better on your aspirations would be much higher. And your actions and aspirations, I genuinely believe, really matter a lot. You are the academic cream of this country. You are the ones, as the Rector just shared with me, who will be picked up by companies - the corporate sector, by the government, by employers, within the next three months if you choose to have it all. So, it’s absolutely essential that you develop the attributes which will allow you to succeed in life.

It is not just this country whose problems you will have to solve. As you all know, we are undergoing a difficult time, a time from which Pakistan will Inshallah emerge successfully very soon. But, you have to be part of providing the solutions as soon as you get up on your feet. It is not just Pakistan whose solutions you have to be a part of, it is also in a more global context. We live in a very interconnected world, and that interconnected world is also a very troubled world. I'm sure you are all aware that we're living in a world today where there are widening inequities, a number of demographic shifts, epidemiological challenges, a rapid wave of urbanisation, many ongoing wars and conflicts, humanitarian crises, perhaps the worst famine in the history of the world and the largest migration wave since the Second World War. This is a world in which the principles of the United Nations system are being questioned and trust in multilateralism is eroding. We are at the verge of many challenges: the global system is at the verge of several threats which threaten to wipe out the development gains of the past centuries, pervasive threats such as climate change and the risks of a pandemic also exist.

So, your ability to respond to those challenges with integrity, agility, and to let go of your ego becomes very important. In the context of this global scenario, there are also many opportunities where your skills and your commitment will really come into play and I want to outline three in particular. The first one of them is the emphasis, the global emphasis, on human capital. Because now, there is an increasing realisation that in the world we live in today, 65% of the wealth of the nation is contributed by its human capital. As opposed to previous times, when physical and material capital was considered as the major currency of success. Nations and the global system is now recognising, that in order to compete in the economies of the future, countries will have to invest in human capital building if they are to become competitive. In fact, so important is this realisation, that the international system is creating frameworks so that as soon as 2025, the borrowing costs of countries will be linked to their human capital rankings. So your role within this emerging scenario, where knowledge and human capital is actually the currency of success, becomes even more important.

The second auspicious global transition is from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Framework. The Millennium Development Goals were very transformative in their own right, but they lacked an emphasis on systemic features. They were very goal-oriented, with time-bound, outcome-based targets, and were developed for the international system to bring dollars to developing countries. But the Sustainable Development Framework is completely different. It is focused on strengthening systems, on data desegregation, which, as you all know is the first step to addressing inequalities.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are focused on revenue mobilisation for countries to take a more active responsibility towards development. It is focused on strengthening countries’ systems, so that the international system can focus on where it has a comparative advantage. The Sustainable Development Framework is also focused on accountability and integrity in the financial system, which is a crucial paradigm shift that the Sustainable Development agenda has brought. We know that human capital development, development in general, sustainability and resilience and anti-corruption are very closely linked. We know, for example, that tax evasion does not just lead to money laundering, but also crowds out the fiscal space, which could be spent on development and human capital formation. We know, for example, that corruption is not just about embezzlement, but also leads to widening of inequities, deepens poverty, imperils the environment and threatens peace and security in so many different ways.

So, it is very important to break this nexus between weak governance of public institutions: the lack of transparency, the lack of accountability and the entrenched systemic manipulation that has become a norm in many developing countries. It is absolutely important to do that. That is where your role becomes important: how do you address that? You address that by building systems. That is where integrity becomes a very important attribute of your workings. That is the second important lesson that I have learnt in my practical life.

So, many years ago, I embarked on a very long journey. I abandoned my career as a physician, as a cardiologist and I tried to find a solution to that problem of inequity which I observed in that hospital cath lab setting, where you have a very narrow focus on things. I embarked on a journey and that journey has taken me from hospitals to wardrooms, it has taken me from peoples to systems, it has taken me from civil society to a ministerial role, and that journey has also taken me from founding grassroots institutions to chairing multilateral initiatives. And that journey has taught me that in order for you to deliver on any systemic objective, integrity is absolutely a key attribute of your functioning.

In fact if you look at lessons from poverty alleviation - and the Vice Chancellor and I like to talk about poverty alleviation because that's the key focus of our government - you will see that wherever there have been quantum changes in poverty alleviation, massive growth in a national setting - of course, growth has been a key component of that - but then it has been coupled with the ability of governments to accrue the benefits of that growth equitably to populations. Wherever we have seen people massively lifted out of poverty, of course key public policy decisions have been part of that, and appropriate strategies like the ones we are trying to formulate and implement, have been part of the ingredients of success. But alongside that, it has also been an honest, redistributing hand of the government, which guards against predatory behaviours. This is why it is key to combine these two approaches. So, the point I'm trying to make is that as you transition into practical life, as you go and find jobs, many of you will aspire to focus on the social sectors.

I know many of you, even those who are working in the corporate sector, aspire for social objectives and social outcomes. In fact, many of the wonderful people here who support this University are from that framing as well; unless you focus on building the systems and focus on some of the neglected aspects of public policy that are crucial for building the systems, then sustainable change will not come. In the integrity bucket, I would also like to throw another aspect of public policy in the mix, which has to do with incentives. Building systems is not enough unless you will create the right incentives for the right endpoints. Just to give you a small example, we’re sitting here in Lahore, the second largest city of the country; if you ordered a pizza, or an Uber or a Careem - private sector actors, even in this environment today, will deliver on the objectives of transparency, tractability, efficiency and accountability. The same systems would potentially be deployed and leveraged in a public sector setting to achieve the kind of outcomes that we all aspire. How do you do that? It is not just a question of building systems, but it is a question of aligning incentives in such a way that the systems deliver the outcome that we all aspire for.

So to end, I just want to quickly summarise my message to you. My message to you is that humility is a very underappreciated, a very under recognised, but a very important attribute of actions and decisions in practical life. You must learn how to let go of your ego. You must learn how to let go of your personal self for the larger interest, and trust me it will pay in the long-term.
Secondly, knowledge - drawing further upon what the Vice Chancellor very correctly said – and constant learning is very important. Continuing to refine your actions, your systems, your ecosystems and the organisational setting where you work, is a very important ingredient of success, as well as the agility to be able to respond to learnings. In my own experience, I have learned from everyone that I have come into contact with.

And thirdly, focus on building systems for the solutions that you desire, for the endpoints that you desire. In building solutions, you must think of the neglected aspects that I talked about. Then you must also think about how to align incentives, to deliver on them. It may be a bit clichéd for it to be said again in the conversation, but I want to reflect again on what the Vice Chancellor said in his reference to Margaret Mead's quote: that it is indeed a few committed people who drive change and who take it to scale. Babar Ali Sahab is not present with us today, but I think the contribution that Babar Ali Sahab and Razak Dawood made in setting up this institution, which they have so systematically cascaded to the next generation, and then to the next one at the podium with us is really remarkable. It is something that we all need to learn from.

So, I really want to thank you once again for the opportunity to share some thoughts with you. I wish you all the very best. As you walk into practical life, I wish you all the best. Thank you.