Welcome Address

Mr Firoz Rasul, President, Aga Khan University

Our Chief Guest Dr.​ Ruth Pfau
Members of the Board of Trustees
Deans, Faculty and Staff of the University 
Parents, Supporters and Distinguished Guests
And most importantly, Graduands ​
Assalam-u-alaikum and good morning.

Welcome to the 2015 Convocation Ceremony of the Aga Khan University.

I would like to begin by welcoming all of you to what is the highlight of our University calendar each year. Firstly, I would like to formally welcome our Chief Guest, Dr. Ruth Pfau. Our deep gratitude to you for sharing this day with us today who are graduating. 

Today is the culmination of all the hard work by you, our graduands.   So many early mornings and late nights. All those times when you stared at the same sentence or equation for what seemed like an hour, willing it to make sense. It’s been a long journey, hasn’t it?  You have learned so much and grown so much that I think some of you would hardly recognize the person you were when you arrived on campus to begin your voyage. 

Yet here you are: you made it. You have crossed the ocean that lay before you. You now stand on the shore that was once no more than hazy line on the horizon. This is the moment you have been working for all along. On behalf of all those assembled here, I congratulate you. 

The quality of education and training that you have received would not have been possible without the generosity and encouragement of many donors and supporters. This year, we have more people and ​organizations to thank than ever. During this Convocation week we inaugurated several donor-funded projects, such as the Centre for Innovation in Medical Education and the PET/CT and Cyclotron, as well as the foundation ceremony of the New Private Wing.

Our Stadium Road Campus Capital Campaign was immensely successful, attracting pledges totaling Rs. 2.7 billion or US$27 million. We received pledges from more than 100 individuals, families, corporations, and foundations across Pakistan. In addition, we received a donation of Rs. 2 billion or $20 million for the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health. Their investments are enabling us to do much more: everything from treating hundreds more critically ill newborn babies every year to providing our medical and nursing students with opportunities to hone their skills using new simulation technologies.

Thousands of others here in Pakistan and abroad have generously supported the University in recent years, whether by funding scholarships for students or by subsidizing quality medical care for those who can’t afford it through our Patient Welfare Programme. The governments of Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the United States have also supported the University through major grants and financing. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been very generous in supporting our work in the improvement of women and child health. All of this support speaks volumes about the impact of the University, the high regard in which it is held, and the trust it has earned.  

Of course, we also owe a special debt of gratitude to our Chancellor, His Highness the Aga Khan, whose vision and generosity launched the University more than three decades ago and have sustained it ever since. 

I want to speak to you today about a subject that has been a central concern for our Chancellor, and which is of great importance for Pakistan and its neighbors and for all of the developing world: that is civil society. And in particular, the role that the University and you, the graduands, can play in it. 

By civil society, I mean all those organizations and institutions that typically operate on a private or voluntary basis, and which, to quote our Chancellor, “are motivated by high public purposes.” 

Examples include institutions of culture and education, among them AKU. Commercial, labor and religious organizations. Associations of professionals such as doctors, journalists, nurses and teachers who seek to raise standards and improve practice. Organizations devoted to humanitarian activity, such as the Aman or Edhi Foundations. Broad national coalitions that raise awareness about a particular issue and press for change, for example the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy, as well as small local groups, such as parents who come together to support their children’s school.

Clearly civil society is a broad term. It is meant to capture all that activity which is neither the work of government nor of business, and to remind us of the profound importance of that activity at a time when many people look to either the public or the profit-driven sector for solutions. We might even broaden it still further, and apply it to private individuals acting on their own, whenever they are motivated by a noble ideal and a peaceful social purpose. 

Indeed, I think this is a key point regarding civil society: that every one of us is potentially a member. A CEO, a nurse, a teacher, a student, a farmer, a doctor, an entrepreneur – each becomes part of civil society whenever they seek to defend basic rights, pursue justice or improve the conditions of life for others.

It is in civil society that both our unity and our diversity are expressed. We express our diversity when a multitude of voices speak without fear on every subject. We express our unity through the respect that we accord those whose perspective we may not share, but whose right to their perspective we respect.  

When civil society is strong, communities and countries thrive. We have with us today Dr. Ruth Pfau. As a young doctor, she took it upon herself to launch a campaign to eliminate leprosy in Pakistan. No government minister asked her to do this, because the government did not at that time consider fighting leprosy a priority. No business was interested in this challenge because there was no money to be made from it. Yet today, as a result of a massive, decades-long effort, leprosy has been dramatically reduced in Pakistan. The government has undoubtedly played an invaluable role. But the initiative and much of the energy came from civil society. 

That is an example of why it is so important that we encourage civil society organizations. That is why they should not be feared or discouraged, but embraced as important contributors to the public good. Otherwise, the ‘Ruth Pfau’s of today and tomorrow may find it impossible to help us address the many challenges Pakistan faces. 

This now brings me to you, our graduates; to this University; and to the subject of leadership. Because a vibrant civil society demands leaders. 

Undoubtedly, you have been deeply challenged here at AKU. But the challenge that awaits you now is greater than any you have faced here. 

As I have suggested, civil society depends on voluntary action. But the space for such action often seems limited. We have our own lives and our own interests to look after. Your professional work will be intensely demanding. And there will always be forces that resist change. 

No one can demand that you compose an opinion piece for a newspaper on a vital and controversial subject. No one can compel you to join an organization, still less to found one or lead one. No one can force you to volunteer your time and expertise when a crisis strikes.

To find the determination and desire to take action in such circumstances, and to galvanize others into joining you – that is the challenge you will face, but your determined effort is exactly what is needed to strengthen civil society organizations in our communities, professions and our country. 

Yet I have every confidence in you. I am confident because the education you have received here at Aga Khan University has prepared you for leadership. 

You have learned to practice at the highest international standards; to think creatively and independently; and to work effectively with individuals from many different backgrounds. You have come to see yourselves as agents of change, charged with identifying crucial problems and developing evidence-based solutions. And, critically, you have learned to see your profession in a larger context: to look beyond the walls of the school, the clinic or the hospital, and to inquire into the social conditions that lead to poor health and poor education. 

It is precisely that wider perspective that has prepared you to understand the need for an active civil society, and to play a leading role in it. You know that as badly as we need excellent teachers in our classrooms and excellent nurses and physicians in our operating rooms, we also need them out in our communities, spreading information and awareness and conducting research; we need them to help organize and inspire their colleagues; we need them to work with government to set effective policies. We need them to speak up for those whose voices remain unheard. 

I am confident because of your predecessors: the many distinguished AKU alumni who sat where you are sitting now, and who have taken it upon themselves to bring new modes of thought and action to the places that need them most, and to create new knowledge and strategies for overcoming formidable obstacles. 

Health care and education are linchpins of civil society. No fields of endeavor better demonstrate our compassion for those who suffer, or our responsibility to enable others to fully develop their talents. As teachers, nurses, doctors and researchers, you embody the extraordinary potential of civil society to change the world for the better. 

For the sake of your profession, your community, your country, and your world, I urge you to fulfill that potential. 

Savor this day. Be proud of all you have achieved. But know that another ocean lies before you, and another shore awaits you. 

Thank you all.​