News and Announcements / News and Announcements

Remarks by Dr. Rajiv J. Shah at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs Commencement

Good afternoon, everyone.

Thank you so much, Dean Ayres. [I’m] thrilled to be with you. I have long admired both your work here at the university, but also on behalf of our country.

And thank you, Wai Ki, for that extraordinary set of comments and reminders of what really matters in life.

Wow. You are already an accomplished and impressive group of leaders. So let me be amongst the first to say congratulations to the Class of 2024!

You’ve made it to the end of a long journey. A journey spent studying the economic and health impacts of $5 pints at Froggy’s. Understanding the lower limits of nutritional needs by surviving for weeks on what you could eat from the 24-hour CVS on 21st Street. And most importantly, demonstrating the importance of wildlife conservation by caring for a statue of a hippo.

All jokes aside, you undertook this journey because you were driven to respond to the pervasive inequality and systemic injustices you see in the world. To the devastation of war. To a deadly climate crisis. And to the opportunity to expand dignity, security, and freedom to the farthest corners of our globe.

You came to the Elliott School, and I hope you are leaving Elliott, believing it is realistic to be optimistic about our capacity, your capacity to change the world for the better.

Now, some of what you learned here may have shaken that optimism. You’ve learned about opportunity cost, friction in war, economic drag, legal liabilities, and on and on.

Some of what’s happened since you’ve been here may have shaken it, too. Covid-19. January 6th. A war in Ukraine. The horrific terror inflicted on Israelis on October 7th. The deeply tragic human suffering of innocents in Gaza. That’s why some of you are asking hard questions of those in authority, including at this university.

I certainly don’t have the answers to these extraordinary challenges we face together. But I do know that if you are going to solve hard problems, you—each of you—will have to maintain a firm, rational optimism over the course of your career. And by that, I don’t mean having a sunny disposition or a positive outlook, and I don’t mean a denial of reality, a dismissal of the difficult, or a refusal to acknowledge setbacks when they happen—and they will.

If the definition of optimism is believing the world can be a better place in the future, than the discipline of staying optimistic requires you to systematically, rigorously, and repeatedly take the steps to make it so.

Today, I want to share a few stories that demonstrate that with discipline, large-scale change is possible. These big bets are why I’m so optimistic about your chances to better our world.

But first, I want to talk about why having a methodology to stay optimistic is so important, especially in the world you’re about to enter. Because you will encounter pessimists. A lot of them.

The thing about pessimists is, they didn’t start out that way. They didn’t walk into their first day at the Pentagon or the United Nations or the Reagan Building or an American embassy in some far part of our globe to say, “Finally, a chance to do small things!”

No, in fact, they kept listening to and learning from people who seemed smart, thoughtful, sounded wise, but who more often than not said, “no, we can’t,” more than they said, “yes, we can.” And then somewhere along the way, they found themselves doing the same thing.

It can happen to all of us. It can even happen to institutions. And it certainly happens to our politics. Because even the most optimistic person, even the brightest beacon of hope, can see that flame dim. Can go from being a beacon to, honestly, a bit of a bummer.

That’s the aspiration trap.

It’s an easy one to fall into, especially when you’re working on the kinds of problems you are about to leave here and commit yourself to: peace in the Middle East. Reversing the decline of democracy. Turning around the regression we’re seeing in the global fights against poverty, hunger, and climate change. On issues like that, you will hear “no” so often it will be easy to lose your way. To lower your sights and settle for incremental activity instead of actually solving problems.

I believe there are a few ways—four ways, in fact—out of that trap.

One, set audacious goals.

Like vaccinating every child on the planet. That’s what Bill and Melinda Gates did 25 years ago. One Sunday morning, they read a New York Times article about a breakthrough new vaccine for rotavirus, a diarrheal disease that mostly infects infants, that was going to be made available to Americans.

Now, how many of you have had rotavirus?

That’s a trick question from med school. Sorry.

The truth is, we’ve all had rotavirus. The thing is, nobody dies of rotavirus here in the United States. But at that time, rotavirus killed 600,000 children each year in developing countries, countries where the new vaccine was not going to be made available.

Bill and Melinda were horrified by that injustice. So, they supported an alliance to give every single child the vaccinations needed to protect them from illnesses like rotavirus.

Plenty of people thought that was impossible. Just out of graduate school, I had the chance to join the [Gates] Foundation’s team at meetings around an extraordinarily large oak conference room table. On one end of the table was Bill, poring over spreadsheets. At the other end were the best experts in global health and public health, people who had made tremendous commitments and improvements to responding to disease around the world. It seemed like every time he asked them a question or tossed out an idea, they would respond with, “It’s complicated.”

These experts were excited about Bill and Melinda’s aspiration. They just thought it was a bit naïve. They thought the guy who had changed how we work and how we live just didn’t understand enough about global health yet.

But they never wavered. And so, we went from a cholera hospital in Bangladesh to the Elysee Palace in Paris, worked with global rockstars and, more importantly, local community health workers, overcame a lot of setbacks year after year, but ultimately changed the way the world finances and distributes public health commodities across this planet.

Over the last two decades, that initiative has vaccinated more than 1 billion children and saved more than 17 million child lives.

Setting audacious goals will get you out of bed in the morning and keep you at your desk late at night. That’ll help you stay on path and stay optimistic, especially when things get tough.

Two, keep searching for solutions.

In April of 2020, people across this country and around the world were desperate for solutions. To the fear. To being stuck at home. To the microbes we all thought were infecting our groceries. To the colleagues who failed to mute their Zooms.

And that’s because no one really knew how many people were contracting Covid-19 or where it was spreading. Because frankly, very few people in America could get a test. I’m sure you remember: if you could find a test at all, it was a PCR test, and it took up to a week to tell you whether you had the virus.

At The Rockefeller Foundation, our team believed the country needed to ramp up production of cheap, rapid antigen tests—and do so quickly.

Unfortunately, not everyone agreed. Not the President of the United States at the time, who encouraged people not to get tested, but to consider drinking bleach instead. You almost forgot about that, didn’t you?

But there wasn’t much support on the other side of the aisle, either. Many mayors and governors, especially in blue communities, didn’t want teachers and students back in classrooms or workers back in offices until the threat was completely eliminated. Fear drove many toward the surety of these slower, but more precise, PCR tests.

Sitting in my wife’s home office, which I had borrowed as our kids went to virtual school in their rooms, I kept joining Zooms with people across the country who saw the promise of the rapid antigen tests. So, the Rockefeller team published a plan that outlined how the US could expand testing from fewer than 1 million a week to 30 million a week. That plan inspired a movement—a movement of Republicans and Democrats, mayors and governors, epidemiologists and industry executives, philanthropists and teachers—that made it possible to mass produce these tests, reopen schools, and much more.

If you’re constantly searching for solutions, you’ll eventually find people and ideas that will refresh your sense of optimism, even in the toughest moments.

Three, forge alliances.

Few people understand the importance of building connections more than a woman named Molly Melching, who founded an NGO called Tostan. Twenty years ago, Molly drove me from village to village across rural Senegal in her old Land Rover.

On those drives, she told me how she and her team had established a program to end female genital cutting. FGC, as it was known, was an ancient practice passed down for generations and one that caused immense harm to young girls and women.

Looking at Molly from the passenger seat, it was hard to imagine exactly how she could get this done. She was a white woman, a former Peace Corps volunteer, a Texas native. But when she got out of the Land Rover, she showed me how.

She spoke to everyone she met—in English, Wolof, whatever it took—including village elders, nearly all of them traditional Islamic men. Separated by age, gender, race, religion, and nationality, that might have seemed odd. But Molly found a way by finding common ground.

Eventually, many of those men became Tostan’s champions, and more than 9,500 villages agreed to abandon FGC, saving countless girls from harm.

Building those kinds of personal relationships, especially with people who are different from you, will broaden your horizons and replenish your sense of enthusiasm for what’s possible.

Four, measure progress.

A few years ago, I was walking through a market in a small village in northern India. We had—the sun had just set, and it was getting dark, when all of a sudden, the lighting and all the noise just stopped. Because the main power grid had gone offline. For a moment or two, everything was hushed, dark, and quiet.

Then, just as suddenly, everything came back on. Because a few hundred yards away, The Rockefeller Foundation’s partners in that area had built a solar-powered mini grid that provided affordable, reliable, renewable electricity to the entire village. I saw how impactful that mini grid was in that market for children heading to night school, shop owners staying open longer and making additional sales, women seeking to walk home safely at night.

I also wondered how much bigger we could go with this effort. Because nearly a billion people across this planet, almost all in very low-income countries, still live without enough electricity to turn on a single lightbulb, or much more.

In 2021, the Foundation, for the first time, borrowed money against our endowment to invest $500 million to create an alliance dedicated to connecting those 1 billion people to clean, renewable power—and to all of the opportunities that come with it.

In the time since, the alliance has grown to 50 partners, started more than 100 projects in over 20 countries. These projects, we estimate, will help more than 50 million people gain access to clean power.

And 50 million is exciting. But it’s nowhere near our billion-person target.

And in the meantime, the world has changed.

High inflation and interest rates have driven more than 40 developing countries deeper into debt. Governments and investors have cut back their investments in energy infrastructure and climate action, even as droughts, hunger, and displacement worsen.

With data like that, it would be reasonable for those of us counting on these projects to simply lose faith in our goals. To struggle to stay true to our boldest ambitions.

But then last month, a couple of our key partners came together and committed enough resources by the end of this decade, 2030, to bring clean electricity to 300 million people in Africa for the very first time, which is the equivalent of displacing dozens and dozens of coal plants.

This commitment alone will not immediately turn the lights on, cut emissions, or create much-needed jobs. After all, this big bet is still underway, and there’s a lot of hard work to do.

But it does show us the power of measuring progress. Because when you persistently measure your results, even if you’re coming up short, you will be grateful you have those insights. You will reclaim your optimism, and you’ll search for different paths to achieve your long-term goals.

As I close, I’ll say there are plenty of other stories like these. Many of them were written over the past 125 years by the 30,000 Elliott School alums that you will now follow.

Those optimists—those rational optimists won world wars. Revitalized the postwar world. Established and led international institutions. Overturned colonialism. Secured civil and human rights. Battled for democracy abroad and at home. And helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and extreme suffering. Make no mistake, they made our world more just, more inclusive, and more peaceful than at any other time in the long arc of human history.

We are more empowered as well. Today’s technology and interconnectedness allow you to do more with your phone during this ceremony than your predecessors could do in a week, a month, or a year.

The question now is, what are you going to do with it?

These stories show what’s possible if you stay optimistic and stay disciplined. If you systematically, rigorously, and repeatedly take the steps to make for a better future.

Now, just remember the one thing you need most: each other.

The people sitting next to you. People who are incredibly curious about the world. Who are committed to changing it for the better. Who, quite simply, care.

And the people sitting behind you, or up in the rafters. Your parents and professors, your mentors and siblings, your friends and loved ones. Who helped you through the past few years and who will help you through the next ones as well.

They are the people who will keep you in line, keep your head up, and keep you going as you grapple with the challenges of our time. As you define our future. Better our world. Save it from crises.

I hope you’ll count on me, too. I’m certainly counting on you.

Thank you. And congratulations to the Class of 2024!

Watch the full speech here