Speech

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Graduation Ceremony

5 March 2018

Remarks by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at the 2018 Graduation Ceremony of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship, the School’s highest honour.

Dame Marjorie, Professor Piot and officials of the School,
Colleagues and friends, 
Graduates!

Greetings, in the name of peace, the noble mission of the United Nations.

I am exceedingly honored by this conferral today and thank the School for bestowing this distinction upon me. And it was wonderful to walk in to the strains of Caribbean steel pan music.

A glorious moment! A commencement at this School, internationally renowned for its research and practice for the good of the public. It allows us to reflect upon the continuity of human efforts to conquer death and disease. This is a commitment that must ever be renewed, needed today more than ever.

Congratulations, graduates!

As you leave The Light cloaked in your newly won achievement, your cohort here transforms. Your associates, students and faculty alike, form the basis of your future network of colleagues and community, who will assist you to become a game-changer towards the joint aspiration the world has declared via the United Nations: to leave no one behind in the quest for sustainable development by the year 2030.
Collaboration is definitional in defending the public’s health. Teamwork. It’s vital, it’s central.

I encourage you to keep engaging with others, bearing foremost in mind the cooperative nature of our public health enterprise.

Somewhere right this minute, somewhere in a rural mountain community, a woman is struggling through a difficult labor. Will she deliver safely? And will that family hear the infant’s first cry?

If the health system works, which is predicated upon sound research and data and statistics for evidence-based decisions – and if the team deploys effectively, chances are excellent that yes, that mother and that infant will survive. Unfortunately, each and every day, more than 800 women and girls do not. They succumb to pregnancy-related causes.

Teamwork. To me, that spirit is personified by Felista, just one of many midwives I know working daily to ensure the cycle of life endures, successfully using her talent, perspicacity, rootedness in her community, and all the humility and leadership that a midwife represents – to get there in time, so childbirth is a moment of great joy!

That’s why, at UNFPA, we like to say, “Call the midwife.”

Draw upon your original mind

I recommend you collaborate effectively; yet remember this: there is a productive tension between collaboration, which entails accommodation, and a spirit of resistance to the status quo, the spirit of inquiry, which brings in your original thinking.

Education entails transmission of accepted wisdom. This is valuable. But sometimes, progress depends on engaging one’s mind beyond the strictures of received knowledge. Miasmas yielding to the theory of waterborne disease. Your newness, your commencing, if you will, is an asset in seeing the world anew. (Professor Piot being a stellar example of doing just that with his Ebola insights occurring at a tender age.)

So use your creativity, use your ingenuity, don’t feel you have to conform, don’t flinch from your original mind.

My wish for you is unlimited horizons! Perhaps your passion for public health will intersect with mine, making the world safer and better, especially for vulnerable women and girls. The UNFPA mandate to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights demands innovative public health thinking. That’s how we shall reach zero preventable maternal deaths, zero unmet need for family planning and an end to sexual and gender-based violence everywhere, including female genital mutilation.

In nomadic communities it is said: “Return to childhood watering holes for more than water; friends…and dreams…are there to meet you.”

I hope that in future years, as you return to your school as a proud contributing alum to recount your public health triumphs large and small…that friends and dreams will await. Muchas Gracias! Thank you! Well done, graduates!