Mahmoud Mohieldin’s commencement speech at American University in Cairo

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Perseverance, Inclusiveness, and Progress

Mahmoud Mohieldin, WBG Senior Vice President at the American University in Cairo Commencement Address

President Ricciardone, members of the Board of Trustees, I am profoundly honored and touched by the decision of the American University in Cairo and its Board of Trustees to confer upon me the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

I first want to extend my thanks to the faculty, administrators, and staff of AUC for your hospitality, and my congratulations on making this a world-class institution of learning.

I’m also very thankful for the opportunity to speak here as you celebrate nearly 100 years of a storied existence. The university has come a long way from its early days, when it awarded its first diplomas to just 20 students in the junior college in 1923.

So congratulations to the graduates here today whose lives show so much promise for our nation and the world. This is a big day for all of you, which you have worked tirelessly to reach. You deserve to be recognized and to feel proud for reaching this milestone.

Now, I’d like to ask all of the AUC students graduating today to stand.

Now, I want all of you to turn around and face the audience behind you.

Now, please join me in applauding and thanking the people who helped you achieve what you’re being recognized for today: your parents, your family, your friends, and your teachers here on campus and in other phases of your lives.

Ok, you can sit down now.  Don’t go anywhere. I have a few words I’d like to share with you.

That felt good, didn’t it? This won’t be the last time you thank those good people, for reasons you’ll appreciate more in the years to come.

Before I start, I should tell you that, although I have university degrees and certificates framed with pride on a wall at my home, in Kafr Shukr, and have attended many graduation ceremonies, I have never sat through my own graduation ceremony where I was handed a diploma, simply because each time I finished my exams, I rushed back home to be with my family and friends here in Egypt. So today I share something in common with many of you: we are being handed a diploma for the very first time — and I am honored  to join you.

I have always admired AUC, in part because when I was an undergraduate student at Cairo University, the library at AUC was one of the best in the country. I somehow got permission to visit the old campus, and asked many friends to borrow books for me under their own names — and at their own risk. I can only assume that I’m able to receive this honorary degree today because there are no outstanding late fees.

Over the years, I have learned a great deal exchanging knowledge with AUC students and faculty. One example is Professor Heba Handousa, who I worked for more than 30 years ago, when I was a research assistant in a project she was conducting on industrial policy. She asked me to compile raw data from the Ministry of Industry and the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority. And I can tell you that, at the time, the process of mining data from the dusty shelves of government bureaucracies wasn’t much better than actual mining in the deserts of Egypt. Yet, under the supervision of a meticulous AUC economist, I learned the principles of properly collecting and analyzing data and evidence.

I benefited from the excellent lecture notes of AUC Professor and Econometrician William Mikhail, which helped me a great deal during my postgraduate studies in England.

I also joined AUC Professor Adel Beshay in many committees and seminars, and I always admired his way of simplifying complex issues.

In addition, many staff members of the Cairo University Faculty of Economics and Political Science also taught at AUC. One of them was my PhD student whose daughter is graduating today. For the economists among you, this is a kind of vague proxy for an overlapping generations model. For the rest of you, this is an economist’s attempt at a joke that can be ignored without harm.

I also supervised a number of postgraduate students, and recruited numerous talented AUC graduates to do the tough work of public service. I am pleased to report that they survived and even flourished, with many serving in senior public and corporate positions.

What makes this day even more special for me is the fact that your valedictorian, Mariam, is the daughter of Akram Akeel Mazhar, one of my closest friends, whom I met when we were 17, just beginning university. Akram wasn’t just my close friend, he was also an example of how a man should be. He was a man of dignity, piety, and generosity — with a great sense of humor and infinite wisdom. It was one of the saddest days of my life when we lost him five years ago, when he was just 48 years old. Mariam, you have made us all proud, and without a doubt, your father would have been the happiest person here, celebrating your achievement.

For all of you graduating today, you must know that it is a rare privilege to graduate from such a prestigious university. Indeed, to receive higher education at all  is a privilege — given how many promising young people do not have an opportunity to attend a university, both around the world and in this country.

Yet, with these great privileges comes great responsibility.

Your impact will be felt, whether you go on to receive more degrees, join academia, start a business, work in a corporation, in civil service, have a life in non-profit work, or become an artist or a professional athlete. (But please in whatever you do, don’t allow anyone to call you خبير استراتيجي – a “strategic expert” — you know what I mean).

I know it’s customary in commencement speeches to tell the graduates “go and change the world” – but all of us know that the world is already constantly changing, and now it’s changing even faster. Much faster.

So the question should be: how will you influence these changes to benefit yourself, your community, your environment, your country, and your world?

As you begin your journey, as you search for the road signs that help you find your way, I have three messages to share with you.

The first message is about perseverance.

James Baker, a former US Secretary of State and a rare kind of statesman, was frequently quoted by former World Bank President Bob Zoellick, as saying that “Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.” These are the Five P’s, which underpin the idea of perseverance. Those who are most prepared are most likely to have the best performance.

Yet, as my daughter, an argumentative 3rd year Engineering student at Dartmouth College, challenged me once saying prepared or not, failure does happen. Didn’t you know, she asked, that your favorite actor Will Smith said: “Fail early, fail often, fail forward.”

You cannot always control the outcomes. However, you can control how you respond to failure.

In Silicon Valley in California, the home of the world’s greatest tech breakthroughs and fortunes, there is another alliterative saying among the venture capital community: Fail Forward Fast. They embrace the iterations, because mistakes and failures define the boundaries of success. In venture capital it is typical for a fund to invest in ten companies and expect that eight or nine will fail, and only the tenth firm will succeed and make enough money for investors to make a profit.

One ought to remember that fear of failure — not failure itself — is the biggest enemy of success.

In this great day of your achievement and success, one needs to know that if failure happens, it isn’t always, and actually should not be, due to a lack of effort. There are, of course, many external factors beyond your control.

One factor beyond your control is often your health. I missed my first post-graduate exam due to an appendectomy. It was a frustrating experience, but it enriched me at the same time, bonding me closer to classmates and flatmates, who rescued me calling an ambulance, and helping me appreciate the professionalism of the nurses at the public hospital in Coventry who cared for me.

Yet for all the healers in the world like those nurses, the world has many people who seek to cause harm or pull others down.

In a conversation I had with His Holiness Pope Shenouda III (the Third) I mentioned a little anecdote I had heard about him: that people said he remarked that the acronym PhD stands for “pull him down.” He smiled very kindly, and then said “no I didn’t say that, but I could use it in some very particular occasions. But let me tell you something better.” And he said in (Egyptian) Arabic: الراجل النبيه مطرح ما ترميه تلاقيه which could be translated to mean “whatever situation you put a clever man into, despite the odds, he will persevere.”

I joined the government at a very young age. I was the youngest member of the board of the Central Bank of Egypt in its history, and the youngest cabinet Minister.

During my time in government, which lasted for more than 15 years in different capacities, I found that in times of tough decisions or criticism, some people around you offer unsolicited advice, quoting proverbs irrelevant to the context, such as لا يرمى بالحجارة إلا النخيل المثمر. (Only the fruitful palm tree is hit with stones). I would normally react with some skepticism and say, “as a farmer, I am more familiar with oranges and citrus fruits. Can we find out more about the substance of the negative reaction? One must consider what went wrong in order to improve: was it due to a bad decision? Bad communication? Bad timing? Or was it just politics?”

These kinds of challenges are not unusual. While your path is unique, the journey will require determination, courage, and perseverance to succeed.

My second message is about inclusiveness.

I was very pleased when I read that among your graduates today, 58 percent are women. This is great news. In fact, you’ll be interested to learn that this figure is very consistent with the rest of Egypt.

There are many aspects of inclusion — certainly one is gender. Are we serving the interests of the country by giving women equal opportunities so they can help our country grow and prosper?

By any measure, AUC is helping with this trend, with its high percentage of women graduates. However, once Egyptian women go into the labor force, they have less opportunity. They comprise just 23 percent of the total labor force in Egypt, compared with a 40 percent average for the world.

Women are also less likely to have access to financial services, which is key way for them to control their economic destiny. Again, the figures are striking: if you are a woman in an advanced economy, your chance of having a Bank account is 93 percent – only 1 percent lower than it is for men. However, if you are a woman in a developing country, your odds are 59 percent – 9 percent lower than your male counterparts. And if are under the age of 25, your financial access drops by another 10 percent. Bear in mind that this is just a measure of access to bank accounts, not the money deposited in the account, nor access to other types of financial services.

Again, this shows that, without the inclusion of all people, we have little chance of achieving our potential.

Furthermore without including youth in education, labor markets, decision-making, and society at large, attempts at meaningful sustainable development will be in vain.

As young people, you will play a leadership role, and to succeed you need to engage others as well. This is a responsibility that comes with your education.

In countries like Egypt with a large population, we need to include local communities in decision-making, and provide them with the resources to implement them. We need to build a consistent and coherent system of localization.

All of us, without exception, belong to a community. It could be your neighborhood, your social club, your sports club, your family, your professional community, or your network of friends from school or university. These communities can operate today more effectively, for the common good, using information technology — regardless of their geographic location or distance between people.

Two frequently cited stories of successful inclusion and – I would say – localization with high international standards, include the great achievements of Dr. Mohamed Ghoneim in the local community of Mansoura in the Egyptian Delta and his work with a superb team to establish a world-class health center for kidney disease and transplants; and in the south of Egypt, in Aswan, Dr. Magdi Yacoub who had great success in the establishment of a world-class center for heart disease. From the north to the south of Egypt, these real-life examples demonstrate that you can be global in your knowledge, and deliver a great service, one that is held to international standards but delivered at the local level– for the benefit of all people.

In the area of education, we would be more likely to make progress if we would have, at a minimum, a university with AUC’s standards in every governorate in Egypt.

Who will make this happen? Perhaps one or more of you here will.

And it has been done elsewhere before. South Korea is a great example of inclusive growth and sustainable development over the past 50 years, and has more than 250 universities for 50 million people. So with Egypt’s population, that’s the equivalent of 500 universities. And as we all know, it’s not just about quantity of universities, it’s also about their quality, so talking about 27 universities in the 27 governorates – all at the AUC standard — is not an exaggeration of the need.

While my job is to support the implementation of the global Sustainable Development Goals, it is very much the case that success or failure will be defined by local efforts, local engagement, local education, and local services.

History and evidence have shown us that there’s no such thing as a “trickle-down effect”.

Without sufficient investment in – and inclusion of — women, youth, and local communities, we have little chance of reaching the ambitious goals of sustainable development.

We are depending on all of you to help make it happen.

My third and final message is about progress

I’d like to share the great wisdom of Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, the Egyptian philosopher in his last book “Harvest of the Years.” After many years of learning and studying the civilizations of the East and West, he found that the main value worth endorsing in life is the value of progress.

However progress today faces more severe challenges than in Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud’s time. At this time in history – your time in history – there is an unprecedented and rapid pace of change.

It’s an era in which we must take massive amounts of data and information and curate it into useful knowledge to help us manage the competition of the new industrial revolution, manifested again as man-versus-machine. The first industrial revolution of the 18th century displaced working-class people – so-called “blue collar” workers. Now, machines are getting smarter with artificial intelligence, and compete not only with blue-collar workers, but also “white-collar” workers in the professional class – including doctors, lawyers, physicists, accountants and auditors — and all other colors of collars.

For any progress to happen, wisdom is critical. But it is the pinnacle of a pyramid built first on knowledge, which is in turn built on information – accurate information.  This reminds me of a maxim by the advisor to the Pharaoh, Ptah-Hotep: “Don’t be conceited about your own knowledge. The perfect word is as rare as an emerald yet it may be found among the maidservants working at the millstone.”

And indeed nothing can match the words of the Holy Quran: يُؤْتِي الْحِكْمَةَ مَن يَشَاءُ وَمَن يُؤْتَ الْحِكْمَةَ فَقَدْ أُوتِيَ خَيْرًا كَثِيرًا (2:269) –This verse, which was frequently cited by one of the wisest people in my life, my late mother: Allah gives wisdom to whom He wills, and whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good.

It would not be very wise to assume that deep knowledge can be attained at a very young age. To bridge gaps of knowledge, one should seek advice from trustworthy people with achievements in life.

I listened to my father carefully when he said that people often take major and critical decisions in their lives when they are at a very young age, with very little experience — and that they make very generous and sometimes incorrect assumptions. Yet, as we know, they have to make these decisions with as much information as they can get, and must always be willing to adapt and correct course moving forward.

When I aspired to be in public service at the very young age of 11, I was advised against this aspiration — and as you can see, I didn’t listen. Then, at 16 I  decided to become a physician, but I took my father’s advice not to follow that path. He was a physician himself, and I assumed he knew more about me and my suitability for the profession. So then at 17 I decided to be an engineer. But then, my uncles and other family members convinced me that there are more promising professions for me, and I settled on becoming an economist, a role very suitable to my first choice of public service.  I’m happy with my decision, as well as my decision at the age of 21 to marry my wife, a fellow student then. I can say that after many years of marriage that that was a very wise decision—and of course it isn’t wise to say otherwise.

For a nation, pursuit of progress in a rapidly changing world is like a marathon. To win the competition among nations, we must master the protocols of success: invest in the resilience of economies and societies against expected and unexpected shocks.

There is a need to invest in infrastructure of the future – we need indeed the roads and bridges that are required to transport goods and people, but we also need infrastructure to help connect ideas and information.

However, the most important investment is in human capital. I’m proud to serve at the World Bank Group, whose president, Jim Yong Kim, is leading a transformational global effort called the Human Capital Project that we hope “will help prepare everyone to compete and thrive in the economy of the future – whatever that may turn out to be.”

In fact, all of today’s graduates are a great example of investing in valuable human capital.

You and your families worked hard and sacrificed – and they invested in you. In exchange for that hard work, you will receive a certificate – not just a certificate of a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science to be framed and hung on a wall to prove that you successfully completed years of higher education. More importantly, it is a license for lifelong learning.

And your journey starts now.

It is yours to define, yet many others will share the road with you. Your common destination is a world that is the sum of all of our dreams and aspirations.

To those you applauded earlier, and who sit in the chairs behind you today, you are both in their debt, yet also obligated to repay that debt to the next generation.

I wish you many blessings, and the very best of luck, as you travel toward a brilliant future.

Thank you, congratulations again! مبروك