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Commencement Speeches & Citations

Honorary Degree Recipient Stephen Lewis's Commencement Address to Dartmouth College Graduates

Sunday, June 13, 2010, Hanover, New Hampshire

Mr. President, platform party, Trustees, my colleague honorary degree recipients, the family and friends positively levitating with the celebratory spirit which suffuses everyone on this grand day, and above all the graduates here attending, I want to say how extraordinarily privileged and honored I feel to be a part of this day, I want to congratulate the graduates overwhelmingly for what they have achieved, I want to say to my honorary degree colleagues that this is a quite remarkable eclectic group of people who have fashioned contributions that are positively legendary, and we're now bonded forever in the halo of Dartmouth. I must say that I feel tremendous appreciation to be here personally and receive this honorary degree but particularly on the occasion of the first Commencement of President Jim Yong Kim, who is a good and dear friend. I consider this moment to be the pinnacle of my chequered career. I am but a mere and lonely Canadian, well not lonely, because Arthur Irving is here with me. But I must say that it's almost more than my frail psyche can endure to be invited to the precincts of Dartmouth, and I think I should begin these remarks with a confessional: I attended four post-secondary institutions of celebrated higher learning in my own country of Canada over an infinite, not to say unendurable, number of years, and managed never, but ever, to acquire a degree. I have therefore spent my entire adult life shamelessly lusting after honorary degrees so that I could achieve through the back door what was so lamentably denied me through the front. And, this is my first ever degree from within the United States, and I am positively palpitating with excitement. You can intuit that I'm also a little punchy from the sheer exaltation of the moment. I want to deliver the prepared remarks I have with an almost supernatural rapidity in order to protect you from the elements lest the torrents emerge.

As you heard from the president, I served as the UN envoy on AIDS in Africa from 2001 to 2006. The nadir of that tenure was 2003. It's impossible to convey the depths of despair and anguish that consumed the high-prevalence countries of Africa.

The spectre of death and the reality of death were omnipresent, from the graveyards to the village huts to the hospital wards. There were times when entire countries felt like a charnel house, a virtual cemetery. I remember one particularly awful episode: I was visiting the pediatric ward of the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia, with the superintendent, moving from cot to cot, each cot filled with five or six tiny infants, bodies strangled by a combination of malnutrition and what was undoubtedly the AIDS virus.

I had been in the ward for five minutes when an agonizing cry filled the room and reverberated wall to wall like some ghastly other-worldly shriek. I remember convulsively swivelling round to see what in God's name was happening, and there in the corner of the room was a young mother, on her knees by one of the cots, weeping inconsolably as the nurse came in with a white sheet and took the babe away.

What lives with me to this day was that it happened every ten minutes I was in the ward: a wail, a sheet, a nurse, a little morsel of a death.

I remember thinking to myself: has the world gone mad? How is this possible in the first decade of the 21st century? But of course, not only was it possible, but it was happening to huge percentages … , 10, 15, 20, 30, 35 per cent of the population between fifteen and forty-nine years of age, of whole countries, and in the decisive majority, to the women of those countries.

What was so appalling was the fact that by 2003, we had anti-retroviral drugs available; to be specific, three drugs in one pill to be taken twice a day. It was called triple-combination therapy. It kept people alive. So powerful and effective were the drugs that they were said to cause the Lazarus effect … people at death's door suddenly underwent a startling metamorphosis: they got better, they looked after their family, they returned to work, they survived!

But for some reason, the world was paralyzed in its response. It might have been racism, it might have been geography, it might have been indifference; whatever it was the treatment did not roll out, even though, by then, there were generic drug equivalents emerging that made treatment financially possible.

Millions of lives were lost, unnecessarily; millions were put at risk, unnecessarily. It was unconscionable. It was unforgivable. It was a kind of moment of international criminal delinquency.

And then something astonishing happened. It came in mortal form: it was called Jim Kim.

Alright, this is where it gets embarrassing, but I refuse to be cowed by circumstance. On December the first, 2003, the World Health Organization—WHO—launched a campaign against AIDS called "3 by 5." The objective was to put three million people into treatment by the end of 2005. The idea, months in gestation—startling, inspired, brilliant, came full-blown from the brow of Jim Kim … which, when I think of it, may explain his permanently furrowed forehead.

There's no beating around the bush here. Jim Kim became the director of HIV/AIDS at WHO. He had a tremendously supportive Director-General and the two of them together drove things forward. I was flush in the middle of being the Envoy; I watched it close-up, and I can say, unequivocally, that it was the absolute turning-point in the struggle to subdue the pandemic.

But it wasn't easy. And it wasn't easy for the most ridiculous and distressing of reasons: one of the singular truths about the United Nations, rarely known by the outside world, is the degree of jealousy and competitiveness amongst the agencies. And the sorry truth about "3 by 5" is that some in the UN world of AIDS were incensed by Jim Kim's initiative, were incensed that he'd taken the lead, were incensed that it gave WHO all kinds of kudos and profile, were incensed that they were left in the murky backwater of the also-rans. They couldn't sabotage things directly—after all there is a limit to vile human behavior—but they sure as the devil weren't going to help it succeed.

And at every opportunity, behind the scenes, sotto voce, they forecast failure. But nothing daunted Dr. Kim and his colleagues. They persevered regardless the range and rivalry.

In mathematical terms, "3 by 5" didn't make it. It didn't make the full three million. But in human terms, it was a magnificent success: what "3 by 5" did was to unleash a rollout of treatment that became irreversible. Thus it is that today there are nearly five million people in treatment, primarily in the developing world, overwhelmingly in Africa. Your university president contributed significantly to keeping those people alive.

Can I tell you something privately, never to be revealed to the outside world? I love Jim Kim. I'm not for a moment self-conscious in saying it. I readily concede that not everyone is going to be a Jim Kim. But I would insist that it's possible for everyone to make a contribution to improving the human condition.

You are graduating from one of the most esteemed universities on the planet. Whatever the discipline, whatever the profession you embrace, it's possible, over the years, to better this often fetid world. You don't have to devote your life to it—no one is asking for some saintly transformation—I am only asking for a sense of being a global citizen, of caring about the injustice in this world, and doing something, however modest, to bring an end it.

In Washington this past week, just completed, there was a conference called "Women Deliver," attracting the participation of over three thousand concerned advocates and activists from every corner of the globe. The conference addressed, head-on, all those issues that so compromise the lives millions of women lead, whether international sexual trafficking, or female genital mutilation, or the absence of inheritance rights and property rights, or honor killings, or child brides, or the lack of economic autonomy, or dismal political representation, or maternal mortality, or intimate partner violence, or marital rape, or the spreading contagion of savage rape and sexual violence in situations of armed conflict, like the Congo, and the crazed lust for political power, like Zimbabwe.

It's impossible, in the face of all of this, not to realize that the most important struggle in the world is the struggle for gender equality. You cannot continue to marginalize half the world's population and expect to approximate social justice.

This isn't to suggest that everyone has to pick up the cudgels of engagement and join some organization devoted exclusively to human rights for women, although that would be a worthy pursuit. But it does mean that in your personal and professional lives, above all the lives of young men, whether played out in the family, the community or the workplace, respect for women and a recognition of equality become the benchmarks of civilized behavior.

It carries a message. It ripples inexorably outwards. It's also a part of global citizenship.

Next month in my country, Canada, we're hosting both the G8 and the G20. Undoubtedly, they will devote a major chunk of debate to the international financial crisis. The agenda also calls for significant attention to maternal and child health, attention to the ghastly reality of between three hundred and four hundred thousand women dying every year in pregnancy and child birth, and the heartbreaking statistic of nearly eight million children dying every year under the age of five from wholly preventable diseases.

Added to this, if we're lucky at the G8 and G20, there'll be an intense exchange over the catastrophic decline in funding for HIV/AIDS, dismembering the legacy of "3 by 5," and threatening the survival of nine million additional people living with AIDS who need treatment now. Today. This very moment.

Again, I'm not asking that you hurl yourselves into the fray … that you up and join a non-governmental organization and take yourself off to Africa, although that is a worthy consideration. I ask only that you talk about these issues, care about these issues, perhaps financially contribute to the solution of these issues. Globalization and global citizenship is not some rigid construct or dialectic: it takes many forms.

The same argument applies, I believe, to the summit of world leaders to be held at the United Nations in New York in September. They will be discussing progress on the Millennium Development Goals; eight goals to be reached by 2015, the most central of which is to confront the poverty of the developing world … the staggering fact that 1 billion four hundred million people in the world live on less than a dollar and a quarter a day.

And the same argument further applies, I believe, to the meeting in November this year in Mexico City, when the nations of the world will gather to address, yet again, the apocalyptic implications of climate change.

But in a vein similar to what I've said before, I don't ask that you become climatologists. I don't ask that you become resident environmentalists, although that would be quite wonderful. I don't ask that you do further postgraduate studies in wind turbines, solar energy, biomass, or any other renewable energy alternatives. I ask only that you take this incredible education that you've amassed at this remarkable institution, and analyze and engage and reflect and dispute and embrace, but above all be involved in shaping a more secure, just, and decent world.

Global issues; global citizenship. There's nothing more noble than the quest for social justice and equality. As of today, you can choose to launch yourself onto that path.

With full heart, I congratulate you, I salute you, and I thank you profoundly for this honor.

Last Updated: 3/7/16