Speech by Dr. Akinwumi A. Adesina President, African Development Bank Group – Commencement Ceremony The MBA Class of 2023 Saïd Business School, Oxford University – 8 September 2023
Good morning to you all.
I wish to thank the Dean, faculty, and students at the Oxford University Saïd Business School for the great honour of being the Commencement speaker at your graduation ceremony today.
When your invitation was conveyed to me by Ms. Arunma Oteh (former Vice President at the African Development Bank, and also at the World Bank Group), a faculty member here and a close friend of mine, I did not hesitate. I have great admiration for Oxford University. The last time that I visited the Business School was in 2016 when I spoke to the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellows.
In between my admiration for the school and Arunma, you had me cornered!
I am absolutely delighted to be here!
What a joyous day this is for you all, the MBA class of 2023. You have worked so hard, overcome innumerable challenges, and you have succeeded. You have also made your families, colleagues, friends, and lecturers, who are here to celebrate you, equally proud of your accomplishments.
You are among the very privileged few in the world. Graduating from Oxford sets you apart. Your school, the Said Business School, is one of the best in the world. I am delighted that the benefactor of your institution, Mr. Said, is here with us today. Thank you, Mr. Said for your exceptional generosity to the school and the support you provide that helps produce MBA graduates that will shape our world.
Class of 2023, in front of me today I see builders and shapers of hope. You have been well prepared to go into this world to become change makers. You have you received a world class education, and you are ready. The world awaits you!
The world faces many complex challenges. At the top of this is climate change which poses existential risks for the world. We must do all we can to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 degree Celsius. We need innovations to power the world better with renewable energy.
We must do all to feed the world. It is not acceptable that over 2.3 billion people in the world go hungry every day. God did not create stomachs to go empty. He created them to be filled. There must be a hunger-free world.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us the importance of global pandemic preparedness and to ensure no one is left behind as far as access to affordable health care is concerned. After all, all lives matter, for the rich and poor.
Recently, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres raised the alarm that the world is off course on meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—our collective agreement to shape a better world for all.
A better world for 940 million people who are without electricity in the world.
A better place for 3 billion people without clean cooking energy—a majority who are women, and of which millions and their children die from inhaling smoke while trying to cook decent meals for their families.
A better world for 2 billion people without access to clean water and 4.5 billion people without sanitation.
A better world for the 1.7 billion people without access to basic finance, credit, savings, payments, or insurance.
A better world for the 244 million children that are out of school, including 129 million girls. Many of them have dreams just like you today.
However, they cannot achieve their dreams, and neither can our world achieve our collective dream of a more just and equitable world unless we prioritize financing for developing countries to accelerate development.
The global financial architecture is failing development in the world as it faces multiple challenges. The global financial architecture needs to be modified to tackle global challenges, move effectively, and to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The global pension funds and institutional investors, which many of you will go on to work for, have over $145 trillion in assets under management. As you do, I encourage you as leaders to ensure that these vast resources are directed towards the collective good.
We must ensure equal opportunities for all. Regardless of one’s economic, social, or racial background, we must create a level playing field for a more just, fair, and equitable world.
More than ever, the world needs change makers.
Change makers that can carry the love of God into a turbulent world. Change makers with a heart. You cannot shrivel, you must blossom. You cannot be hidden; you must stand out. Learn to commit yourselves to working hard and making a difference.
Regardless of where you find yourself, live a purposeful life. Inspire others. Support others. Pour yourselves into helping others unleash their potential. Live for others, do not live for yourselves. Then, you would have fully made the only wealth that counts: the wealth of creating hope for others.
Do not get me wrong, we need wealth, we just have to make sure we are not creating wealth at the expense of our common existence. We need a more just and a more equal world. One where the riches and wealth of the few do not undermine the potential and possibilities of the majority.
As MBA graduates, you have been provided with the tools you need to help generate more wealth, and to manage corporations and economies better. Put those skills and tools to work to make our world a better place for all.
Whether as entrepreneurs, financial analysts, asset managers, or leaders in the public sector, you are destined for success by virtue of the first-rate education you have received at Oxford’s Said Business School. Today, you join over one thousand graduates from here who have gone on to set up successful business ventures.
Bring into the workplace a mindset to work for others not just yourself. A selfless mindset. A dedication to justice, equity, and fairness. A determination to promote transparency, inclusion, honesty, and integrity. A determination not to be sucked in by the slimy allure of insatiable corporate greed that has wreaked havoc on the lives of millions, through creative accounting, misrepresentation of the valuation of companies, or the selling of securities that lead to insecurities.
It is often said that history repeats itself because people do not learn lessons from the past. As many of you will go into the world of global finance, let me remind you that history matters. Let me remind you that reckless lending, weak underwriting of mortgage-backed securities (subprime), poor regulations, unbridled risk taking, and the selling of risky financial derivatives to unsuspecting investors, helped pull the world economy down, and led to the Depression in 2008.
The global financial contagion effects swept like wildfire across Europe and Asia, especially, as global output and trade declined, commodity prices fell, countries faced liquidity crisis, tens of millions around the world lost their jobs, and poverty levels rose as social programs were reduced. The insatiable greed of a few for wealth triggered a financial contagion that caused immeasurable lifelong consequences for many around the world.
The recent Silicon Valley Bank collapse is yet another case in point. SVB assets had grown from $72 billion in 2019, to $220 billion by 2022. Tech companies had stacked up deposits in the Bank, rising from $62 billion to $198 billion. But SVB’s business model quickly unraveled, as interest rates rose, and the value of its bond portfolio plummeted. Depositors made a run on the bank. HSBC had to buy SVB for £1, securing the deposits of clients. But for this, once again, we would have seen the businesses and livelihoods of millions of people in jeopardy.
There is no doubt that the withering down of financial regulations that prevent unbridled speculative activities led to the 2008 global financial crisis. The tightening and toughening of the regulatory environment put back the guard rails. But those guard rails are now being gradually removed. This may portend well for quick wealth creation for a few, but could trigger greater risk taking and financial speculation, again—all oiled by greed.
I read a screaming headline recently that said, “Greed is good.” Really? I do not think so. Greed is the spark that leads to financial forest fires that blaze unchecked until all in its path is consumed. There is a need for greater regulations to protect the lives and livelihoods of millions of peoples from the predatory practices of speculators. But more than ever, there is a need for strong ethical and governance standards in financial institutions and corporations.
The drive for high risk-adjusted returns should not lead to moral hazards that put at risk the lives and livelihoods of people. It is not just about growth or competitiveness. It should be about security and stability.
You’ve got your MBA. Congratulations!
You deserve it and you worked so hard for it. Now add to it the key for success—integrity. Integrity is about honesty, transparency, authenticity, and trustworthiness. Famous investor, Warren Buffett once said, “In looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” In other words, intelligence, and energy, without integrity is a disaster.
While your MBA will open doors for you, it is integrity that will keep you successful and make the world a better place. Integrity is the currency you will spend throughout life. Do not squander it. Lose your integrity and all you will have left is nothing but emptiness.
There is a litany of business executives who have been derailed by greed and succumbed to unethical behavior, financial gimmicks, creative accounting, and fraud. There is no alternative to truth. Truth is truth.
As you go out into the business world, stay within the rules and regulations. You all look great in your suits today. Keep it that way. Don’t trade your striped business suits for orange jumper suits. Do honest business—stay out of trouble.
Set your goals and stick with them.
About four years ago, I wanted to raise the capital of the African Development Bank. A major shareholder who spoke with me at the time, said, “This is dead on arrival. You are a first-term President. No first-term President of the Bank has ever done this.” Subsequently, a barrage of others expressed similar sentiments.
I was undeterred.
My team and I were convinced we were on the right path. We persevered. Two years afterwards, the shareholders of the Bank unanimously approved an increase in the capital of the Bank from $93 billion to $208 billion, the largest capital increase in the history of the Bank since its establishment in 1964.
And we achieved even more.
Last year, the African Development Bank was ranked as the best multilateral development finance institution in the world. This year, the African Development Bank was ranked as the most transparent financial institution in the world for our lending operations to governments.
Here is the lesson: Never doubt yourself.
If you do not believe in yourself, no one will believe in you. Your worth is not based on what people think, or say about you or your ideas. It is the value you place on yourself and your ideas. Those who succeed do not check the pulse of public opinion to see how they are doing every day. They set goals, drive to achieve them, and remain tenacious when others doubt them.
To succeed, build alliances and partnerships. Don’t try to be successful alone; be successful together with others. An African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
An African tree you may all be familiar with is the “baobab.” Its trunks are huge and under it elders in many villages gather and tell stories, or hold meetings. If you try to wrap your arms around the baobab tree it is impossible. But if you join hands together with several others, your collective arms can embrace the baobab tree.
That’s what I call the “Baobab approach.”
At the African Development Bank, I use the Baobab approach with great successes. Earlier this year, we wanted to support Africa to mitigate the effects of the disruption in global food supplies, due to the Russian-Ukraine war. We had developed plans for countries across Africa to be self-sufficient in food within five years. We now needed to get this financed.
I told my team: deploy the Baobab approach. We did. We worked with development partners around the world. Within six weeks of the Summit, we had raised $70 billion in commitments to implement investments across Africa.
Nothing works better than collective success. Never work alone.
Now, you must go out and be all that you can be. Now you must rise and shine!
Be a doer!
Take decisive action.
Be resilient in the face of whatever challenges come your way.
Never stop doing good.
Think with your head but act with your heart.
The most powerful instrument you will find in your hand is the power of your pen. When you reach positions of leadership, use that pen to positively change the destinies of people: in your office, in your neighbourhood, in your city, in your nation, and in the world. Let the ink that flows be the ink of kindness that always flows from your heart.
Be compassionate leaders and make the world a better place for all.
Ahead of you is a stretch of life.
Live it fully.
Live it, doing the right thing.
Live it, supporting others.
Live it, doing the best you can to improve the lives and livelihoods of people around the world.
Use the Baobab approach.
Now, let us have all of you stand, holding hands, and then say together: “We will succeed!”
Yes, you will.
Go out and make a difference in the world!
May God put wind behind your sails.
God bless you all.
Thank you very much.