Patrick Awuah challenges graduates to rebuild Africa’s Social Capital

Ashesi_Graduation_2014_Patrick Awuah_PresidentJune 21, 2015
President Patrick Awuah: Your Excellency Mr. Vice President, Nananom, Members of the Board, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Coast, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Mines and Technology, distinguished guest speaker, parents, family and friends, and dear Class of 2015, welcome to the eleventh commencement ceremony of Ashesi University College. Class of 2015, congratulations on reaching this important milestone.

I would like acknowledge with a moment of silence, the passing of Benjamin Cudjoe, Class of 2009, whom you met during your orientation week. As an Ashesi student Benjamin led selflessly. As an Ashesi alum, he was an exemplar, a rising star and a champion for Africa wherever he went. It was with a heavy heart, that we received the news in April this year that Benjamin had passed away while pursuing his MBA at the Kellogg School of Management in the U.S. The Ashesi alumni community will be joining his family at a burial ceremony in Osu today.

Let us take a moment too, this time with loud applause, to thank all those whose contributions have helped bring you to this day. Your family whose encouragement and sacrifice made your education possible; the faculty who guided you and pushed you in your intellectual pursuits; and the administrators who selected you to join to this community, who counseled you in your career choices and who worked tirelessly to maintain a nurturing environment on this campus.

Class of 2015, on this your Commencement Day, I would like to spend a few minutes in a conversation about Social Capital, the glue that holds society together. Social Capital, the value that societies gain through collaboration and collective action, is fundamental to the development of modern societies. Without it, we cannot build and support good schools, hospitals or infrastructure. Without it, we cannot build the great teams necessary to run amazing corporations or effective government. Without it, society becomes a mere collection of individual agents concerned only with their personal interests. Without it, things literally fall apart.

Just last month, I had a conversation with the freshman class about Ashesi’s mission and what we aim to achieve in Ghana and in Africa. It was a wonderful way to wrap up their first year at Ashesi, not unlike our interaction this morning as you conclude your undergraduate education. One difference was, we had time for lots of questions.

They asked many of the questions that you might expect about our mission; our hopes for Africa’s future; tuition fees; and campus life. One person asked, “Since you returned to Ghana from the United States what has been the most difficult thing to adjust to?” I talked about the struggle with poor infrastructure; I talked about the difficulty navigating government bureaucracy; but mostly, I talked about the poor state of sanitation in our country.

I think they were surprised to learn that the litter on the streets of Accra has been, and continues to be, my biggest difficulty. It is the one thing that I just cannot get used to. It bothers me every day, even more than the unpaved road to Berekuso. More than the frequent power outages, and more than our difficulties navigating some government agencies.

The deep uneasiness I feel about garbage on the streets is not just because it is an eyesore and a public health menace, but because of the deeper commentary it makes about our society — the seeming breakdown of our Social Capital. It is an indictment on our ability to solve problems together. It speaks poorly, not only of our municipal government, but also of our communities and our citizens. It makes us look uncivil and uncaring. It is a visual reminder of the corruption and the lack of progress in our society. And it paints a bleak picture of our future.

Sadly, barely one week after that conversation with the Class of 2018, Accra experienced floods that were caused in part by garbage that had clogged storm drains and impeded the evacuation of rain water. In one of the biggest tragedies in our country, almost 200 lives were lost in a single day.

Even as we grieved for the affected families, the citizens of Accra were palpably and justifiably disappointed in municipal government. But we should also be disappointed in the actions of our fellow citizens and ourselves. We should be disappointed in our own apathy. We should make this a call to rebuild our ability to collectively solve problems and to care about the common good.

Social Capital, especially the ability to work with others on complex projects, depends on the trust that comes with ethical behavior and the just enforcement of the law. It also depends on a can-do spirit and the elimination of cynicism and apathy.

I believe that the education you received here at Ashesi has uniquely prepared you to be agents of the Social Capital that Africa needs. On this campus and in these halls, you have been challenged to reflect deeply on the kind of society you would like to see emerge in Africa. You have executed demanding team projects and learned the importance of self-awareness, problem solving and effective communication. You have fully participated in a community of trust, within a student culture that values ethical behavior. You have seen what strong Social Capital can create everyday on campus.

These past few years, you have lived and studied at one of the cleanest and most environmentally sensitive university campuses in Africa. The environment that you experienced here is the result of the actions of a community that is working together for the sake of the common good.

It is not an accident that we have maintained a well-ordered campus, or that every building on this campus is accessible to people living with disabilities. Our built environment is consistent with our values and our vision of Africa transformed.

It is not an accident that Ashesi graduates are so sought after in corporate Africa.

It is not an accident, that Ashesi is now recognized worldwide as one of the most innovative universities in Africa.

I am grateful for the campaign that members of your class helped start, for the sake of our environment, to ban Styrofoam packaging for take-home food in campus cafeterias. It was a great example of good citizenship and leadership. The approach you took –organizing campus debates, getting the buy-in of food vendors, the university administration and most students– was the right strategy. The courage you exhibited in making a final decision through student municipal government even in the face of residual opposition from some students, was the hallmark of effective leadership. Sometimes, achieving Social Capital requires making and enforcing rules that prevent a few people from harming the common good.

We have sought together to build a university that is connected to our society. That is why we have engaged so strongly in the Berekuso community to assist with education and with public sanitation. This week, the headmistress, Auntie Margaret, teachers and pupils of the Berekuso Basic School engaged in a town cleanup for the sake of your Commencement Day. What an incredible gesture of goodwill! It is yet another indication that the work we have begun with the people of Berekuso will grow into much great citizen engagement and a transformation of our community. It is yet another indication that if you set a good example, others will follow.

As students, you engaged not only with Berekuso, but with other communities throughout Ghana and the world. Words cannot describe how proud we all are about the contributions that one of our own, Kpetermini, made in the fight against Ebola in his home country of Liberia. The work he did, in partnership with his colleagues at the iLab Liberia, the World Health Organization, Doctors without Borders and others, was an exemplar of what we can achieve when great teams work together for the common good.

Class of 2015, I feel very confident that you will take the lessons you learned at Ashesi wherever you go, that you will be force for good in the world, and that you will be the glue that binds our society together. I feel very confident that you will help rebuild Africa’s Social Capital.

Through you and your future careers, we will continue our contribution to Africa and the world. I wish you all the best of successes, and I look forward to your contributions in the years to come.

Congratulations, Class of 2015. You made it!