University of Toronto Convocation

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
University of Toronto Convocation

Thank you, Frank for your generous citation.

I can think of few Canadians who have brought such inspiring and decent leadership as you have to as many different institutions throughout your brilliant and remarkable career. It is a great honor to have been your student, your colleague, and now, of course, your friend.

I am indeed thrilled to be here today, and want to thank Chancellor Wilson, President Gertler, Trinity College Provost-designate Moran, Interim Dean Brunee and Dr. Stein.

I also want to thank Justices Abella and Feldman along with Chancellor Emeritus Jackman, President Emeritus Prichard, and Mr. Laskin for being part of the ceremony today and for the remarkable kindnesses you have shown Joanne and me over many years. To share this platform with you today is a great honor. Uncle Jack – it is wonderful to have you here.

A few months ago, in a thoughtful essay in the London Review of Books, James Wood explored the contradictions of living one’s life abroad.

How betwixt and between we ex-patriots are.

We build good, sensible and meaningful lives in our host countries, but the flicker of yearning for home never extinguishes.

For me, home will always be Canada, will always be this “great, good place”, the University of Toronto.

It was here that my father, my aunt and my uncle, as first generation immigrants, laid claim to the bounty that was Canada by obtaining degrees from University College, Pharmacy and Architecture respectively.

It was here that I met my wife and life partner, Joanne.

It was here that I spent close to three decades of my life as a student, faculty member, and dean.

It was here that I forged my closest and deepest friendships.

It is good to be home.

But home, this home, is not simply a kaleidoscope of memories from the distant past. It is a vibrant, pulsing lodestar that continues to shape and enrich my life.

There is scarcely a day that goes by that I don’t summon some lesson, some conversation, some idea that I gleaned from my time here.

To invoke Northrop Frye, this university is part of my educated imagination.

And no-where has the outsized impact of this university been more palpable than in sensitizing me to the monumental challenges facing the developing world.

In 1981, I sat in Professor Gerry Helleiner’s undergraduate international economics class, and gained my first exposure to global development.

I can still vividly recall Gerry’s withering critique of the impact of the international trading regime on the prospects of developing countries. How stacked the rules of many multilateral agreements were against the interests of the developing world.

Later, at the law school, I came under the spell of a brilliant and engaging kiwi law professor with mutton chop side-burns and a hyena-like laugh who had just returned from a year of field work exploring the prospects of property law reform in Papua, New Guinea.

Michael Trebilcock was destined to become one of the world’s leading and most influential experts on the complex interplay of law, institutions and development. Our 30-year friendship stands as one of the greatest and most treasured gifts I have taken from this university.

As a faculty member, I engaged in countless conversations, debates and collaborations with Janice Stein, now the Director and impresario extraordinaire of the Munk School, learning from her sustained, pragmatic and principled engagement with the world.

In the decade since I left Canada, I have had the great privilege – at both the University of Pennsylvania and at Johns Hopkins University – of participating in extraordinary global partnerships with medical and educational institutions in Ethiopia, Botswana, Uganda, India, Myanmar, and so many other inspiring yet deeply challenged nations.

These have led me through over-crowded corridors of health clinics where mothers hovered restlessly over children whose bodies had been ravaged by preventable disease … into classrooms, where teachers and students somehow kept sharp focus on chalk board equations despite swirls of teaming rain that entered through thatched roofs and paper thin walls … into makeshift HIV testing and treatment centers that have given life and hope to thousands of people in the remotest regions of Sub-Saharan Africa … and to meetings with courageous political leaders whose conscientious and stalwart resolve helped upend authoritarian rule.

And to each of these encounters, I carried an understanding shaped here, at this university.

We all know the statistics –more than a third of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. … 2/3rds of child deaths are caused by preventable infectious disease … more than 780 million people lack access to clean water … and 57 million children are not attending primary school, more than half of those in sub-Saharan Africa.

But we also know that these statistics do not fully capture what it means to live in a society where human potential is so tragically and wantonly squandered.

Over the years, academics have offered a number of competing theories to explain why some countries succeed and others fail.

Development failure was linked to too much state involvement and then to too little. To countries having too few natural resources and then to having too many. To being too open to international trade and investment and then to being too closed.

As each theory gained and then lost credence, developing countries were subject to wild policy gyrations that followed from radical implementation of these ideas.

Although the terrain of development theory is still subject to intense debate, consensus has now emerged around the simple but profound idea that the quality of a country’s institutions matters more than anything else in determining whether countries succeed or fail.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass North famously described institutions as “the rules of the game in a society.” Institutions are the constraints we devise to structure our political, economic and social interactions; they determine who among us holds and wields power and resources.

The effects of well-designed and well-operated institutions can be seen in a burgeoning number of truly stellar development success stories – Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Botswana, and Chile, to name a few.

And although success is not yet as well-entrenched in China and India, hundreds of millions of people in those countries have been lifted out of poverty as a result of institutional reforms.

Sadly, however, the pace of development has not been evenly distributed. While some countries have lurched forward, others have stood still or declined. Some have advanced in the economic domain, without progressing in political or civil liberties. And, too often, violence, discord, and the specter of terrorism continue to haunt countries in the midst of positive change.

I dwell on these facts today because if institutions DO really matter for development, then you – the law and global policy graduates of this university – have the potential to stand as important contributors to the enterprise of rectifying the wrenching disparities that mark our world.

You understand the role of law and legal institutions in broad frame and the importance of a robust commitment to the rule of law and to democratic values. You are versed in theories of efficiency, feminism, corrective and distributive justice, and know their implications for policy. You know what separates weak from strong public institutions. You know how to design and enforce workable contracts. You appreciate the tension between accountability and independence in regulatory agencies. The list could go on and on.

And, then, add to this training the ethos, perspective and humanity of Canada.

This is a country that has long struggled to find principled ways to guarantee widespread access to high quality healthcare and education. With a population that is one-fifth foreign born, it is a country that has integrated wave after wave of new Canadians, without the strife, rancor and acrimony that has beset other societies. It is a country more open than most to ideas, immigrants, trade and investment.

This perspective gives you special purchase in the global debate on what it means to create and sustain a healthy free and prosperous society.

So, graduates, as you embark on careers in the profession, government, ngos or the corporate sector, we turn to you. I know that in those contexts you will, sooner or later, encounter the developing world. You may deliberately seek these opportunities or they may happen quite serendipitously.

When that happens, remember the lessons, the skills you have taken from this place. Remember that you represent the very best of a country that so often quietly and humbly represents the very best of the world.

And remember how small acts of institution building possess the potential to contribute in ways large and small to, in the memorable words of Amartya Sen, “the enhancement of freedoms that allow people to lead lives that they have reason to live”.

Class of 2014, you are surrounded today by parents and partners, friends and faculty who celebrate and commend your remarkable achievements.

I join this community in applauding not only what you have done, but whom you have become and what you can and will doubtless contribute to our world.