Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, spoke at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health commencement ceremony on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. In recognition of his work to improve the health of the world’s most vulnerable populations, Dr. Osotimehin received Columbia’s 2015 Dean’s Distinguished Service Award.
“Dr. Osotimehin has been an exemplary public health ambassador, with a career that combines public sector leadership, scholarly erudition, and passion for improving health,” said Dr. Linda Fried, dean and DeLamar professor of public pealth. “The Class of 2015 is poised to enter a world that demands knowledge of population health that can be deployed with effectiveness and respect, qualities for which Dr. Osotimehin is widely celebrated.”
Dr. Osotimehin became UNFPA’s chief in 2011 after serving as minister of health in Nigeria and director-general of the Nigerian National Agency for the Control of HIV and AIDS. He is credited with transforming the UN agency designated to improve the health and well-being of women and young people, particularly the most vulnerable, by improving access to sexual and reproductive health, realizing reproductive rights, and addressing serious health obstacles across the full lifecourse. His tenure at UNFPA has been marked by an understanding that even in the most serious public health emergency, knowledge must be tempered with compassion.
More than 600 graduate students from Columbia took part in the commencement exercises.
In his Commencement address, Dr. Osotimehin told this year’s graduates that 2015 has special resonance because it is the year the global community adopts sustainable development goals to improve the health and well-being of people around the world.
The past two decades have shown what the world can achieve when it focuses on common goals, said Dr. Osotimehin. Among other accomplishments, nearly 1 billion people escaped extreme poverty. On the other hand, another billion still lives on less than $2 a day. “We have made progress, but it’s not enough,” he said. “Every human being deserves dignity and must be included in development.”
Dr. Osotimehin pointed to growing inequality that can exacerbate health crises like the recent Ebola outbreak. He called on Columbia graduates to protect the most vulnerable whether they are earthquake victims in Nepal or poor people in the United States. “You can be agents of change,” he said.
Ms. Tioluwa Olokunde, who like Dr. Osotimehin is a Nigerian national, delivered remarks on behalf of the Columbia graduating class. Ms. Olokunde spoke of the power of dreams to overcome limited financial means and graduate from a prestigious school abroad, acknowledging the support of faculty and the courage of classmates who prevailed over their own challenges.
“Though we are a diverse group, we are united by one thing: our unique dreams,” she said. “They are dreams to succeed in our commitment to protect and improve the health of populations in our home countries and all over the world.”