Harvard Kennedy School
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
November 7, 2017

Thank you, Calestous, for that kind introduction. It is a great pleasure to be here today to welcome such a diverse and accomplished group of students, researchers, practitioners, and leaders across the fields of science, public health, and public policy. Thank you all for being here. I am honored that Harvard Kennedy School is co-hosting this event with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard University Center for African Studies, and the Africa Academy for Public Health.

Let me offer a few thoughts about why this conference on agriculture, nutrition, health, and the environment in Africa is important for the Kennedy School. Our mission at the School is to solve public problems by improving public policy and leadership. We address a wide range of public problems and use a wide array of approaches to solve them. But there are some common features of all our work that are very apparent in this conference.

First, we focus our attention on the people in the world who need our help the most. That means working to give people who have been socially and economically disadvantaged a fair chance to succeed. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most basic is to ensure that people have access to healthful food. By putting measures in place to increase food security and health outcomes in a sustainable manner, public leaders can increase standards of living and do the most good where it is most needed.

A second common feature of the Kennedy School’s work that is apparent in this conference is our global reach. Nearly half our students come from outside the United States, with almost a hundred countries represented in each graduating class. Roughly a third of our faculty come from outside the county. We are doing projects with local governments and public leaders in dozens of countries on every continent. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we care deeply about complex global challenges like food security.  

A third common feature of the Kennedy School’s work that is a central aspect of this conference is to draw on diverse disciplinary perspectives. Many times, agriculture, nutrition, health, and the environment are treated as distinct areas of public policy, managed by government departments with responsibility for their own specific sectors. Similarly, these topics are traditionally studied as separate subjects in academic and research settings, with different university departments or schools responsible for each. But the Kennedy School has always believed that public problems can best be solved through interdisciplinary collaboration.

Deep disciplinary knowledge is crucial to informing policy, but there are drawbacks to focusing on a field of study in isolation. The compartmentalization of knowledge limits interactions between researchers and practitioners across disciplines, and the result is that experts do not always fully consider the broader implications of their work. For example, agriculturalists working to increase food security around the world traditionally have tended to focus on boosting crop yields without fully considering the nutritional and health needs of the population or environmental repercussions. By taking both environmental and health concerns into account when tackling the issue of food security, however, we can make better decisions with fewer unexpected adverse consequences.

The need for new policy approaches that integrate food production, nutritional, public health, and environmental considerations is universal, but this need is particularly acute in Africa. Populations in Africa are growing and urbanizing rapidly, and rates of undernutrition are high. At the same time, dietary shifts are leading to new health issues such as obesity and the rise of non-communicable diseases. Therefore, one of the most pressing public challenges in Africa is how to meet food needs through increased production while also addressing emerging health issues. Our goal must be to not only decrease rates of illness and malnutrition but also to improve food production in an environmentally sustainable manner taking into account factors like climate change.

I am confident that this goal can be achieved, but doing so will not be easy. Implementing integrated policies will require policymakers and public leaders to adopt new perspectives that draw on innovative thinking, strong evidence, and the application of emerging technologies. The road ahead clearly will have obstacles, but bringing together the world’s best researchers, practitioners, and leaders—as we have for this conference—is the right way to proceed down that road.

Let me conclude by reiterating my enthusiasm and my thanks. I am deeply grateful to the conference organizers for attracting such an exceptional group of knowledgeable and dedicated people from the fields of public policy, public health, and science. I hope that we see many more such collaborations between Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, along with our colleagues at the Harvard University Center for African Studies and the Africa Academy for Public Health. By addressing global challenges in a collaborative and interdisciplinary way, we can arrive at insights that we may otherwise miss, and we can marshal our collective efforts to do the most good. I am optimistic about what you all can achieve. Thank you for coming to Harvard Kennedy School to share your knowledge and expertise, and thank you for your work to effect positive change in Africa and the world.