Skip to main content

Remarks of President Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard University South Asia Conference

Cambridge, MA

South Asia is enormously important to the future of the world and to the United States. The number of people who live in South Asia is substantially greater than the number who live in China, so the number of people who have the capacity for having their lives transformed through successful economic policies is greater in South Asia than it is in China. The cultural and humanistic tradition in its diversity is as great, or greater, than in China. I fear it is the case that the risks of conflict that could lead to substantial loss of life is as great as it is in East Asia. And yet, the attention that is paid in the American media and in American academic life is substantially smaller than the attention that is paid to East Asia.

And so, it seems to me that there is an enormous opportunity for intellectual contribution. There is an enormous opportunity to fill a gap. There is an enormous need for us as a nation to enhance our understanding of contemporary South Asia. It also seems to me that if you think about the potential benefits — the advantages of traveling and studying in a culture dramatically different than your own, the benefits if there is some common language that can be employed in that study, the importance of free intellectual inquiry, and the benefits of bringing institutions together, not just on the research and reflection side of what we do, but on the teaching and educating side of what we do — the place where, frankly, the ratio of achievement to opportunity in higher education is lowest is also with respect to South Asia.

Those are observations that would apply to any great research university. As I think about the right thing for Harvard to do, it seems to me that they apply with special force to Harvard for a number of reasons. One is that we are so fortunate to have already on our faculty extraordinarily thoughtful contemplators of what takes place in South Asia, people like Sugata Bose [Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs, Harvard University], people like Amartya Sen [Nobel laureate in economics; master at Trinity College, Cambridge University], whose work has contributed so much to so many areas.

Indeed, I think the single statistic that I have encountered in the entire course of my career that probably had the greatest impact on how I saw the world, and what I thought was most important, was Amartya’s calculation that there are a hundred million women missing, if you think about what the population statistics should show and what they do, and his powerful discovery that a substantial fraction of those women are missing in South Asia.

And that points up how fortunate Harvard is to have people like Amartya. It also points up how profoundly important research, and writing, and ideas are in shaping what ultimately happens. We are also very fortunate at Harvard — and it is always a mistake to focus only on the problems and the challenges — we are fortunate to have a remarkable collection of people with Indian heritage teaching in our Business School, studying the successes of the Indian economy, thinking about how investment can make, yet, greater contributions to that economy. And I can tell you that the Harvard Business School is a very different place than it would be without those on that faculty of Indian descent. And all of these factors make it especially important that Harvard grapple with the challenges in South Asia. And there are plenty of them.

Whether it is understanding why it is that economic growth in India has picked up so significantly over the last 12 years relative to the 40 years before; whether it is thinking about how concepts of federalism are called into question, and need to be revised as the world gets smaller and factions get more pronounced; whether it is the profound questions of the role of ethnicity and identity that are raised by the situation in Kashmir; whether it is how we can make sure that the remarkable beauty that those small number of Americans who take the trouble and have the opportunity to visit South Asia appreciate are things that become known as part of the heritage of man; whether it is thinking about the public health dilemma, where I am told by people who I would guess know that, if you look at all the places in the world, probably the place where, over the next five years, there is the highest leverage possibility with respect to AIDS is in South Asia; all of these things, it seems to me, command the attention of a great university. And all of these things are reasons why the development and enhancement of our capacity to study South Asia will be, perhaps, our major international affairs and regional priority in the years ahead.

And it matters for just one final reason. And that is that one of the things that drew me to Harvard in the first place, and one of the things that drew me back to Harvard as President, was this University’s tradition of scholarship, but also this University’s tradition of connection and service. And the remarkable group of public officials, the remarkable group of private sector leaders who are here for this conference, speaks to the enormous influence that our ideas and our research can have. I have only one regret here tonight. And that is that I was unable to join you for the day’s intellectual and policy feast. Thank you very much for the opportunity to be with you.