Vice-Chancellor's Report

Making a difference

Dr Michael Spence

There are some visitors who certainly make an impact and leave a lasting impression. So it was recently when the University had the immense pleasure and privilege of hosting the United Nations Secretary General, His Excellency Ban Ki-moon, on his recent trip to Australia. His visit to the campus was significant for a number of reasons – it was his only official public appearance while in the country and he chose the occasion to address an over-subscribed audience of students and senior staff.

Australia and the University of Sydney in particular have a special association with the UN, which began with the pivotal roles played by our alumni Herbert “Doc” Evatt and Jessie Street in the formation of the UN charter. Acknowledging our links, the seasoned diplomat had some encouraging words for our students: “this is a place that will produce the future leaders of our world.”

But it was Ban Ki-moon’s emphasis on the need for joint action by the international community to tackle the major issues facing the world, which really struck a chord. There could be no mistaking the message from the man who grew up in poverty and war in Korea. The sustainable development agenda is the agenda for the 21st century.

These 21st-century challenges are too big for any country or region to solve alone, he told us. “The future belongs to those who act together to advance our common values.” There was a need, he said, to “join the dots” and establish links between challenges such as climate change and water scarcity, energy shortages, global health issues, food insecurity and the empowerment of women.

We have a foundational commitment to many of the things the UN represents. The University shares many of the same values, aspirations and much of the DNA of the UN, with its global outlook, record of community service, and commitment to tackling world problems such as global health, food security and sustainability.

We have a foundational commitment to many of the things the UN represents...

We are doing our best to join the dots.
We have bold ambitions for our new multidisciplinary research centre for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. There is no doubt this is an international issue which was the subject of a UN high-level meeting recently in New York, the first health-related UN summit since AIDS a decade ago.

Together, these diseases cause more than half of all deaths in low- and middle-income countries. We are intent on finding solutions to these major health issues and are currently engaged in international searches to find the best people possible. And by working with high profile initiatives such as Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, now operating in Australia, we are helping to increase public awareness of this global epidemic.

By contrast, there’s no relief in sight for the world’s poor, with the price of staple foods remaining high, in fact 33 per cent more expensive than last year. As well as the desperate situation in the Horn of Africa, we find one of the most vulnerable regions is our own. According to researchers with the Food Security Program at our Centre for International Security Studies, Asia is not only home to the majority of the poor in the world, it is also home to the largest number of hungry people in the world. About 62 per cent of the world’s hungry live in the Asia-Pacific region.

Our Food Security Program is the first of its kind in the Asia-Pacific. Its focus is on how political, economic, demographic and environmental pressures will impact on food supply and demand in the region over the next 20 to 30 years, with a close eye on the consequences for regional stability. Other projects at the Centre include research into depleting fish stocks in the Mekong Delta, foreign land acquisitions and the impact on local communities in the Philippines and Cambodia, as well as in African countries such as Kenya, and evaluating regional policies to deal with food insecurity in Asia.

Elsewhere we have leading experts working with international NGOs in a wide variety of fields including agriculture, soil security and remediation, disease, resistant wheat varieties, drought and salt-tolerant crops. The Sydney Centre for International Law is recognised as a leading research and policy centre in the Asia-Pacific region, and uses its expertise to inform public debates and law reform processes, including on areas of sustainability and food security policy areas.

These are just a few of the many examples of where we are collaborating closely with governments here and abroad and with key international agencies on the big global challenges. To borrow Ban Ki-moon’s challenge to our students, we aim to make a difference to help change the world.