Born in 1949, Ashraf Ghani is an Afghan politician, academic, and economist who served as the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from 2014-2021.
As with many Afghans, foreign invasion and civil war led to the persecution of Ghani's family and forced him to remain in exile much of his life. A Fulbright Scholar with an Ivy League doctorate, he taught at some of America’s most elite academic institutions before joining the World Bank in 1991, where he served for eleven years, and played a crucial role developing the Bank's social policy and reform programs. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Ghani returned to his homeland and became a powerful finance minister, devoting his unique knowledge and skillset to rebuilding the country. Among his numerous important initiatives, Ghani introduced a new currency, set up a tax system, encouraged wealthy expat Afghans to return home, and courted donors as Afghanistan tried to emerge from its previous state of austerity and sustained privation. In appreciation of his services, Ghani was awarded the Sayed Jamal-ud-Din Afghan medal, the highest civilian award in Afghanistan.
The medal was not his first honor from his home country. In 1977, Ghani arrived at Columbia University after winning an Afghan government scholarship for his academic achievements as an undergraduate at the American University in Beirut. At Columbia, he studied anthropology and earned his master's degree with ease. Originally, he intended to be away from Afghanistan for only two years. But back home, after pro-Soviet forces came to power, most of the male members of his family were imprisoned, and so Ghani reasonably decided to stay in New York and continue his education. In 1983, he earned a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Columbia as well. Of note, his dissertation was titled "Production and Domination: Afghanistan, 1747-1901," and analyzed the relationship between his country's difficulty in building a centralized state and its economic backwardness.
As one of Columbia's most high-profile alums, it has been no easy task for the world leader to return to campus, and yet that is exactly what he did in 2015. Warmly welcomed by the university president, Ghani delivered a 35-minute speech as part of Columbia's World Leaders Forum. Pulling from his many years of invaluable experience, the then-newly elected President of Afghanistan spoke on the elements and virtues of leadership in the public sector, thus offering true inspiration to the next generation of Columbia students ready to take up his mantle and better the world.