Ann Dunham Soetoro, PhD

2012 UH Alumni Association President’s Award



BA in anthropology, 1967, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
MA in anthropology, 1983, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
PhD in in anthropology, 1992, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

Ann Dunham Soetoro, PhD, was an applied anthropologist who used her academic training from the University of Hawai‘i to better understand the culture, political system and values that underpinned the struggles – and successes – of the rural poor in Southeast Asia.

Soetoro’s research and consulting work took her around the world. She became a consultant for the U.S. Agency for International Development on setting up village credit programs, then a Ford Foundation program officer in Jakarta championing women’s issues. She later served in Pakistan as a consultant to the Asian Development Bank focusing on women’s welfare. In 1988, she joined Bank Rakyat Indonesia and helped develop the world’s largest sustainable microfinance program. Credit and savings services enabled poor people from rural areas to engage in cottage industries and emerge from poverty. As a pioneer in the field of microfinance, her anthropological research helped shape the bank's policies.

In August 1992 she earned her PhD in anthropology from UH, and shortly thereafter became a research and policy coordinator for Women's World Banking in New York. Soetoro returned to the U.S. after becoming ill in 1995 and was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Her life was cut short on Nov. 7, 1995, days before her 53rd birthday.

Her work lives on. In 2009, Duke University Press published, “Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia” – a condensed version of Soetoro’s 1992 dissertation on her 14 years of research in rural Java. Her daughter Maya Soetoro-Ng called on Alice Dewey, Soetoro’s graduate adviser, and Nancy Cooper, a fellow graduate student, from the UH anthropology department to edit the work for publication. In addition, the Ann Dunham Soetoro Endowed Fund was recently established at the UH Foundation as a collaborative effort between UH Mānoa and the East-West Center to honor her legacy.

In “Dreams From My Father,” President Barack Obama wrote of his mother: “I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.”



UHAA President Douglas Inouye’s award presentation speech

When your son is President of the United States, it might tend to overshadow your own accomplishments – which by any other standards would be astonishing, to say the least.

Tonight we remember and venerate such a remarkable woman, who walked among us as a University of Hawai‘i alumna. What Ann Dunham Soetoro achieved during her abbreviated lifetime was nothing short of amazing.

Having earned not just one or two, but THREE degrees from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, she is the quintessential UH alumna. Of course, it was how she applied her UH education that made her an outstanding graduate and global citizen. Her commitment to partnering with others to create sustainable change is evident throughout her life’s work and studies.

Her masters’ and PhD in anthropology served as a springboard for the research and consulting work she did around the world, and helped her become a consultant for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She went on to champion women’s issues as a program officer for the Ford Foundation in Jarkarta, and subsequently served in Pakistan as a consultant to the Asian Development Bank focusing on women’s welfare. She later joined the Bank Rakyat Indonesia to help develop what is now the world’s largest sustainable microfinance program. A pioneer in the field of microfinance, Dr. Dunham Soetoro championed credit and savings services for the indigent, and enabled people from poor rural areas to emerge from poverty via cottage industries. She personally sponsored dozens of students in Indonesia so they could work with her to learn about microcredit, research and crafts.

Her dedication to providing these educational tools to communities in Southeast Asia, as well as to her own education and that of her children, reflects her belief that knowledge builds the foundation by which people can help themselves and others. Her perseverance is truly inspiring, and her vision and values live on through her children, who continue to carry on her dreams.

As I reflect on the magnitude of her influence as an alumna, and as I try to capture the essence of who she was as a human being, I can only echo the words President Barack Obama once wrote of her, and I quote: “I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me, I owe to her.”

In addition to rearing our current President, Dr. Dunham Soetoro left us another legacy in her daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, herself an accomplished alumna of our university and published author of children’s literature. Dr. Soetoro-Ng holds a BA in English and a PhD in education from UH Mānoa, and has come full circle to teach at the East-West Center, where her mother developed a profoundly unique and worldly perspective years ago. We are honored to have her with us tonight to accept this award on her mother’s behalf.

Ann Dunham Soetoro’s life is a testament to what UH alumni are capable of doing, and are doing, to make this world a better place. Knowing she is our fellow graduate makes us all very proud to be UH alumni. May this UH Alumni Association President’s Award serve as recognition of her enduring legacy as an exemplary alumna of the University of Hawai‘i.


Mahalo to the East-West Center for sharing photos of Ann Dunham Soetoro.