Thursday, June 2, 2016

Inspiring Discussion with Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations, at Oxford University

Some of the wonderful aspects of being a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College at Oxford University is the amazing people that I have met, the great speakers that I have heard, and the special events that I have attended.

Today, we were greatly honored to have Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, and also Nobel Peace Prize recipient, come to Oxford, specifically, the beautiful Blavatnik Building of Government, for a discussion of the United Nations in the 21st Century. The moderator was Professor Wood. I was thrilled to hear him acknowledge Ed Mortimer in the audience, whom I have had lunch with at All Souls College since he is a Fellow, and we had a fabulous conversation on how he used to write speeches for Annan when he worked for the United Nations.
Kofi Annan was brilliant and just the other day I read in my International New York Times here as to how charismatic, charming, and successful of a leader he had been of the United Nations for almost a decade. He is now 78 years of age and his charm, sense of humor, dedication to saving lives were vividly apparent during today's discussion. He held what is considered one of the toughest jobs in the world.

After being introduced by Professor Wood, he told a delightful story how, after stepping down from the United Nations, he went with his wife to Italy for 3 months and wanted essentially no communication with the outside world and that included no newspapers. Venturing out to Como (a place I have come to love during my two stays at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center there) he thought he may have been recognized only to be told that he was the actor, Morgan Freeman. I must admit there is some resemblance!

Since stepping down from the United Nations, he has been very active with his Kofi Annan Foundation and is regularly called upon to assist in international affairs and mediation, including serving as a special envoy to Syria. This he eventually stepped down from because he said the parties would not stop fighting one another. He said it is hard for him to say no if he can save one life of a child or of a woman. His sincerity  and great intelligence were apparent throughout the event today.

He emphasized what matters to him: finding peace and stability, sustainable development, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

He said that when he looks at inequality, at hunger in the world, he sees a lack of trust in leadership and politicians building on anger of the people.

He told the many students in the audience to not only go into government and law but also into the private sector since much can be accomplished for good from this sector.

He emphasized the concept of the responsibility to protect and some crimes are too horrible to ignore so interventions are needed.  He said that there is a list of questions that must be answered before military intervention.

After Kofi Annan's remarks, it was time to open up questions from the audience with students' questions being first answered.

As to how to manage migration effectively and the crisis now in Europe, Annan noted that if the countries had worked together from the onset that there would not be such division now. He emphasized that compassion is needed and although politicians tend to chase votes, people are not stupid. He also said that 40% of founders of Fortune 500 companies were immigrants.

After a student brought up a recent OpEd in The New York Times written by a former UN employee who said that the inefficiency there was extremely problematic (and which I had read), Annan agreed that the UN needs more efficiency and reforms but that it is also up to the member states.

Something that he said that resonated very much with me was that holding many discussions over issues was like scientists testing different hypotheses and, ultimately, you may have a breakthrough, so it is important to keep those discussions going.

His advice to students and those who may want to work for the United Nations was to, once you got an assignment, to analyze it, and determine what you can contribute to it and how long it will take you, and then follow through. He has always used such ideas in his career, which has been brilliant.

He also mentioned that if you are creative you can get others to move with you.

He said that he would get impossible mandates from the Security Council, but that he would break down the task into manageable components.

Sadly, he said that he does not see any movement towards peace between Israel and Palestine.

Professor Wood emphasized the brilliance of the discussion and I concur! And, when he noted the importance of delivery of humanitarian relief supplies, I thought of the course on Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare that I teach at the Isenberg School each spring and could not help but be inspired.

At the end, Professor Wood announced a special partnership with Africa, including Nigeria and Ghana, the country where Annan was born, to bring scholars to Oxford, and also to support a Visiting Fellow which is terrific.