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Ideas Made to Matter

For Kofi Annan, shared prosperity meant shared responsibility


As technology, trade, and globalization tie the world’s cultures and communities ever closer together, the responsibility of each to guarantee and protect the well-being of the others grows in step — and that goes for nations and corporations alike.

That was the message that Kofi Annan, SF ’72, SM ’72, the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations from 1996 to 2007, had for members of the MIT Sloan community in October of 2002, when he spoke to mark the 50th anniversary of his alma mater.

Annan, the first black African to hold the top U.N. post, died Saturday at the age of 80 from a short and unspecified illness.

In the talk, Annan said his time as an MIT Sloan Fellow during the early part of his career, which he spent almost entirely with the U.N., broadened his perspective on how to achieve international change and cooperation.

“Sloan looked well beyond the confines of this campus, encouraged people from many nations to study here, and was eager to advance the cause of international cooperation, scholarly and otherwise,” Annan said.

That education would come in handy later on, he noted, as he helped the U.N. navigate some of its most challenging moments and found himself negotiating across from many of the world’s most powerful leaders.

Halfway through his tenure as secretary-general, Annan and the U.N. were jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for their work to create a “better organized and more peaceful world,” containing the spread of HIV in Africa and working to oppose international terrorism.

But Annan also faced his fair share of challenging diplomatic situations. As the U.N.’s chief of peacekeeping, he oversaw the response to the Rwandan genocide of the mid-1990s, and later worked feverishly in an attempt to dissuade the United States from launching its 2003 invasion of Iraq. He told Time magazine in 2013 that his failure to prevent that action was “his darkest moment.”

Even after he left the U.N., he returned in various capacities, being tapped in 2012 to help find a resolution for the still-raging civil war in Syria. He also launched the Kofi Annan Foundation, a nonprofit that works to promote better global governance and world peace.

The challenges facing the world are much the same now as they were in 2002 — cultural distrust leading to violence, uncertainty in the markets raising global anxiety, and concerns that globalization is enriching a select few at the expense of the many. But Annan’s emphasis on shared responsibility led to the formation of partnerships between the U.N., major corporations, and the world’s governments designed to ensure sustainable progress for all during his tenure.

Annan, in the MIT Sloan speech, emphasized the importance of trust and understanding among the world’s governing institutions and highlighted the crucial role of global business in helping to solve those problems.

“Businesses may ask why they should go down this path, especially if it involves taking steps that competitors might not, or steps they feel are rightly the province of governments,” he said. “Sometimes, doing what is right … is in the immediate interest of business.”

Corporations, he said, should see it as their responsibility to use their resources to pass knowledge, technology, and training along to the communities in which they operate.

When German car manufacturer Volkswagen found that it was losing some of its best managers to HIV/AIDS in Brazil, Annan described, the company implemented an education and treatment program, which saw the employees survive to pass the same information on to their communities.

He continued: “Sometimes we must do what is right simply because not to do so would be wrong. And sometimes, we do what is right to help usher in a new day, of new norms and new behaviors. We do not want business to do anything different from their normal business; we want them to do their normal business differently.”

Absent that effort, he said, the world risks rejecting global citizenship and retreating into protectionism and isolation, to the detriment of all.

“All of us — the private sector, civil society, labor unions, NGOs, universities, foundations, and individuals — must come together in an alliance for progress,” Annan said. “Together, we can and must move from value to values, from shareholders to stakeholders, and from balance sheets to balanced development. Together, we can and must face the dangers ahead and bring solutions within reach.”