Crash Course: Kofi Annan (visiting next week!)

Posted by at 10:56PM

Come see Annan speak in MemAud next Thursday!

Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, will be visiting Stanford next Thursday.  MemAud doors open at 11:15 AM for people with tickets, and stand-bys will be admitted at 11:45 AM. The organizers expect to let in a significant number of stand-bys, but students are encouraged to arrive early to ensure themselves a place at the talk.

Akin to the Dalai Lama’s visit last fall, I think it’s helpful to have background on our VIP speakers before they arrive.  Here’s a crash course on Kofi Annan so you can make the most of his visit and various talks next week.

What’s in a name?

The post of “Secretary General” was established in 1946 with the selection of Trygve Lie of Norway.  FDR initially hoped that the Secretary-General could serve as a “world moderator,” though the UN Charter less excitingly specified the post as the organization’s “chief administrative officer.”  Since that date, the position has been afforded varying levels of authority and controversy.  Secretaries General tend to be diplomats with “little prior fame,” selected from relatively neutral nations around the world.  Perhaps the most effective and famous Secretary General was Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat whose policy of “quiet diplomacy” resolved crises amid the height of the Cold War during his tenure from 1953 to 1961.  Including Ban Ki-Moon, there have been 8 Secretaries General to date.

Annan’s Ascent

Kofi Annan (Annan rhymes with “cannon” in English) was born in Ghana in 1938, the grandson of a tribal chief of his region.  His secondary education spanned locations as diverse as Ghana, Minnesota, Switzerland, and Cambridge, where he studied at the prestigious Sloan School of Management at MIT.  Annan is fluent in English and French, as well as a variety of African languages and dialects.

Prior to his role as Secretary General, Annan began his international career as a budget officer for the World Health Organization.  He began work for the UN in the 1980s, serving in various roles until his appointment to the Secretariat in 1996.  He directed UN Peacekeeping Operations from 1993 through 1996.  In this role, Annan has been accused of a failure to prevent and react appropriately to the 1994 Rwandan genocide which resulted in the death of an estimated 800,000 people.  Annan has since admitted that he “could have and should have done more to sound the alarm and rally support.”

According to his own Facebook page, “Kofi Annan seeks to provide inspirational and catalytic leadership on critical global issues, particularly preserving and building peace and facilitating more equitable sharing of the benefits of globalisation, by promoting poverty alleviation, good governance, human rights and the rule of law.”

Collaboration and Controversy

Criticism of Annan during the Oil for Food scandal.

During his ten year tenure from 1997 to 2006, Annan worked on a variety of international projects.  He is perhaps best known for his five-point “Call to Action” to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic, especially in Africa.  For his efforts, he and the United Nations were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2001.

Annan opposed the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and took issue with many aspects of Iranian foreign policy.  He opposed the expansion of the Iranian nuclear program and particularly criticized Iranian newspapers’ inaccurate and offensive portrayals of the Holocaust.  He instigated the first UN peacekeeping mission to Sudan during the early days of the Sudanese crisis and established the World Diabetes Day to raise awareness of the disease.

In his 2004  farewell speech to the UN, Annan described “an unjust world economy, world disorder, and widespread contempt for human rights and the rule of law” as the three major challenges to the UN in years to come, which he believes “[had] not resolved, but sharpened” during his time as Secretary-General.

A few notable scandals during Annan’s tenure cast a shadow on his leadership of the UN.  In 2004, Annan’s oversight of sexual harassment allegations within the UN weakened his perceived authority in the organization and in the media.  Perhaps most famous is Annan’s role in the controversial “Oil for Food” program, which suffered numerous scandals due to widespread abuse and corruption.  Both the UN Secretariat and Security Council were criticized for insufficient regulation of the $1.6 billion plan.

After the UN

Since the end of his leadership of the United Nations, Annan has been especially active in African issues.  His involvement has included work with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the Global Humanitarian Forum, the United Nations Foundation, and the Africa Progress Panel.

His own foundation, the Kofi Annan Foundation, focuses on promoting the two broad goals of fostering sustainable development and international peace and security.  Annan is a Global Fellow at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, and will focus primarily on the topic of food security in developing nations during his upcoming talks at Stanford University.

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