Taking Inspiration From Kofi Annan

Robin Niblett reflects on the legacy of the former UN secretary-general and what current leaders can learn from his example.

Expert comment Published 31 May 2019 Updated 3 June 2019 3 minute READ
Kofi Annan in 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

Kofi Annan in 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

On 3 and 4 June, Chatham House will host a major conference in partnership with the UN Association (UK), supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Open Society Foundations, to reflect on the lessons learned from the remarkable life of Kofi Annan, who served as UN secretary-general from 1997 to 2006 and passed away almost a year ago, on 18 August 2018.

The conference will fall on the same days as Donald Trump’s state visit to the United Kingdom, which, though unplanned, brings into stark relief the ways in which current changes in international relations are affecting Kofi Annan’s legacy of UN-led multilateralism that Ban Ki-moon and now Antonio Guterres have carried forward.

A vision of multilateral governance

Kofi Annan advocated a vision of multilateral governance anchored in shared responsibility for global challenges and in promoting the rights and dignity of the individual. He placed the importance of individual freedom and justice alongside the global challenges of poverty and health. The launch of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the UN Global Fund on HIV/Aids, which brought together both strands of his approach to global governance, stand among his landmark contributions to international affairs.

Kofi Annan’s time as secretary-general also saw him involved in managing numerous crises. The 2003 US-led military intervention in Iraq raised acute questions about the purpose and future of the UN Security Council. The aftermath of the conflict also exposed serious failings in the broader UN system under his leadership.

It was to his credit that he leveraged the investigation into the corruption surrounding the UN’s 1995–2003 ‘oil-for-food’ programme in order to introduce procedures for greater scrutiny over UN financial programmes and personnel appointments. In 2000, he set up and then took on board the criticisms of the Brahimi Report into the failed UN peacekeeping operations in Rwanda and Srebrenica during his tenure as undersecretary-general for peacekeeping.

Global governance on the defensive

One can look back at Kofi Annan’s term as UN secretary-general as a period when ideas for how to improve global governance were in the ascendant, despite the persistence of civil wars and interstate disputes. Today, the persistence of long-standing conflicts and growing competition between the world’s major powers appear to be overwhelming the global agenda, putting ideas for global governance on the defensive.

America’s purposeful disengagement from and disruption of the multilateral institutions that it helped establish during the 20th century is a major factor in this shift. The principal difference with the Cold War is that China’s rise might divide America from its allies rather than unite them.

China has become embedded in the global economy that America championed, creating new webs of interdependence. On the other hand, China is promoting a system of domestic and international governance that gives primacy to the state over the rights of the individual. In recent years, China has not only supported the world’s most repressive regimes, like North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, but also corrupt and opaque practices in countries in southeast Asia and Africa. And it is offering new digital surveillance tools that leaders in these countries can use to suppress popular dissent.

Despite concerns over its direction, most states around the world continue to engage China, even US allies in Europe and Asia. America, however, has decided to challenge it. With the world’s two most powerful states in confrontation, and Russia happy to play a disruptive role in between, there is little scope for state-led multilateralism to regain its momentum.

This rise of a more competitive international system has had a negative effect on Kofi Annan’s legacy, eroding some of its highlights, such as expectations for Responsibility to Protect, and weakening multilateralism and respect for human rights in general.

The question for the future is whether Annan’s successors can build on the more radical, transformative aspects of his tenure and bypass this state-led confrontation. The shift from the MDGs to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could prove critical in this respect.

A more inclusive approach to complex problem-solving

In order to have a chance of achieving the SDGs, the world needs to deploy a more inclusive approach to complex problem-solving of the sort that Kofi Annan promoted with his Global Compact. Bringing the private sector and civil society proactively into multilateral responses offers the only prospect to end poverty and reduce inequality, build sustainable cities, and shift to responsible production and consumption, along with the other SDGs.

A more inclusive approach also means giving a greater sense of agency to individuals, who can now mobilize digitally and engage in responding to global challenges, such as creating more energy-efficient and climate-friendly lifestyles, with minimal government support. Annan was a pioneer of this more bottom-up approach to development and rights issues after leaving the UN, through his work on youth leadership against violent extremism and on transforming agriculture in Africa.

Thinking of systemic change as a more societal rather than government-led process demands leaders capable of mobilizing mass individual action towards public policy goals, as reflected, for example, in Secretary-General Guterres’ High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation.

The fact that Kofi Annan was dubbed by some ‘the secular pope’ points to people’s search for leadership towards shared global challenges that goes beyond what can be achieved by national action alone. If an important part of his legacy is the idea of more inclusive forms of global governance, then Kofi Annan has provided an essential starting point for the debates that will accompany the UN’s upcoming 75th anniversary.