Democratic Values and Leadership By A New Generation, SIPA Commencement Address 2011 “DEMOCRATIC VALUES AND LEADERSHIP BY A NEW GENERATION” SIPA Commencement Address by H. E. Mr. Kofi Annan Columbia University, New York, May 14th 2011 Thank you, Dean Coatsworth, for your kind words of introduction. President Bollinger, distinguished faculty, proud parents, loving friends and, most importantly, the graduates of the class of 2011, good afternoon. I am honored to be a part of such a joyous occasion, and at an institution so close to my heart.
From receiving an honorary degree from Columbia in 1998 to my current role as a Global Fellow, I count myself very fortunate to have enjoyed a long-standing relationship with this great university. When I was Secretary-General, I regularly turned to Columbia and its faculty for advice on the most pressing of global issues. So today I feel privileged to be able to pay back a little of this debt by sharing some thoughts with you – the next generation of leaders. Students of the class of 2011, you – and your parents and partners– have every reason for pride.
A diploma from SIPA is not only proof of your intelligence and hard work. It also highlights your commitment to focus on the problems our world faces. But I have to remind you that the diploma you are receiving also carries with it a big responsibility. It is a responsibility to apply the knowledge you have gained and the analytical skills you have learned to help find and deliver the solutions to improve lives, extend opportunities, and serve your communities. There is plenty for you to do. The challenges are, as you know, unprecedented in scale and complexity.
Extreme poverty, famine, disease, and natural disasters, are still widespread and will only be made worse by climate change. Wars within and between states, nuclear proliferation, and transnational organized crime also remain unrelenting. And in the last five years, we have witnessed a severe rise in global food prices, soaring energy costs and, the gravest economic crisis in the last 60 years. These interlinked crises threaten to reverse the progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, and remind us that inequality remains one of the most shameful and persistent problems in society.
Today we live in a world where a sub-prime crisis in the US rapidly spread to every economy, costing jobs and shrinking incomes. It is a world where infectious disease can spread across continents within days. It is a world where governments have recognized the responsibility to protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Our fortunes, hopes and fears are indeed linked together as never before. Yet I fear we have not yet internalized the change of attitude required nor the responsibility it places on us all.
We need to embrace a new ethos that emphasizes cooperation and accepts shared responsibility for transnational problems. Our progress must be shared or it will not be sustainable. This requires leadership that recognizes that lasting progress and durable solutions need to be based on shared values and goals. It must be driven by big ambition and boundless creativity but grounded in our common humanity. And this is where we turn to you. For you are the first generation who can truly call yourselves global citizens. We need you to take the lead.
Indeed through our TV screens and computers, we can see it is already happening. In North Africa and the Middle East, it is young people who are demanding change for the better. Young Arab men – and importantly, women – have refused to stand idly by and allow dictatorships to continue neglecting their people. They have issued a wake-up call to repressive regimes everywhere. If leaders fail to lead, the people can make them follow. And through their bravery, they have reaffirmed the notion that democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights are universal values.
For whoever we are, wherever we live, we want our rights respected, to be confident in the rule of law, and to have honest and transparent governments responsive to our needs and aspirations. It is these universal ambitions which must be at the heart of our hopes for our world – and, I hope, central to your work when you leave Columbia. Ladies and gentlemen, the events in the Middle East and North Africa, although exciting and inspiring, can seem a long way from our own lives. But I believe they are a reminder – perhaps even a rebuke – to those of us who already enjoy the rights others are fighting and dying for.
In many countries in the developed world, it is not dictators but our own complacency which is the threat to democracy. In country after country, citizens appear to have lost interest and faith in government and the electoral process. Voter turnout is low and declining. Apathy has made it easier for single-issue groups to hijack the political agenda. This only increases the distance between government and citizen, further weakening trust in democracy and the quality of government.
So I want to appeal to you, to challenge you, to get involved in public service or politics, if you wish, and to stand up for democratic principles and values. No one is born a democrat and no one is born a good citizen. It is only through hard work and education that we learn through the course of our lives to value democratic institutions because they ensure our freedom, and safeguard our rights. Don’t leave it to others. Don’t limit your involvement to your profession. Be engaged, active, and value-driven citizens in everything you do. And not just at home, but internationally.
Too often in the past, we have turned a blind eye to abuses or ignored problems far from home. Those who insist on rule of law at home must also respect it abroad. For too long we have assessed the health of a country by putting a premium on economic indicators and stability at the expense of good governance. ut as the developments in the Middle East and North Africa indicate, economic growth and security cannot be sustained in the long-term without democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. This is the critical third pillar. We must start with greater support for democracy.
For only through good governance can we ensure that the values we hold dear are upheld, and that our rights as citizens are protected. But improving governance, demands we respect the integrity of the most basic, yet most essential institution we have come to value – free and fair elections. Elections are now almost universal. There is scarcely a country where national leaders and legislature are not elected. But elections, as we have seen, do not on their own guarantee democracy and freedom. In many countries, they are rigged or abused, offering citizens neither choice nor promoting good government.
Instead, too often, they are used as a tool to provide existing leaders with a false legitimacy to allow them to retain power. We all know what conditions must be met, before, during and after polling, for elections to be a credible instrument of democracy. Opposition parties must be free to organize and campaign without fear or intimidation. And there must, as far as is possible, be a level playing field among candidates. On polling day itself, voters must feel safe and have confidence in the secrecy of the ballot. There should not be fear of retribution or revenge.
And when the votes are counted fairly and the winner declared, the result must be accepted no matter how disappointed the defeated candidates feel. But too often we see these conditions ignored and the electoral process abused. Constitutions are altered to lift term limits. Free speech is denied. Opposition parties are threatened. Divisions are deliberately inflamed as unscrupulous leaders focus on differences rather than what is common. In the last few months, we have seen the terrible consequences of the abuse of the electoral process in Cote d’Ivoire.
The stubborn refusal of Laurent Gbagbo to relinquish power, despite having clearly lost a free and fair election, plunged his country back into civil war. As a result, some 3,000 lives were lost and a million people were forced to flee their homes. I have just been in Cote d’Ivoire, where fighting has thankfully ceased for the most part. But there is now a huge effort needed from within the country, as well as from the international community, to repair the damage and heal the wounds which have been re-opened. I believe most of this could have been prevented if the entire international ommunity had stood firmly and united behind its principles, and supported the election result. It is a stark reminder of the importance of upholding the integrity of the electoral process. In the aftermath of a crisis, elections can be a powerful instrument for resolving differences and charting the way forward in an open, representative, and fair manner. The integrity of elections in these situations is essential if future disputes and conflict are to be avoided. Free and fair elections are also fundamental to long-term development, to peace, security and prosperity.
Without the accountability and transparency they bring, corruption, incompetence and cronyism go unchecked. Without the right to have their voices heard, citizens are left without recourse to peaceful political change, and this could lead to instability, divisions and conflict. We need to step up efforts to encourage national leaders and the international community to raise the costs for those who hope to rig or steal elections or extort power-sharing when they lose. For flawed elections do weaken democracy.
We need to spread the understanding, globally, that when flawed elections are accepted or endorsed, we weaken democracy. And when we fail to accept the clearly expressed will of the people because we don’t like the government they have elected, we undermine democracy too. Again I have seen in Kenya, in the after-math of the post-election violence in 2007, how it is the younger generation who understand these challenges better than their elders. It is a strong civil society, with young men and women in the lead, which is reminding the Coalition Government of the promises made under the agreed reform agenda.
There is a long way to go but the progress so far has only been possible because these young Kenyan men and women were not complacent about the values they hold dear, or the future direction of their country. We need you, class of 2011, to do as these young men and women have done in Kenya. Take up the challenge. Whatever field you choose, whatever path you set out on, do not forget the importance of values or the institutions that enshrine and protect them. We need you to lead by example, inspire those around you, show the world that your success is not only a product of your intelligence, but of what you believe in.
People will remember you not by your rise to leadership, but by the quality of your leadership. I hope many of you will embrace politics and public service. But one of the greatest lessons I learned as Secretary-General is that there is a great need for good and enlightened leadership in government, civil society and business. Effective civil society leadership has prompted good policies, kept politicians on their toes and fostered concrete change. We need high quality leadership in the private sector as well. This is the main driver of economic growth, job creation and innovation.
There is nothing to be ashamed about wanting a good salary. Providing security for yourself and your family is a fine ambition. But always look beyond your next pay check. In your work, raise your sights above the bottom line to the wider impact in the communities in which you operate. It will be to the benefit not just of these societies but to your business. And we need your engagement too in civil society. In your personal as well as your professional life, use your education to guide your communities and countries in the right direction.
Whatever your aspirations, remember your decisions will impact on people on the other side of the world. So always think globally, even if you act locally. The way you respond to these challenges will decide the health and happiness of billions of people across the globe. It is a big responsibility. But it is your world now. You must have the courage to change it for the better. You chose this university and this course to enhance your decision making skills and your analytical abilities.
But you also came here to find like-minded people who share your thirst for change and your passion for seeking solutions to the world’s problems. As you leave SIPA, your first challenge will be to maintain this optimism that change is possible. It is not easy. But it can be done. I stand here as an example of someone who remains as optimistic today as when I was your age. Ending poverty and hunger, tackling climate change, or ensuring sustainable development and peace, will demand both your optimism and your resolve.
Your idealism is not only welcome, it is essential. Do not let the many challenges of the world discourage you. Don’t let the cynics or skeptics dampen your enthusiasm. Dream, and keep dreaming, for many achievements start with a dream. It always starts with a dream. I, for one, have every confidence in your ability. Students of the SIPA class of 2011, congratulations for all you have achieved over the last two years. I wish you great success in your lives, and look forward to all the achievements yet to come. We are counting on you. Thank you.