As Winter Storm Nemo began its descent on New York, City College students and faculty gathered welcome Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations. The event, which included a discussion and Q&A, marked the publication of Annan’s papers from his years (1997 to 2006) as Secretary-General.
The Collected Papers of Kofi Annan, a five-volume collection that amasses thousands of documents, was the result of an eight-year collaboration between City College and Yale University. Professor Jean Krasno, a Political Science lecturer at City College, served as editor for the project. United Nations papers are normally archived for twenty years before they are made available to the public, so this collection offers a rare glimpse into recent operations of the UN. Annan, who gave Krasno authorization to collect his papers, said that he hoped the “behind the scenes” look would give the public a greater understanding of how the organization works.
The event’s discussion, which was moderated by John G. Ruggie, Professor of Human Rights and International Relations at Harvard University, covered topics ranging from Syria to soccer. Ruggie also has worked in the United Nations, serving as Assistant Secretary-General of Strategic Planning (a position created for him by Annan) from 1997 to 2001.
Annan and Ruggie talked about some of the lessons Annan learned from his long career in the UN — he began in 1962 as an administrative and budget officer for World Health Organization. Annan advised the audience to “never walk into a situation and pretend you know better than the natives” He also stressed the importance of listening “to what is said, and above all, what is not said.” From his many experiences communicating through translators, Annan has found that body language, not words, is better indicator of whether a message has been understood.
Annan also discussed his philosophy for managing a team of workers. Annan believes in gathering a good group of team members, setting them free to accomplish their assigned tasks, and allowing for mistakes that may occur. His ideal team is one that plays like a “Brazilian soccer team” — the players work together as a team, but there are also opportunities for moments of “individual brilliance.”
Though Annan left his position at the UN over six years ago, he is still greatly involved in world issues. He is currently a member of the Elders Organization, a group of senior leaders working together for peace. The organization, which was founded by Nelson Mandela, also counts Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu as members. This spirit of global collaboration and unity is one that Annan feels is essential.
“We are all in the same boat,” he remarked. “We should not ignore distant conflicts, distant pain, distant wars. It has an impact.”