This past week we said goodbye to Kofi Annan, a world-renowned leader for peace and global justice who passed away after a short illness at age 80. Annan has been hailed and mourned by leaders and diplomats across every continent, with the current UN chief Antonio Guterres calling him “a force for good” and “a proud son of Africa who became a global champion for peace and all humanity.” In our view, there are few forms of higher praise that can be offered to any single person. What can we learn from the choices that led to a life of such distinction?
According to Gutteres, “(Annan) provided people everywhere with a space for dialogue, a place for problem-solving and a path to a better world. In these turbulent and trying times, he never stopped working to give life to the values of the United Nations Charter.”
Kofi Annan was born in Ghana in 1938, just prior to the second World War. Like all of us, his birthplace, childhood and the time in which he lived indelibly shaped who he would become. Annan joined the UN system in 1962 at age 24 as an administrative and budget officer with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. Eventually he held senior-level posts in budget and finance and peacekeeping.
The decisions that led him to a position of influence began early, and started with a simple recognition: that the path to peace is complicated, it requires personal determination, it requires a fierce protection of dialogue, and it matters. Annan’s conviction and dignity have left a mark on all who have known him, and these traits have played a role in every one of his decisions, from the personal to the far-reaching.
His life story (summarized in greater detail here and here) is marked by key milestones. Annan galvanized global action against HIV and terrorism, he was granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, and he tirelessly used his UN office to fight for human rights and the rule of law. From the start, even through setbacks and difficult decisions, he kept a singular goal in mind: the benefit of the greater good. His winding path through life has shaped the world in which we all now live, and that path has been shaped by his willingness to fearlessly face the challenges of humanity and fight them, even when these challenges have appeared philosophical or hopelessly daunting.
Instead of declaring the human condition fixed and defined by suffering, Annan stood up and worked to effect change. And he consistently placed the arc of his own life second to the arc of those pressed by hunger, war, disease and injustice. Found are those who lose themselves in the problems of others, and we find Kofi Annan and celebrate him at the end of his remarkable journey. Let us all be shaped by his example.