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Trailblazing Diplomat Changes the Course of the United Nations

Kofi Annan grew up at a time when change was in the air. Born in 1938 in the Gold Coast, the former British colony and now present day Ghana, Annan’s youth happened at the same time that his homeland was gaining its independence in 1958. This is a moment, according to Annan, when suddenly “you realized that change was possible.” This moment came with another realization: that you can either be a part of this air of change or be swept up by it. Annan chose the first option.

Kofi Annan's vision for the world.

If he was to be a part of change, Annan understood that he first had to get an education. This belief led him to study economics at the Macalester college, international relations at the Graduate Institute Geneva and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While studying, he became interested in world affairs. Annan was particularly concerned with the issue of peace. Even amid turbulence in Ghana, Annan lived a relatively comfortable life. But the fact that most of his peers did not experience this comfort inspired his life’s mission.

Kofi Annan becomes UN secretary general.

Annan began working in the United Nations (UN) in 1962. From positions as varied as budget officer, to manager of human resources, to under-secretary-general for peacekeeping, Annan rose through the ranks. On December 1996 he was appointed to be the next secretary general of the UN, becoming the first black person to hold the position of “top diplomat.” During his time at the UN, Annan worked to achieve his goals of bringing more peace and educational equality to the world. In 2000, Annan issued a report entitled “We the Peoples: the Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century.” The report called for the UN to help “free our fellow men and women from the abject and dehumanizing poverty in which more than 1 billion of them are currently confined.” This report led to the Millennium Declaration, a UN resolution that put support behind protecting the environment, meeting the special needs of Africa, and ensuring freedom for all.

Kofi Annan receives Noble Peace Prize.

In his professional life, Annan’s greatest contribution is perhaps how he fundamentally changed the UN. Under his leadership, the UN took a more advocacy approach, addressing the issue of the world head-on. For this, Annan received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his “work for a better organized and more peaceful world.” But more than one initiative or achievement, it is Annan’s life example that should be inspiring to the leaders of tomorrow. Annan believed that a life in Africa was just as valuable as a life in Europe. If humanity was not treated equally, then the life in Europe was diminished as much as the life in Africa.

This idea that people have equal value no matter their origin is best expressed in Annan’s own words. In his Nobel Prize Lecture, Annan said this about the connectedness of the world: “Scientists tell us that the world of nature is so small and interdependent that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rainforest can generate a violent storm on the other side of the earth. This principle is known as the “Butterfly Effect.” Today, we realize, perhaps more than ever, that the world of human activity also has its own “Butterfly Effect” – for better or for worse.”

Kofi Annan dies at the age of 80 on August 18, 2018.

Hazim Hardeman is a graduate student at Oxford University, where he will pursue a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Economic and Social History. He is also African Community Learning Program's intern for the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.

Aminata Sy is the founder and president of African Community Learning Program, a multimedia journalist, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies international relations and English. She is also the founder, editor, and publisher of the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.

Twitter @aminata2016

Email Aminata Sy at

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