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Annan Speaks on Global Compact, Business Obligations at Sloan Gala

By Michelle Nyein

Kofi Annan SM ’72, the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations, delivered the keynote address last Friday at the celebration of MIT Sloan’s fiftieth anniversary in Kresge Auditorium.

As part of the three-day program of academic discourse and gala festivities, Annan opened the Academic Convocation with a speech on the need for trust in the international community and the obligation of businesses to aid in solving global problems ranging from environmental degradation to AIDS.

In today’s society, Annan said, peoples and nations must build a sense of shared responsibility to deal with urgent global threats.

“Trade and communications,” he said, “are stitching the human family ever more closely together.” He added that it is lack of trust between cultures that has led to violence.

Annan also lauded the business community for recognizing the need to move beyond what he called the “politics of confrontation” and engaging in policy forums and projects to better human well-being. He urged corporations to join with governments, civil society, non-government organizations, and individuals in forming an alliance for progress and advancing global citizenship.

“Sometimes,” Annan said, “we must do what is right simply because not to do so would be wrong.”

“We do not want business to do anything different from their normal business; we want them to do their normal business differently,” he said.

Annan touts Global Compact

One thing businesses could do differently, Annan said, would be to commit to the Global Compact. In 1999, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Annan launched the Global Compact, which asked businesses to embrace nine principles in the areas of human rights, labor standards, and the environment. Those three areas were ones in which he worried about a “severe imbalance in global rule-making.”

The compact, which is a voluntary initiative, now includes businesses, labor federations, and NGOs. By affirming commitment to the nine principles, it promotes universal values, encourages investment in developing countries, and creates a worldwide academic network to examine what works and what does not.

Audience members agreed with Annan that businesses must undertake more global responsibility.

“Annan is doing the right thing in drawing attention to the role of corporations in a globalized world,” said Archana Kalegaonkar G.

Jeffrey Katz SM ’80 concurred, saying that it is a real issue that corporations are not living up to their potential as global citizens and stewards.

Summits show global openness

Over the last few years, nations have convened at numerous summits and conferences to discuss issues ranging from access to drinking water and primary education to subsidies and tariffs on goods from developing nations. Such meetings, according to Annan, have helped foster understanding among nations.

Recently, nations met at the Millennium Summit in September 2000 to discuss and commit to millennium development goals, which include reducing hunger, providing access to safe drinking water, and ensuring universal primary education by 2015.

Annan said that the net result of the summits and conferences has been a “blueprint for putting people -- not states, and not GDP [gross domestic product] statistics -- at the center of policy-making.” The challenge now, he said, is implementation. And for that, the public and private sectors must forge a partnership.

Annan comments on Iraq

Following the speech, Annan answered questions from the audience. The most topical question was also the shortest: “Iraq?”

Annan said member states of the Security Council support a two-step process: first, send in inspectors and insist that Iraq comply with inspectors’ demands, and second, if Iraq fails, pass a resolution indicating the consequences for Iraq.

Annan emphasized the importance of Security Council support for military action. He noted that while any country, when attacked, has the inherent right of self-defense, a nation that deals with a broader threat to international peace and security should have the support and approval of the Security Council.

Annan answers other questions

Responding to an inquiry about the role of corporations in creating a sustainable future, Annan noted that corporations have a unique role -- not only can they influence policy-making and steer laws, Annan said, but they can also improve human well-being within their operations.

Annan said that corporations do not need to wait for governments to pass laws regulating pollution or employee training. In Brazil, for example, Volkswagen developed a program of education and treatment for AIDS for its employees and their families after watching numerous employees contract the disease.

This positive portrayal of large corporations reassured some audience members. Caryn Leeds said that she felt comforted that large corporations have been willing to help out situations in developing countries.