Press Releases

    25 June 2002

    Secretary-General Exhorts Graduating Class at Northwestern University to Focus on Fighting Global Poverty

    NEW YORK, 24 June (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the commencement address by Secretary- General Kofi Annan, delivered at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, on 21 June:

    It is a pleasure to join you, the class of 2002, at your renowned university on the shores of Lake Michigan. Congratulations on reaching this milestone. Let's also pay tribute to the families, faculty and friends who helped you get there.

    The world was very different when I graduated from Macalester College, not far from here in St. Paul, Minnesota, more than 40 years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed living in the United States. But for us Ghanaians at the time, the overwhelming focus was on our own country's newly attained independence. We Ghanaians learned a powerful lesson from that experience: peaceful change is possible. We were well aware of the world at large -- how could we not be, having just endured colonial rule, and still watching our fellow Africans fight for their freedoms, too. But most Ghanaians also looked inward, and set about the job of running their own nation.

    Today, in Ghana and even the most remote places on earth, forces press in from every conceivable direction. We are all being influenced by the same tides of political, social and technological change. We are connected by travel, sport, communications and commerce. Your actions here in Evanston can influence life in Eritrea; and what happens in India has implications for Illinois.

    In such a world, issues that once seemed very far away are suddenly very close to home, as if they were in your backyard. As someone once said about water pollution, we all live downstream. And in such a world, we need other each and every individual to act as a global citizen.

    I've been told quite a bit about the admirable things the Northwestern community is doing to help others, less fortunate than you, to improve their standards of living. I know that even before you arrived on campus for freshman orientation four years ago, nearly one hundred of you spent your last week of summer vacation in underprivileged areas of Chicago, working on urban renewal projects and meeting with community leaders to improve your understanding of urban poverty. And I know that many of you have also travelled to various parts of the United States to work in homeless shelters and AIDS clinics as part of Alternative Spring Break.

    It is particularly heartening to know that you are not limiting this work to Chicago. More and more Northwestern students are studying abroad, and more courses about the developing world are being added to the curriculum here. In a few days several newly minted Kellogg School MBAs will fan out in the developing world for four to six weeks to share their expertise -- in an effort that sounds very much like the United Nations own corps of experts in information technology. Your tradition of scholarly exchange, for example in the African Studies programme, demonstrates your commitment to spreading knowledge throughout the world. And The Medical Supplies Mission -- founded by two of this year's graduates -- shows that one country's surplus equipment can be another's life-saving intervention.

    That is just the kind of engagement we need in an interdependent world. Each of you has more power than you probably realize. As consumers, your decisions to buy or boycott a product or company can get companies to practice responsible corporate citizenship. As voters, you can shape the national agenda and select leaders who understand the need to work in concert with other nations. And as young people, you have a wealth of energy and idealism that many of your elders may lack.

    But to what end should such power be used? Certainly there is no shortage of global challenges. Let me suggest today that you focus on one: the fight against global poverty.

    Contrary to popular belief, the world has made great strides in improving the quality of human existence. Life expectancy and literacy have risen. Infant mortality has dropped. Yet there is an immense backlog of deprivation. Three billion people -- that is, half the world's population -- live on less than $2 a day. In a world of great wealth, in a world of scientific and technological wonders, in a world in which people are more aware than ever before of how "the other half lives", that should be unacceptable.

    There are powerful moral reasons to join this battle. Extreme poverty is an affront to human dignity and human rights. It undermines universal values of equality and freedom. Solidarity with the poor is a cardinal tenet of all the world's great religions.

    But there are also strong reasons of national security and enlightened self-interest. Drug trafficking, AIDS, pollution, conflict: these and many other problems are closely related to poverty. We see a vicious cycle, in which poverty breeds other ills, which in turn make it harder to escape from poverty.

    Fighting poverty is about far more than aid from one government to another, although that is essential. Poor countries need debt relief. Even more than that, they need a chance to compete fairly in the global market. Were you aware that tariffs and farm subsidies cost rich countries many times what they provide in aid? This was one of the main points that my friend Bono of U2 was making on his recent tour of Africa with Treasury Secretary O'Neill.

    I suppose poverty is not a subject you would usually associate with a day of celebration such as this. But I would argue that the way you and your generation think about poverty holds one of the keys to a safe and prosperous 21st century for all people, in rich and poor countries alike. I would even go so far as to say that wrestling with the complexities of global poverty can help you answer other vexing questions -- questions that might sneak up on you tomorrow morning, once your heads clear and your relatives clear out.

    Indeed, there are few moments in life in which hope and fear are mixed so powerfully as the day after graduation from college. No matter how much you have pondered and planned what to do next, you may find that you feel tomorrow, more intensely than ever before, the need to reflect on age-old questions of purpose and place: What values will animate your life? What kind of world do you want to live in? And what kind of world will you leave behind, for your children to live in?

    Tomorrow you may sense that the world is waiting for you to decide who you are and what you stand for.

    Tomorrow, I hope, you will see yourselves as global citizens, for whom a long-term commitment to global causes is a defining personal test. We will not defeat poverty overnight, nor tackle the other issues of our times without that commitment. And tomorrow is when you must make your start -- for the world's sake and for your own.

    I understand that there is a tradition here at Northwestern, dating back to the 1920s, of using the "rock" as a message board. I'm afraid my visit here is too short for me to take up my paintbrush, so maybe I could ask you to post a message for me.

    My message has two parts. First: "We're all in this together". And second: "Class of 2002: we're counting on you."

    Congratulations again on your big day. And thank you for the opportunity to share it with you.

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