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Remembering Kofi Annan’s life and legacy

It is almost 6 pm and we are slowly approaching the entrance of the stunning Westminster Hall. Our hearts are filled with sorrow: Kofi delivered his speech in the same venue during his very last visit to London. Still, seeing how many gathered to commemorate him and his work was warming and inspiring. As I enter the main hall, I notice many participants from the conference taking place in Chatham House. I also see young people, many of whom were representing various UNA-UK branches.

Indeed, this event is extremely valuable and pertinent to the youth. Kofi Annan’s legacy can be hardly overlooked in helping to create the leaders of tomorrow. For us, the generation of change-makers, he will always underpin a wider idea of promoting human rights and the rule of law. His idea of a peaceful and sustainable world is the only solution for our planet to survive. His wisdom about the primacy of the individuals and their needs, rather than inter-state power struggles, have been paramount in bringing the voices of the unheard. Finally, it is his call for collective work in partnerships that marks giant contributions the world has yet to make.

The lights become dimmed with blue and purple colours. From the podium, Natalie Samarasinghe, the Executive Director of UNA-UK, addressed the audience by emphasising: ‘We all share the same destiny’. This is why, in her words, emphasis on multilateralism remains the only way to achieve peace. And this is where Kofi’s contribution was so remarkable: his relentless optimism and ability to bring the best in the people unveiled the most out of partnerships, further promoting change. His quest for creating a ‘fairer and peaceful world’ will always be remembered.

Appreciating Kofi’s efforts is important for us: it reminds us of a great man who, in the light of all the difficulties, always tried to aspire to a better world. And this is why following his lead is so important in the times like today.

All the speakers truly gave their heart to the audience, as each of them expressed their vision of the problems facing humanity today and how Kofi’s activities inspire us to change the world for the better. In the sections below, I will outline some of these leading ideas.

We must assess and assist how our governments fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their policies

How much do our governments contribute into implementing the SDGs? With the targets of Agenda 2030 steadily approaching, it is vital to understand what the nationally determined policies of our governments are and whether they have been leading to progress. In doing so, the role of civil society is essential: not only should we assist our governments, but also help to ‘raise the ambition about the Sustainable Development Goals higher’. Measuring the effectiveness of the government policies and seeing how the already existing progress could be accelerated is key to enhancing the implementation of the SDGs.

However, in doing so, it is important to note that the progress occurs dialectically: the government cannot attain the goals set unless it cooperates with the non-governmental organisations which have considerable experience on these issues. Agenda 2030 presents a unique momentum where both sides could be ‘forced’ to cooperate, and the sooner the two start the process, the more progress will be made.

Likewise, as it was mentioned during the event, the fact of ‘goaling’ itself – the existence of the SDGs and the fact that these goals were set in first place– is already a remarkable commitment. Even so, another issue behind implementing the SDGs remains: how do we ensure that everyone is reached in fulfilling these goals? What is the scope of our activities and how are they beneficial for remote and marginalised communities?

So far, the recipe of success of the SDGs consists in the importance of effective partnerships within civil society, and with the business groups and the government, this ensuring that the devised institutions follow informed policies and help to attain good governance. And this is where Kofi’s legacy is so important: we should be extremely optimistic and take every challenge as an opportunity to bring something to the table. As one of the speakers said, it is all about ‘commitment and action, passion and then the rest’. And this is where civil society is extremely important, as it will be explored in the sub-section below.

The key role of the youth

Let’s face it: given the existing situation and the ambitious goals set for 2030, we may notice that attaining them does not look like a piece of cake. Many would simply despair and not see the prospect of improving the situation. However, innovative vision coming from the next generation - our youth – is key to solving the problem. This is where Kofi’s enthusiasm and willingness to find the solution links to his ‘stubborn optimism’: he would persist into making a change even in the circumstances which could cast hopelessness and pessimism. So, it is hoped, that the youth will follow Kofi’s example.

Specifically, for the youth to learn what responsibility they bear and how prominent people like Kofi tried to make the world a better place, investment into education is crucial. For a reason, it was called ‘the best investment’: by educating children about the pressing issues faced by the world, there is a higher chance of informed and self-conscious generation to come. By accepting the responsibility of sustainable choices, it could also prompt children to figuring what solutions could be devised, hopefully leading towards ‘a more stable, peaceful world’. And it is the next generation who will share and continue upholding a ‘collective promise’ to give everyone an equal chance of achieving their potential to the maximum.

Therefore, young people are our only hope and the future drivers of progress. As Kofi famously said, ‘you are never too young to lead and never too old to learn’. The youth should continue being proactive and inflicting their enthusiasm into the work of the government stakeholders. The possibilities for sharing the knowledge and engaging in collaborations while upholding the ‘can-do’ attitude is essential for realising youth’s potential. As opposed to being the ‘prisoners of hope’, the youth’s proactiveness and optimism will help to unveil the extraordinary potential of the United Nations. Likewise, the need of engaging with the leaders and actively looking for a space in the existing multilateral frameworks are key to enhancing international diplomacy and helping to solve urgent problems.

The re-defined role of the United Nations in the 21st century

It is extremely challenging for the UN to remain a ‘guardian of the norms and values’ when it is being perceived in a somewhat different light due to its failures.

Firstly, the narratives about the UN being ineffective unfortunately dominate contemporary understanding of the institution. The lack of representativeness of the UN system, as well as the need for the reformed UN Security Council (UNSC), contribute into the escalation of negative rhetoric towards the UN. Kofi was one of the key advocates for the UNSC’s reform, reaffirming the need of moving power concentrated in the ‘Western hands’. Yet, these plans have not been implemented, presenting the basis for the UN’s criticism still ongoing today. The difficulty of controlling the increasingly threatening and less tolerant rhetoric reinforces the need of seeking for the opportunities to engage with these narratives, and thus change the situation. Therefore, the role of the UN and the vital need of interaction with the civil society is key to the UN’s work – this still needs to be embraced by the society.

Secondly, Agenda 2030 and the voluntary national reviews prepared by the states will test and consequently show the real strength of the UN. Although formally known as ‘voluntary’ contributions, one of the speakers stated that the civil society clearly expects states to implement the text they previously negotiated. Herein lays the difficulty: with less than 12 years left, there is not enough progress. Who is to blame for this: the lack of reinforcement and accountability from the UN, or a loose commitment from the Member States? While the ambition for 2030 is immense, a threat not to meet the SDGs is stronger than ever, with the climate change remaining at the heart of the issue.

The ability to tackle such pressing challenges will unveil whether the UN needs to take a firmer lead in its activities in order to enhance its effectiveness.

After-event: Kofi’s footprint on our lives

When the event ended, I was filled with inspiration and the extreme drive to act. I also had a chance to meet various government and NGO representatives, all united with the spirit of celebration of Kofi’s personality and achievements. We all believe that his legacy should be commemorated and reinvigorated in our future activities. This, in turn, should help to inspire the new generation of change-makers who will be active in their societies, assisting their governments and most importantly, empowering the work of the UN in the 21st century.

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