Live From AFP: Annan Pushes Philanthropic Collaboration

If you wish to go quickly, according to an old African proverb, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together.

Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, used the proverb to help articulate his message of collaboration in philanthropy during his remarks at the opening general session of the annual Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) conference in Boston on Sunday.

Partnerships were a priority of Annan’s during his tenure with the U.N. The eighth United Nations Millennium Development Goal was to foster global collaboration on key issues. Annan said that he understood that to achieve its objectives the U.N. couldn’t go it alone. Assessments were made regarding what the U.N. could do, what it could do with others and what should be left to others. Members of the non-governmental organization and business community were brought in to participate.

Modern philanthropists understand the strength of partnerships, Annan said. In 1997, Ted Turner committed $1 billion to U.N.-related causes, a move that – at the time – was met with some concern that the media mogul would interfere with operations. Annan said that he had no such fear. Turner went on to lead fellow billionaires by example and perceptions have shifted over the decades.

The U.N. Global Compact has likewise served as an example of the power of partnerships, according to Annan. Since its inception in 2000, the compact has attracted 13,000 companies to voluntarily align strategies to meet standards in labor, environment and other spectrums and to advance societal goals.

“Funding is good, but being an active partner for positive change is better,” Annan said. “You can make a difference if you choose your priorities carefully and are willing to stay the course.”

Annan congratulated the conference’s 4,000 attendants on their efforts that have led to progress in access to clean drinking water, the mitigation of deadly diseases and other key humanitarian advancements. “Honestly, it is not easy to give away money responsibly. That is where you come in,” Annan told the crowd. “Your advice is crucial to our philanthropists…A successful partnership takes time to build.” There is much more to be done, however, and Annan emphasized the need for not only funding to meet needs but also the very best ideas to help lead to change.

Following his address, Annan sat down for a conversation with Patrick Feeley, chair of AFP. Highlights from the conversation included:

* The plight of Syrians. Serving as an envoy to Syria in 2012, Annan attempted to build a grassroots consensus toward civilian rule, but the six-point plan met opposition. Annan described the current situation as very complex and in need of collaboration among regional powers including Turkey, Iran and Egypt to identify and address the shared danger of instability in the region.

Neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have taken on much of the responsibility of bringing in refugees, Annan said. Lebanon alone is housing between 1.5 million and 2 million refugees. Annan was complimentary of Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau who has established a policy of welcoming refugees.

Refugees and migrants have rights under international law and the burden to help should not be a regional problem or European problem, but a worldwide issue. “We’re all migrants,” Annan said. “We all started walking out of Africa and spread around the world.”

* His current efforts. Annan is the chairman of the Kofi Annan Foundation and chancellor of the University of Ghana. The foundation is small and Annan plans to keep it that way. It focuses on good governance, human rights, youth empowerment and changing the conversation around drugs to one of health and education, describing the War on Drugs as a failure.

The foundation is also working with African farmers to increase productivity, making Africa more self-reliant regarding food production. At the university, Annan is interested in research and providing young people skills necessary to find employment. Vocational training is seen as an important piece as it affords those entering the workforce an opportunity to go it alone or collaborate when jobs are not available.

* The United States presidential election. A global commission report has identified the presence of too much money in politics and the United States has been cited as a cautionary example, Annan said. The view on the U.S. election from the outside shows a good deal of anger among the American people over a broken social contract in which, if a worker works hard and the company is profitable, he or she is able to keep their job. That is no longer the case, and Annan said that is difficult to explain to individuals how they can go without assistance, but billions have gone to rebuild Wall Street.

He cautioned that leaders must understand the power of their words and that they can be used to both soothe and incite violence. “The world is watching your election very, very closely,” Annan said.