Lessons Learned and Ideas Inspired by Kofi Annan’s Memoir

Kofi Photo

After recently finishing Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, I found myself not being able to stop thinking about many of the points he made. After jotting down random notes, underlines, and bookmarking several pages, I wanted to put this all together somewhere that I could reference in the future. His ideals on peacekeeping made so much sense in a world that is often chaotic with unnecessary conflict. Without letting himself be influenced by major powers, including the United States, he stayed true to what he believed in even if it led to disagreements with the security council or permanent UN member states.

A Christmas gift from my fiance, he bought it for me because of my curiosity for the UN, passion for peace keeping and preventing mass atrocities, and recent experience in Ghana and admiration of their culture. It resonated with me how Annan’s ideals and values seemed to stem from the culture I experienced while I was volunteering in Ghana this past summer. It also coincided with my belief in the benefits of cross-cultural communication and understanding. Not only would it eliminate conflicts essentially based on cultural misunderstandings, as many of the wars in the world often resonate, but also nations could learn how to better themselves by taking in lessons and ideas from places different from themselves. I know the United States and other major western powers often spread their practices to other countries with intentions of bettering theirs, but there is a lot that these powerful nations can learn from others as well. I thought of this a lot once I returned from Ghana and reflected in a post on who really are the rich and lucky ones in the world, and how are those two areas defined. In Annan’s writing, I found another example that especially if the United States related it to congress and our partisan conflicts today, might help finally move the country forward.

“For Ghanians, the concept of the African palaver tree has always been a tangible part of our heritage, and a source of the relative peace and harmony among myriad tribes and religions. A place to meet and talk, to seek compromise and settle disputes, to bridge differences and foster unity–this was the meaning of the palaver tree.”

“If you have a problem and you can’t find a solution, you meet again tomorrow and you keep talking until you find a solution. You can disagree with behavior or a particular position, but you do not resort to calling an opponent worthless. This notion extends to the relationship between traditional chiefs and their tribes, where there is accountability in the case of abuse or arrogance, including providing for the removal of chiefs who have lost the trust and respect of their people.”

What if this was the way for Congress and the White House today in the United States? Annan also highlights similar lessons he learned from his father.

“He taught me that when others insisted that sides must be chosen, and that it had to be either/or, there was another way that was truer to the reality of a complex world. His own life had been defined by the coexistence of tribe and language, place and purpose–the mix of heritage and hope that could bring Africa a new beginning, with dignity at its core.”

Annan also brought up a point of spreading democracy. An area I always questioned, because different cultures have different needs, he claimed that African countries are actually not being “westernized” when accepting democracy. It is in fact an idea that used to exist for them before colonization though not called democracy at the time, but contained many of the same ideals. As an African, he also stood strongly on the fact that colonization could no longer be used as an excuse for Africa’s problems. They need to look forward rather than letting the past inhibit them forever. Many countries such as Rwanda and Ghana have proven to be successful and peaceful democracies in recent years. They can serve as a model for states around them with cultural similarities, but who are still stuck under the result of a long military coup that took over once they obtained their freedom again and allowed corruption and prejudice to run rampid.

Under Annan, The United Nations also made poverty alleviation a global fight. Prior to September 11th, Annan reflected on near success of having the permanent member states ready to commit their share to make this goal closer to a reality. However, after September 11th this was pushed to the side. A very ironic move considering that poverty and all of the aspects that come along with it (lack of education, hunger, disease, etc.) are often what push men into extremist terrorist cells. Fighting poverty would likely have a considerably better result on the fight against terrorism than going in and fighting in countries that are already facing instability. This new tension, fear, and instability only leads to the growing number of terrorist activity which is now showing up in recent reports from the use of drones, for example. Imagine constantly living in fear and anxiety as unmanned killing machines flew above you without ever knowing when they would unleash their weapons. I think that may be enough to drive any person into a panic.

He touched on the importance of empowering women to make a substantial difference in the world, a common theory arising today and the importance of contraception access to give women these equal opportunities and also in reducing HIV/AIDS infections that continue to make it impossible for state’s with lack of awareness and resources to rise above.

In the situation in the Middle East he stood for the change the Arab Spring was working to bring, and sympathized with the battles they faced to finally have a better future that must include focus on young people and women to fully succeed. He reflected on lessons in Bosnia and Kosovo (an area I need to learn more about), and the cruelties between Israel and Palestine. To this day Israel continues its disagreements with the United Nations, seeing them as siding against them. Annan showed it in a way that showed the instability rising up over history, but the extreme retaliations often coming from the Israeli government only deepened the instability. That, and their persistance to not recognize international law and Palestine as a state, giving Palestinians a chance at rights and growth rather than keeping them oppressed, again something that feeds into growing extremist groups. An example here being Hamas.

He touched on the struggle during Rwanda as the world turned its back was especially interesting, since after the tragedy in Somalia gave nations reluctance to put troops on the ground in a country again. This has consistently undermined the theory of “responsibility to protect” that holds true how our world today is more interconnected than ever. A threat to peace anywhere is a threat to stability everywhere. We are very much a part of a global society.

As you can see there is so much inside the pages of this book, I’m sure I could go on talking about it forever. It’s great to read a perspective of someone who is on the side of all the world’s peoples rather than biased by what nation he may belong to. This was especially apparent to me in the chapters regarding the U.S. invading Iraq despite disapproval from the security council. We are seeing the results of this mistake now as we leave the country still in turmoil.

Annan consistently kept hope alive throughout the horrific tragedies he was faced with. Important to do in order to inspire future peace makers and not turn anyone away from a situation that may seem impossible.

“A Swahili proverb holds that “You cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail.” Turning the sail-from conflict prevention to economic development, peacekeeping, human rights, and climate change-is now more than ever in the hands of each and every one of us. The wind will follow its own unsettled course, but men and women in every society today have the ability to determine their destiny in ways unimaginable in past eras. Tyrants and bigots, warlords and criminals, the exploiters of human capital and destroyers of our natural resources, will always be with us, but their sails are not the only ones that can harness the wind.”

His main goal in working to provide more legitimacy to the United Nations was to show that sovereignty was not something that a state could hide behind any longer to deny its citizens their human rights. The United Nations was “for the peoples” along with for the states and governments must be held accountable for the behavior toward its citizens.

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What Did I Do in 2012?

With 2012 flying by so fast, I wanted to document some of its highlights. For me it was a big year with a lot of growing and changing to work toward the person I’m trying to be. I’m often good at being too hard on myself trying to figure the world out immediately, that I forget that it takes time to learn and to realize what I’ve already accomplished.

I rang in 2013 with some of my favorite New Yorkers including Sarabeth, Elle, Brad, and of course my boyfriend Jon. We started off the evening at McSorleys before heading into Williamsburg to feel classy at a jazz bar. Even with living in NYC, I will never have any desire to go anywhere near Time Square.

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Jon and I at McSorleys

February brought my 4th Jack’s Mannequin concert. I’ve seen him in Cleveland twice, Columbus once, and now NYC. Sadly, he announced that the band was ending in November of this year.

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Andrew McMahon at Irving Plaza

In honor of Valentine’s Day, and as a part of Young Professionals of Amnesty International, we put on our “Make A Date with YPAI” event. At Lolita in downtown Manhattan we held the event to take action for LGBT rights including issues such as DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. We had speakers who were professors, heads of organizations including In The Life Media, and ended the night with 2 transgender comedians and spoken word artist Athens Boys Choir.

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Myself speaking at our YPAI event at Lolita

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Athens Boys Choir performing at our YPAI event

In March, I was fortunate enough to attend two of my favorite opportunities that I had the entire year. First was the Amnesty International Secret Policeman Ball. A night of comedy and music to bring attention to the organization and some of the current urgent human rights abuses that were going on at that time. Radio City filled up with the help of a wide range of celebrities such as Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, just to name a few.

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Alex and I front row for Amnesty’s Secret Policeman Ball

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Cold Play performing

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Me, Steph, Emily, and Alex outside the event

A week later I was in Lincoln Center for three of the most inspiring days of my life as I covered the Women In The World Summit for Girls Who Rock. Jam packed with individuals who have been through the unimaginable and accomplished the incredible, I learned so much and never felt so motivated to keep working toward creating change. The summit ended with a speech by one of my favorite people, Hillary Clinton.

Tina Brown, Merryl Streep, Hillary Clinton

Tina Brown, Merryl Streep, Hillary Clinton

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Girls Who Rock Team

I ended March seeing Nick Kristof speak, which unfortunately I have no photos of, but you can read more here. April was filled with visitors. Both Jon’s family and mine made trips into the city along with college friends and a couple of guys from Germany. I began May with a trip to Ohio to spend my birthday in Athens, my favorite place in the world, and for our friends Mike and Mariah’s wedding. As I came back, my sister made a big move from NYC to Florida. Finally, it was time for the Girls Who Rock concert. As a digital engagement officer (the Twitter account was named most influential by Internet Week NY) for Girls Who Rock I had been helping plan and promote this event which would raise money for She’s The First to send girls to school at Shanti Bhavan in India.

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The performers and Girls Who Rock team after the concert at Gramercy

In June I found out I was accepted to take on a huge life goal of mine and travel to Ghana with The Humanity Exchange to work summer camps at multiple schools in the Western Region. The next month was filled with organizing paperwork and getting shots in preparation. The experience was as life changing and amazing as anyone could expect. If i begin talking about it I will never stop, so if you want to hear more you can see what I wrote during my time with these amazing kids.

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The rest of summer included playing kickball with She’s The First, holding a rooftop happy hour for Young Professionals of Amnesty International where we took action on the Arms Trade Treaty, speaking at the Amnesty office about conflict minerals in the Congo and other solutions to Kony 2012, and moving. After 2 subleases and squeezing 4 people into a 3 bedroom in Williamsburg, Jon and I finally signed a lease for the first apartment that was actually ours in Astoria, Queens. We also celebrated our 3 year anniversary on July 1st. As fall came around, we joined the Ohio University alums for a cruise on the Hudson River. I went on my first ever business trip for work to Greensboro, NC to represent Blue Outdoor at the Tanger Outlets Conference. Finally, I was made of honor in my best friend Rachel’s wedding.

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The bridal party

After spending the summer reading Half The Sky by Nick Kristof, the documentary was finally airing on PBS. I anxiously went to a few screenings ahead of time of course, one which included Nick, Sheryl WuDunn, and Olivia Wilde as speakers. I also spent a Saturday volunteering at the Global Citizens Festival, a massive concert in Central Park put on by the Global Poverty Project to raise money for some of the poorest areas of the world.

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Central Park Global Citizens Festival

At the end of October we made it through Hurricane Sandy only losing cable and internet, extremely fortunate compared to others in the NYC area. We walked outside to find our neighborhood damaged, but overall everyone in Astoria seemed to stay safe.

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Day after Hurricane Sandy in Astoria, Queens

I accepted a volunteer position as a Researcher for She’s The First for their schools in Uganda and South Sudan which I cannot wait to get started on! After much excitement and drama over the past year, we watched anxiously until 2 a.m. for Obama to win the election. Well, some of us made it the whole time anyways.

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Jon, Jacquie, and Chris on election night

We celebrated Thanksgiving with my parents coming to our apartment in the city. We held our final event of the year as the Young Professionals of Amnesty International on Guantanamo and stopping NDAA (which Obama recently passed unfortunately). The holiday season brought a delicious work dinner and bowling party, Lion King on Broadway for a night of fun with a few coworkers, and a trip to Ohio to celebrate Christmas, Jon’s birthday, and the New Year with friends and family.

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Eric, Erin, Jon, me, Rachel, Josh

This year brought so much inspiration, love, accomplishments, and learning. It flew by faster than I could ever imagine. So what will 2013 bring for me? So far I have resolutions including eating healthier and joining a gym (pretty normal). I’m also hoping to write more, maybe take the GRE and consider grad school more closely, narrow down a focus of what issues in the world I’d like to focus most on changing, get started with my role in She’s The First, try new things, and find some me time to relax. As most people are, I’m often hard on myself for not doing enough. But thanks to this blog, for me, I was able to see all of the things I did accomplish this year, and they were pretty awesome. Here’s to a positive and even more fun filled 2013!

“There Is Always A Way”

Being back in the U.S. after traveling to Ghana has been interesting. I’ve been more annoyed than ever with the daily stresses in life that in the grand scheme of things just aren’t important and should not take up so much of my frustration. The minute I landed in Newark I was bombarded with rude and unhelpful attitudes of airport and transit employees. I missed the laid back and friendly culture I had left where you would never see such negative attitudes over anything in life. Now that I’m back, it almost seems like my trip was a dream. I can’t believe that I went and that it was over. Then, I’m awaken as my phone rings and I hear my kids’ voices on my voicemail as a lump forms in my throat. I’m never good with endings, and this one was hard especially because I felt that our time together was too short and we could have had more together than we did, even though it was enough for us both to learn from each other.

It’s frustrating to me because when I tell people where I have traveled I get a lot of pity expressions. People feel sorry those who are living in any African country without even really knowing about it, and it’s sad that our society is morphed into that thinking without looking further. I also feel extremely awkward when people try to tell me how good it is that I went over to help them, to help “these poor people”. However, when I left I didn’t really feel sad or worried about the wellbeing of any of the children I left. And by no means did any of them need to be “saved”. In fact, I’ve come to think even more than I have before that maybe they are the lucky ones. Sure they don’t have a lot. The kids that I worked with mostly lived in shacks, had torn clothes, and minimal toys to play with. However, they were so appreciative and respectful. They enjoyed learning, they found fun in simple games that didn’t involve a television screen or gaming system. Sure, we waited 3 hours for our dinner sometimes, but in Ghana, why stress? What is the point in stressing over these day to day things? Here we are in a developed country with our health problems caused from stress or from not getting enough exercise and eating processed or fast food. Our children aren’t sweeping dirt to make their school look as nice as they can because they are proud to show you, they aren’t carrying chairs over for their new guests. We have so much more here in a materialistic ways, but our schools are filled with kids who turn to drugs, bullying, suicide, etc. It’s like we create these problems for ourselves.

I guess it frustrates me most because I feel I learned just as much from them as I’m sure they learned from me if not more. If ever an issue, the motto rang through “there is always a way”. Don’t worry, there is always a way to get something done if it needs to get done. So what’s better? Is it better to have the money, the things, the technology, the high-tech games? Or is it better to live simply, appreciate your family, friends and community, be a little dirty, a little poor, but be an overall friendlier and more positive person? Laid back with less stress to allow yourself to enjoy life? Who has the better quality of life? It’s true that developing countries can learn to further themselves in areas that the western world is excelling, but do they want to? I think that teaching about job creation is extremely important and showing them what else is out there and creating positive cultural exchange experiences. However, I think it’s equally as important for those in the western world to realize, they might not be the best off. And as much as we are teaching the world, take a minute and let other cultures teach you and open your mind to how they are living. It might be more important for someone to learn patience, life skills, survival instincts, love, respect, and appreciation of what you do have than to learn the competitive fast paced nature of the western world. So, never think “oh those poor people in Africa, how good it is for you to help them” because really, I think we might be the poor people that need help to become rich in other ways than money, power, tech, and business in the long run. If I had the people in my life that mean the most, I think that I could very much live in Ghana or a similar culture for more long term.

Smiles all around at Nkroful

Junior showing off my sunglasses

Vida and a friend after practicing our Azonto

My beautiful girls, always filled with smiles

Not only were they always smiling, but even though they don’t have a lot, they are so quick to give. Especially on the last days everyone wanted to give things to me so badly in fear that if they didn’t I would forget them. One group asked what I washed with. When I told them soap, they were in complete shock that someone with my color skin could use the same thing that they use to wash. They didn’t understand. Before I knew what was going on, a group ran to their home to get soap and bring it back for me to take. They are very obsessed with complexion as well. They think that white skin is better and they think hair type like mine is better than their’s. It was frustrating to me, they would say “your hair is so nice!” and they I would reply “YOUR hair is so nice, it is beautiful!”. But they are very quick to think that white is better and more dominant. Which leads me to my next blog I hope to write about empowerment as an area to focus on. If anything, I hope I left them feeling more special than anything. I wanted them to know that I was saying was truly what I thought. It was hard to tell if it went in one ear and out the other, or really helped them stay motivated to keep working hard, studying, and focusing on what they were so good at. I had the most amazing artists, runners, high jumpers, kids that could list tons of countries from every letter of the alphabet, and who could write the most creative and interesting stories/poems. I hope they don’t lose that. Though roadblocks come along the way such as kids who are forced to work instead of go to school, death, illness, and pregnancy. One school had a 14 year old girl who was pregnant. We did not know until the end and it was hard because she had one of the greatest personalities and was so easy and interesting to talk to. Of course, the fact that the boy have any responsibility wasn’t even a thought in anyone’s mind. I was so frustrated that someone with so much potential would not have the opportunities. I hope the world will transition to understand what a difference focusing on women and girls can make in situations like that. Where someone so special could have a large hand in helping their community build itself up, but instead will fall back into the cycle of life that is hard to dig out of. Not just in Africa or a developing country, but very much so in the U.S. as well. Which, my plug, is why women’s reproductive health is so important. It took the U.S. too long to make it a priority, as a powerful country we should be setting an example to make the change worldwide that could make a large impact. I got very much off topic, it’s so easy to do! My mind is constantly flooded with thoughts and side stories from the trip. I thought going would clear up for me what I wanted from life, but honestly, I’ve never been more confused. There is a lot to process, but I’ll try to share along the way.