In memory of Kofi Annan: Father of the modern corporate sustainability movement

Arabesque’s Georg Kell pays tribute to former UN secretary general and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan, for inspiring business leaders to put a human face to the global market.

kofi annan
In creating the UN Global Compact, Annan led corporate leaders to help governments in lifting the poorest nations out of poverty by adopting a more sustainable approach to business. Image: Brookingsinst,CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A great son of Africa and a true global leader has passed away. Kofi Annan, United Nations secretary general from 1997 to 2006 and co-recipient, with the UN, of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, is being mourned and remembered with great affection all over the world.

He was the conscience of humanity, endowed with the ability to inspire millions of people across cultures, religions and nations to support the good causes of the United Nations – peace, human rights and sustainable development.

Kofi Annan’s unique leadership capabilities, his humility and decency, his compassion and his humor will always be remembered by those who had the privilege of working with him. As last great reformer of the United Nations, he managed to modernize its bureaucracy in critical areas such as women empowerment and global health.

Kofi Annan is mostly remembered for the role he played on the political stage and for the events that shaped the first decade of our century, especially the invasion of Iraq.

He did not hesitate to speak truth to power and he silently –abandoned by many around him – endured the consequence: a very ugly personal smear campaign that wrongly accused him of corruption. But even during these dark months he would not abandon his faith in the ideas of the United Nations.

Kofi Annan was one of the greatest diplomats in history. Yet his legacy will endure in another area as well. As a pragmatist and modernizer, Kofi Annan was tirelessly striving to overcome old ideologies.

Early on, he embraced the idea of opening up the United Nations to the people, to civil society and to the private sector which was, up until his appointment as secretary general in 1997, largely hostile to the organization.  

Kofi Annan not only had the courage to call on CEOs to embed universal values of humanity into corporate strategies and practices. He also played a critical role in the creation of the modern sustainable investing movement. 

In the sunny afternoon of January 29, 1999, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Kofi Annan spoke to hundreds of business executives: “I propose that you, the business leaders…and we the United Nations initiate a Global Compact of shared values and principles, which will give a human face to the global market.”

Every word of this speech sank into the minds of those present. And with this “speech act,” Kofi Annan planted the seeds for the modern corporate sustainability movement. The call was heard all over the world.

Over the subsequent years, business leaders and civil society from Argentina to Canada, from South Africa to Iceland and from Lebanon to China would form “local networks,” informed by universal principles, to change business practices.

Numerous business leaders, such as Sir Mark Moody Stuart, stepped forward and dedicated years to translate Kofi Annan’s call into the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, the United Nations Global Compact.

Kofi Annan’s call to action is as relevant today as it was two decades ago: “The spread of markets outpaces the ability of societies and their political systems to adjust to them, let alone to guide the course they take. History teaches us that such an imbalance between the economic, social and political realm can never be sustained for very long.

The global economy will be fragile and vulnerable to the backlash from all the “isms” of our time: protectionism, populism, nationalism, ethnic chauvinism, fanaticism and terrorism.” Thousands of companies around the world who have embraced the ten universal principles of the UN Global Compact in the areas of human rights, labor, the environment and anti-corruption have the opportunity to carry Kofi Annan’s legacy forward now.

Kofi Annan not only had the courage to call on CEOs to embed universal values of humanity into corporate strategies and practices. He also played a critical role in the creation of the modern sustainable investing movement.

During his darkest hours when smear campaigns against him were fueled by some of the world’s most powerful opinion spinners and when “the enemy was within the organization,” trying very hard to block any action that would advance the goals of the United Nations, Kofi Annan invited CEOs of some of the world’s largest asset owners and asked them to embrace the integration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into their decision-making.

He then joined them – against the advice of some of his aides – to launch the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investing (PRI) at the New York Stock Exchange in April 2006. And with the appointment of John Ruggie, Kofi Annan paved the way for the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights, now the gold standard in this critical area.

Today, the UN Global Compact and the PRI are thriving initiatives, and numerous other initiatives around the world have taken root as well. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, build on this foundation and offer a roadmap for action.

As the principles of the UN Global Compact have become part of big data analyses and smart algorithms, such as Arabesque’s S-Ray, Kofi Annan’s legacy is now also at work at the critical intersection between corporate responsibility and sustainable finance, which may well become the most important driver for our common future.

Kofi Annan has given us so much. He has shown us the meaning and practice of true leadership. His decency, respect and deep sense of humility and responsibility have touched our hearts and minds.

Kofi, your smile will always be with us.

And if you happen to look down on us, we are working hard, we will speak truth to power, and we will do our utmost to ensure that the good spirits will prevail.

Georg Kell is chairman of Arabesque and founding director of the UN Global Compact. This article was first published on Forbes and republished on Eco-Business with permission.

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