Educating for Inclusive and Peaceful Societies
Remarks by Kofi Annan – Conference of the Executive Heads of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Accra, 27 July 2016
Mr. President, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Allow me first to thank the Association of Commonwealth Universities and its conference of executive heads for inviting me to this important event. It is a pleasure to join you today for what I am sure will be a stimulating debate. As Chancellor of the University of Ghana it has been my privilege to witness first-hand the substantial improvements in tertiary education in this country and its impact on society at large. So I am pleased that we have this opportunity to showcase the contribution that institutions of higher learning are making in Ghana. Ghana is not alone in this regard; the growth of tertiary education across Africa in recent years has been impressive. Partnerships between universities and with the private sector and governments are on the rise. Enrolment rates are increasing; the diversity of topics studied has grown, and Africa’s universities are playing an ever greater role in addressing Africa’s challenges.
These developments confirm what I, like many others, have long believed – that education is the premise of progress in every society. It is the basis for sustainable economic growth and a fundamental building block for healthy, democratic societies. But I also believe that to maximise the benefit that universities can endow on society, they must go beyond transferring skills or conferring qualifications- crucial though they are. I am aware, of course, that the demands on the universities are great and resources are limited, which means that priorities have to be established and difficult choices made. Nevertheless, we must develop strong and durable bonds between universities and the societies of which they are an integral part. The universities can play a powerful role in tackling the contemporary challenges to global peace and security, heightened as they are by growing economic and social inequality.
The first challenge I see is the deficit of democratic governance, which clouds the future of our young people. The youth of today are generally better educated and better informed than in my day. And yet in Africa and beyond their future is being compromised by poor governance and a lack of democratic leadership. We live in an era of democracy as evidenced by the large number of elections world-wide. Unfortunately, the questionable legitimacy of many of those elections, and the poor governance that too often follows them, is creating a democratic deficit. Demonstrations by young people – in the global north and south – show that they are aware of these democratic deficiencies, which deny them opportunities for a fuller and freer future. Their frustration is understandable and as long as governments do not heed that frustration, they risk riots, rebellions and even revolutions.
The impact of education on governance is well-established. Education strengthens popular support for democracy. It not only increases voter turnout, but also participation in other political activities such as running for office, taking part in campaigns and joining political parties. And it allows citizens to engage in these activities in a more informed manner, so that the responsibilities of citizenship override ethnic or sectarian affiliation. With education, young voters are better equipped to detect abuses of power, less tolerant of corruption, and are equipped with the tools and knowledge to fight against both. So I would ask you to ensure that higher education helps foster a better understanding of democracy, its benefits and responsibilities. I hope too that universities will not only advocate for democracy but practice it by expanding access to higher education for all segments of society. By reflecting the plural and democratic character of society, universities will be in a much stronger position to instil those values in its graduates.
The second pressing challenge I wish to underline lies in the erosion of social cohesion created by growing inequality and intolerance. A stronger bond between institutions of higher education and society at large can help to build more open and pluralistic societies that reject extremist violence. However, as we have seen in many instances, a university education does not in and of itself guarantee respect for diversity nor an understanding of the benefits of pluralism. We must impart to all students, whether in the arts, sciences or humanities, the values and beliefs that build rather than weaken social cohesion. I hesitate to be prescriptive about how this can be achieved; rather, I suggest we look to those who know best- young people themselves. My Foundation is working with a group of exceptional young people who are challenging violent extremism in their own communities. Members of the Extremely Together initiative are harnessing the power of learning and local networks to protect their communities. We must do more to prepare future generations for the reality of a highly mobile and increasingly fluid world. A world of climate change, mass migration and disruptive technologies will present unique opportunities alongside unforeseen hazards. Universities must prioritize cultivating a sense of civic responsibility in its graduates while preparing them to take on these challenges. In this way, future generations will have the tools to navigate a rapidly changing world in pursuit not simply of personal enrichment but of public service that benefits communities and countries.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have long maintained that healthy, democratic and sustainable societies are built on three pillars; peace and security, sustainable development and respect for human rights and the rule of law. There can be no long-term security without development, no long term development without security, and no society can long remain prosperous without respect for human rights and the rule of law. Institutions of higher education are vital support structures of these pillars of progress, empowering individuals while serving as powerful common denominators that strengthen the ties that bind societies together. In closing, let me again thank the Association and Executive Heads for inviting me to speak on a subject on which I am both passionate and hopeful.
Earlier this year, I had the honour of speaking at a ceremony in Westminster Abbey celebrating the 90th birthday of Her Majesty the Queen and her contribution to the Commonwealth. On that occasion, I emphasized that the Commonwealth is a unique institution that transcends the divisions of gender and geography, race and religion. I believe that universities must play a similar role in the communities where they are established and by doing so contribute to making our world a fairer and more peaceful place. I wish you every success in your deliberations and look forwards with great interest to their outcome.