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Leadership and Governance for the Challenges of the 21st Century

The following is a transcript of the speech given by Kofi Annan at the 2017 Junior Chamber International (JCI).

Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to join you for this year’s JCI World Congress. Let me thank JCI for inviting me to this important event.

Standing here in front of so many young citizens from all over the world, I truly feel the positive energy and spirit of optimism in this room. And we will need your youthful energy, creativity and passion to set the world on course to a more sustainable future.

We live in troubled times.

Violent conflict, terrorism, famine, political polarization, economic inequality, and many other challenges are testing our states and our societies. Looming above all of this is climate change, an existential threat for humanity. Finding solutions to these complex global problems is the difficult inheritance we leave to you. But I remain optimistic about the future.

Today, we have the largest global youth population in history and the large majority of young people around the world are committed to peace, sustainable development, and human rights. Throughout my career, I met with numerous youth groups, students’ associations, and young leaders, and I have always been struck by their talent, knowledge, and ambition to create a better world. With new forms of technology and interaction, your generation is also more open, cosmopolitan, and connected than any previous generation. For these reasons, I am confident that you will be able to do what my generation has not been able to accomplish.

While the challenges we face are huge, we are fortunately not starting from scratch. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord provide a compelling roadmap with ambitious goals. They offer you a vision for a better world that you will have to pursue with determination and imagination. Every sector of society has to come together – government, business, and civil society – to bring this vision to life; and young people must lead the way.

So allow me to share with you a few thoughts on how your skills and energy can help make the world a better place.

First, I believe that we need your active engagement around peace, reconciliation and human rights. Across the world, armed conflicts rage, killing thousands, displacing millions, and challenging our collective conscience. Conflict robs people of their lives and tears apart entire societies. Young people are particularly vulnerable and are disproportionately affected by violence and conflict. They are caught up in and victimized by violence as child soldiers, gang members or as refugees or migrants. Yet young people are also among the most determined peacemakers. You realise that we are all in the same boat and that you cannot have peace, nor prosper, at the expense of ‘the other’. You understand that peacebuilding is conflict prevention and that reconciling grievances is an investment in your future. You have an array of tools such as social media that help you shine a light on human rights abuses and help bring justice to the victims.

Second, I encourage you to stand up for a more equal and just society that provides opportunity and prosperity for all of us. While globalisation has created unprecedented wealth, inequalities have also grown tremendously. Today, just 8 men own the same wealth as the poorest half of the global population. In the developed and developing world, polarization and fragmentation in society are rising while trust in institutions is eroding. Populist and xenophobic groups are taking advantage of peoples’ fears to reject diversity and pluralism. As the first truly global generation, you know better than anyone that cultural, religious and ethnic diversity can be a source of strength, rather than a source of division. Your generation is my hope. You speak out against xenophobia, racism, extremism and intolerance. It is for this reason that my Foundation is leading an initiative, called ‘Extremely Together’, which recently unveiled a guide to mobilise young people against extremism.

We also have to remove the barriers to quality education, multiple forms of discrimination, and limited employment prospects of young women and men. Policy-makers have to provide opportunities for youth to participate in decision-making processes and in political life in general. Third, your active involvement in protecting the environment and advancing climate action is critical. For too long, we have been consuming the resources of the world as if there were no tomorrow. And man-made climate change is driving the world to the brink of catastrophe.

Across the world, droughts, fires, storms and other extreme weather events are threating food production and fresh water supplies, destroying infrastructure, and putting human lives at risk. Sea level rise is threatening to drown entire cities and small island states, forcing people to flee their homes and land. The poorest, who are least able to cope and who have done the least to cause the problem, are being hit hardest. The solution to the climate crisis cannot be left to governments alone. We all have the duty to protect our planet and we are seeing promising examples of such leadership.

Civil society and youth movements are at the forefront of creating a more sustainable future. They are launching worldwide campaigns for climate justice and putting pressure on businesses and governments to meet their responsibilities. As conscious consumers, young people are shifting towards sustainable consumption patterns and are driving green entrepreneurship by the development of green products and services.

My dear friends, I am confident that positive change is possible if we act together and act now. The problems we face are global but they demand local solutions as well as international cooperation. The initiatives you undertake in your own community, from the classroom to the family dinner table, are indispensable.

Over the next few days, you will connect with other young people and discuss some of the most important issues of our time, including leadership. A good leader is a good listener and a good leader is also a good follower. You must remember this as you assume a position of leadership. And as I have said before – you are never too young to lead and never too old to learn.

You have the opportunity to become the leaders we need you to be. So put your remarkable energy, vision, and passion in the service of our people and planet. Let’s put the planet first. I count on you to build a more sustainable future for all of humanity. Thank you.