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Mobilising political will: a communications perspective

When I first joined the team at the Kofi Annan Foundation last summer, I was ecstatic. I had always dreamed of working in international relations, and with the former Secretary General at the helm, I knew I was being given a chance to make an impact. Friends and family were happy to hear my news as well, and while everyone recognised the legacy of our namesake, many shared a similar response: “I didn’t know Kofi Annan had a foundation. What does it do?”

Like any good communications officer, I was ready with a response:

“We believe that the knowledge needed to address global challenges already exists. What often holds us back is a lack of leadership and the political will to use it. The Foundation mobilises political will to overcome threats to peace, development and human rights.”

This is what Comms professionals refer to as an elevator pitch – a clear and concise way of presenting yourself in, say, the time it takes to share a ride in the lift. And present the Foundation it does – friends and family would nod and ask how I was settling in to my new role.

But frankly, it left me wondering. What exactly did I mean by “mobilising political will”? It’s an intangible but important concept. The Foundation does an excellent job of illustrating it through videos and publications, yet for me, its true meaning did not crystallise until I was well into my first six months on the job.

The summer of 2016 was particularly demanding for our small team. After Mr Annan accepted the role of Chair of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, our work in mediation and crisis resolution was thrust into the global spotlight. Our Electoral Integrity Initiative successfully launched a timely policy brief on access to justice. And in Communications, we were much occupied by the launch of the Foundation’s new social media channels, which allow us to more directly talk about our work.

It was easy to see what we were working to achieve, and the question of political will was comfortably set aside. That is, until December rolled around, and with it the 2016 Ghanaian presidential election.

As part of our work supporting democracy, we monitor elections in numerous countries, analysing their political environments and recommending targeted interventions when appropriate. Last year Ghana ranked highly among these countries and was of particular importance to Mr Annan, one of her native sons. In the final days leading up to the election, the situation on the ground became increasingly tense, and it was decided that an opinion piece in which Kofi Annan appealed for calm and diligent exercise of the right to vote could go far to facilitate the peaceful transition of power.

By the time the article was ready, I found myself in a frantic scramble to have it published before Election Day, when it could still achieve its maximum impact. After two days of near-continuous e-mails and phone calls, the piece was assigned to the front page of the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s most widely read daily newspaper (to my very great relief).

That paper was duly distributed to its 100,000 readers. But beyond that, Mr Annan’s appeal reached countless others through the media outlets, blogs, and radio programmes that picked it up. His article was even circulated among the presidential candidates themselves at a meeting of the Electoral Commission the following day. And to all of our very great relief, Ghana went on to choose its next president in an election of marked integrity.

That’s when it clicked. Political will was not just an invisible sceptre wielded by dictators. It is the agency we all possess – the voices we raise in praise or protest to shape our future. The presidential candidates had employed their political will to peacefully pass the baton of power, the people of Ghana had exercised theirs in an exemplary display of democracy in action, Mr Annan had used his to encourage them, and I had helped, in my own small way, to shape an environment in which they could do so effectively.

That’s what I do at the Kofi Annan Foundation – that’s what we all do. Whether we’re featured in headlines or quietly working behind the scenes, advocating for smallholder farmers in Zambia or making frantic phone calls from Geneva, we mobilise political will to overcome threats to society. I wouldn’t change my first six months here for the world, and I can’t wait to see what the next six will bring.

Kelcey Clara Armstrong-Walenczak
Associate Communications Officer