Find us on

News & Media


‘The Courage to Change’

Mr. Annan’s closing remarks at the 2013 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship


Thank you for those kind words and warm welcome.

It is a pleasure to be here to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Forum and all that has been achieved over the last decade.

Let me start by thanking Jeff and Sally not just for their invitation today but also for creating this global hub for innovation and social entrepreneurship.

The unique opportunity you have provided has created a powerful, living community where ideas are shared and developed and optimism and creativity are nurtured.

In countries across the world, we can see the concrete benefits of these collaborations.

But I believe as important as these real improvements on the ground has been the evidence you have provided of how co-operation, courage and the disruptive power innovation can change our world.

Today, I would like to talk briefly about the critical importance of continuing to harness these qualities at a global level.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept, however, that someone who has spent his entire working career at the United Nations might not be seen as the most obvious person to convey this message.

After all, the UN hardly enjoys a reputation for innovation and dynamism.

Indeed, it is widely perceived to be bureaucratic and reluctant to change rather than being ahead of the curve.

Such a view, however, ignores both the way the UN has adapted to new challenges and the vision and inventiveness of those who built the organization I was later privileged to lead.

The establishment of the United Nations was itself an extraordinarily innovative and bold response to the horrors of world war and genocide.

But from its earliest days, the UN has also been shaped by visionary thinkers in the field of law, human rights and economics who believed – as you do – that our world can be changed for the better.

Ralph Bunche, a major architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was, for example, a champion of equal rights for every individual at the UN for 25 years.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General, revolutionized the UN’s role and approach to armed conflict.

Peacekeeping was not a mission originally within the UN’s remit but he understood the moral imperative and crucial need that these responsibilities were added – and battled to ensure they were.

Peacekeeping is just one example of how the UN has adapted and grown to further human security, protect human rights, and promote development.

In more recent times, it has also had to respond to great change and challenge.

I took over as Secretary-General not long after the end of the Cold War where initial optimism about a peace dividend had given way to new divisions and uncertainty.

New civil wars and local conflicts led to an explosive demand for peacekeepers. Painful lessons had to be learnt from the horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica.

There were increased concerns over what have been called “problems without passports” – challenges so large that they ignore frontiers and were beyond the power of any single Government to tackle on their own.

The threat posed by climate change to our way of life, our planet and future generations became clearer and more acute.

The full tragedy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was having a catastrophic impact on entire regions.

We saw a continuing rise in the reach and impact of international crime and the proliferation of weapons.

Globalisation accelerated, bringing new prosperity but also greater inequality and social problems in its wake.

The changes, of course, were not all negative.

We had the benefit of new technologies which provided new ways of connecting, informing and engaging people.

Civil society was becoming more active and influential across the globe.

We saw an increased understanding that in an inter-connected world, our futures and fortune were linked as never before.

This fueled a growing determination from individuals, businesses and organisations to look beyond narrow self-interest.

Faced with all these changes, I felt we had the opportunity to recast and strengthen the role and approach of the UN.

So we deliberately sought to refocus our efforts on the well-being of citizens rather than just their countries, and to build wider partnerships with the private sector, academia and civil society.

The Global Colloquium of University Presidents, for example, brought together UN staff and leading academics, tapping into the intellectual firepower of the finest scholars and matching it with experience on the ground.

Each year, the benefit of this inclusive approach is reflected by the Skoll Forum, which brings new ideas and innovative social entrepreneurs to one of the world’s oldest educational institutions.

Through the Millennium Development Goals, political leaders across the world agreed for the first time to put poverty eradication at the top of the international agenda through ambitious and measurable targets.

Not all the MDGs will be met by 2015. We need intensive efforts to close the gap where needed and construct an ambitious but realistic agenda for post 2015 and beyond.

But the MDGs have also been the catalyst for remarkable progress in tackling poverty and its causes.

The UN’s Global Fund to Fight AIDs, Tuberculosis and Malaria is another example of how building the widest coalitions and innovative thinking over funding have had a major impact.

In the area of extending the rule of law and respecting human rights, we also saw historic steps forward.

Here again public pressure to end impunity for the worst crimes – crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes – helped persuade Governments to act through the UN.

So what lessons have I learnt from my time at the United Nations?

First, that every new idea and initiative meets with resistance.

It was perhaps no surprise that there was reluctance from some member states to the changes that I have just talked about.

But on occasion it could be my own staff – aware of the challenges and eager to protect me from criticism or disappointment – who would try to discourage me.

When it comes to change, we must always be aware of the restraint bureaucrats put on themselves.

My response was always: ‘you never know – let’s test it’.

We have to be prepared to find the courage to take risks, even to fail, if the goal is worthwhile.

Secondly, the more people we can involve in coming up with solutions and the bigger coalitions we can build for change, the greater the chance of success.

No one has a monopoly of wisdom. When our challenges ignore both national and intellectual borders so must we.

We have to do more to break down barriers between different sectors, different academic disciplines and for countries to open themselves to new ideas and collaborations.

And third, I have learnt that with determination, inventiveness, and close collaboration, we can overcome the biggest barriers and toughest resistance.

For ladies and gentlemen, this is just as well.

It would have been nice to end this speech by saying the challenges we face are now fewer or smaller than when this Forum was first held 10 years ago.

But, as you know, it would not be true. Nearly one in seven of the world’s population will go hungry today.

We have abjectly failed to respond to the scale and urgency of climate change.

In the last few years, a savage economic crisis has sent unemployment soaring and widened inequalities in many parts of the world.

We are in danger of leaving a terrible legacy to future generations. That is why I am challenging you to do even more.

We need you, as well as your individual and collective initiatives, to help build and lead the coalitions necessary to challenge our leaders to face up to their responsibilities.

Business as usual is not an option. We need nothing less than a radical shift to a new model of sustainable development.

It is a model which must be built on three fundamental pillars; peace and security, development, and respect for human rights and the rule of law.

For there can be no long term security without development, and no development without security.

And no country can long prosper without respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Strengthening these three pillars requires us to see sustainable development and not just sustained growth as the global goal.

It needs us to stop seeing development assistance as the rich giving a hand-out to the poor and put in place a genuinely universal compact where we work together to increase incomes and opportunity for all.

We have to open up decision-making, ensuring it is more transparent, more accountable and enjoys far wider participation.

It means accelerating the switch from business models based on shareholder value to ones which look to the interests of wider stakeholders.

We have to change our default position from damage control to investing in resilience and prevention, tackling the root causes of problems rather than simply responding to emergencies.

And crucially we have to have the confidence to expand much more rapidly what we have seen, and know works.

So we must make every effort to scale up your ideas along with your energy and optimism.

Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t doubt the difficulty of the task or under-estimate the barriers to success.

But I am more than ever confident about our capacity to change our world for the better.

And this optimism is only increased when I look around this room.

Thank you for all you have done, and for all that you will achieve in the future.