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Secretary General Issues Challenge to World Economic Forum


5 February, 2002
International business and political leaders must urgently address the plight of the impoverished and make globalization more inclusive and equitable, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the World Economic Forum on Monday evening.

"Perhaps no one in this hall feels as rich, or as powerful and influential, as he or she is perceived to be by others," said Mr. Annan. "And yet I believe all of you – whether you are business leaders, political leaders or opinion leaders – know well that you are enormously privileged, compared to the great majority of your fellow human beings, both in your standard of living and in the power and influence that you wield."

"The reality," he continued, "is that power and wealth in this world are very, very unequally shared, and that far too many people are condemned to lives of extreme poverty and degradation. The perception, among many," he added, "is that this is the fault of globalization, and that globalization is driven by a global elite, composed of – or at least, represented by – the people who attend this gathering."

The Secretary-General cautioned delegates at the World Economic Forum to be sensitive to the opposition their influence had engendered. "Do not underestimate the attraction of the rival gathering, timed to coincide with yours, that has just finished in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Its title, 'World Social Forum' is intended as a criticism, implying that you are interested 'only' in economics, or in profit, and that you do not care about the social effects of your economic activities. And that criticism resonates around the world."

"I believe that perception is wrong," said Mr. Annan, "and that globalization, so far from being the cause of poverty and other social ills, offers the best hope of overcoming them. But it is up to you to prove it wrong, with actions that translate into concrete results for the downtrodden, exploited and excluded."

One means to respond to the inequalities of the global economy, said the Secretary-General, is through the reaffirmation and pursuit of universal values. "I am glad to say that many business leaders have responded to the call I first made in Davos three years ago, when I proposed the Global Compact. They have publicly espoused the nine principles that I set out then – principles drawn from international agreements on human rights, labour standards and the environment. And we are working, together with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, and leading non-profit groups that have relevant expertise, to help those business leaders ensure that the nine principles are really applied in their day-to-day corporate practice."

Secretary-General Annan urged international business leaders to improve their efforts on behalf of the least developed economies. "Left alone in their poverty, these countries are all too likely to collapse, or relapse, into conflict and anarchy, a menace to their neighbours and potentially – as the events of 11 September so brutally reminded us – a threat to global security," said Mr. Annan. "Yet, taken together, their peoples represent a very large potential market – and many of their disadvantages could be offset if international business and donor governments adopted a common strategy aimed at making them more attractive to investment and ensuring that it reaches them."

The private sector, the Secretary-General observed, has a vital role to play in promoting solutions to public policy problems. "Business needs enlightened partners in government, but it need not wait passively for them to appear. In many countries, the voice of business leaders plays a very important role in moulding the climate of opinion in which governments take their decisions." Mr. Annan called for a significant infusion of foreign aid to the developing world. "We need at least an extra $50 billion of official development assistance each year if we are to reach the Millennium development goals, including the halving of extreme poverty in the world by 2015, to which all the world's governments have committed themselves."

The theme of historical challenge featured prominently in the Secretary-General's remarks. "I think we all have a sense today of having come to a turning-point," he said. "We felt that already with the end of the cold war and the beginning of a new millennium – and then, last September, we found ourselves entering that new millennium through a gate of fire, such as none of us ever wished to see. The forces of envy, despair and terror in today's world are stronger than many of us realised. But they are not invincible. Against them, we must bring a message of solidarity, of mutual respect and, above all, of hope."

"Business cannot afford to be seen as the problem," Mr. Annan concluded. "It must, working with government, and with all the other actors in society, be part of the solution. Let that message go out today, from this stricken but indomitable city, and let us make it heard throughout the whole world."

In a parallel message delivered to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, the Secretary-General further acknowledged the discontent stirred by the instabilities and asymmetries of the global economy. "I know that you have come together to voice deep concerns and convictions about the direction in which globalization is taking our world, and about what we should do to remedy it," said Mr. Annan. "Some of these I share, some of them I do not. But whatever the case, I respect and share wholeheartedly your commitment to improving the lives of individual men and women on this planet. Indeed, if there is one guiding motto that the United Nations must work under in the twenty-first century, it is to put people at the centre of everything we do."