Mr. Shashi Tharoor8


When the call came from an excited colleague at 4:58 AM, New York time, on Friday, October 12, telling me that my organization, the United Nations, and my boss, Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan, had won the Nobel Prize for Peace, I had been lying awake for nearly an hour. It was a call 1 had been expecting, indeed hoping for; but for three years now we had heard the same rumors, and twice they had proved untrue. So it was in a mixture of anticipation and dread that I tossed and turned that night.

Kofi A. Annan himself, typically, had no such anxieties. He was sleeping soundly, untroubled by the prospect of either triumph or disappointment, when his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, woke him with the news. “Given the sort of business we are in,” the Secretary-General later remarked, “usually when you get a call that early in the morning, it’s something disastrous.”

But this prize was “a wonderful way to wake up,” recognizing the United Nations work and giving him, and the men and women he leads, encouragement for the future.

Though, as the UN’s head of public information, I am hardly an impartial observer, I could not resist the editor’s invitation to express a personal view in this space. It is not every day that one finds oneself directly touched by an event of this magnitude — the grant of the world’s most famous prize. A senior colleague said to me that morning that, “The United Nations could not have won without Kofi A. Annan, and Kofi A. Annan could not have won without the United Nations.” My own comment to the Secretary-General was less even-handed: “It was you,” I said to him, “who brought the UN to the point where we were worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.”

There is no doubt that the prize recognizes the work of the thousands of unsung United Nations staff striving anonymously behind the headlines — bearing the brunt of the outflow of Afghan refugees, waging the long and thankless battle to overcome poverty in Africa, fighting the scourge of HIV/AIDS and other killer diseases, patrolling the frontlines in 16 peace-keeping operations around the world. But it is also a tribute to the way that the United Nations, under this remarkable Secretary-General, has become the one indispensable global organization in our globalizing world.

The Nobel Committee itself recognized this in its citation, proclaiming “that the only negotiable route to global peace and cooperation goes by way of the United Nations.”

The man who has brought the United Nations to this point — and who, in a Scandinavian poll this summer, ranked as the world’s most admired statesman, with more than double the popularity of his nearest rival, British Prime Minister Tony Blair — is unusual, first of all, for being the first to climb the ranks of the organization from its lowest professional level to the very top. When Kofi A. Annan became Secretary-General of the United Nations at the beginning of 1997, he had not been a world figure like some previous contenders for the post; those who make it their business to follow the United Nations knew his resume but not his biography. Of his popularity with the staff there was no doubt: the jubilation in the corridors and offices of the United Nations Secretariat five years ago, when the news of his election was first announced, had to be seen to be believed. For UN officials beleaguered by ill-informed criticism and beset by financial crisis, anxious about the polemics surrounding the defenestration of the previous Secretary-General and crushed by the rapidity with which the post-cold-war euphoria about a “new world order” had soured, the ascent of a man who knew their problems and their strengths was a shot in the arm.

But it is not the fact that he is an insider, nor even that he has worked for the United Nations in both Headquarters and the field, not even that he has served in a remarkable range of areas (budget, personnel, refugees, peace-keeping), that explains the continued exhilaration at the UN at his election earlier this year to a second term, or the screaming, weeping, cheering throng that greeted him as he entered the Secretariat building after learning of this year’s Nobel Prize. It is something altogether simpler. Kofi A. Annan possesses that rare ingredient not always found in successful men: he is a wonderful human being.

Born into a family of traditional chiefs of the Fante tribe in Ghana, Kofi A. Annan grew up in Ghana, where he became a student leader of note. A scholarship brought him to college in the US (and later in Geneva) and, unusually for a bureaucrat, he took a degree in management from MIT. More important, as those who have worked with him will tell you, he has a Ph.D. in people. He takes the trouble to relate to others — young or old, senior or junior, ambassador or security guard. He listens; he is patient; he always has time for an enquiry about your family or some trifling personal circumstance in your life. (The same morning that he had learned the news of the Nobel Prize, an accolade that had elevated his stature even higher into the rare stratum of the world’s superstar celebrities, he found the time to ask me how my son’s college applications were going.)

Time after time I have seen visitors leave his presence overwhelmed by his warmth.

As a result, his personal qualities are widely seen as the key to his professional success. Even the most trenchant critics of the United Nations under Boutros-Ghali exempted him from their criticism, When Muhamed Sacirbey, the Bosnian Ambassador to the UN, was asked why, after all his attacks on the UN’s role in his country, he still praised Kofi A. Annan, who was head of peace-keeping through that time, Sacirbey replied simply: “Because he is honest.”

UN officials know him as a boss who extends trust and loyalty, who stands up for his staff, gives them credit for their accomplishments and takes full responsibility for their mistakes. He is a man of rare wisdom, one whose advice and judgement have always been respected by his peers as well as his subordinates. He has a gift for management that goes well beyond anything that can be learned at business school. He picks his collaborators well and gets the best out of them, unfailingly helping people to fulfil a potential they might not even have realized they possessed. He is a man of principle who does not hesitate to express his convictions. His firm determination to “put the individual human being at the center of everything the United Nations does,” and his willingness to challenge the dogma of sovereignty when it is used as a shield for abuses by governments, have marked his tenure in office.

Above all, he has an extraordinary inner calm. No one has seen him angry, depressed, excited or in a panic. I once compared him to an Indian yogi — a human being who seems to walk on a different plane, with a strong, still center to him in which he is deeply anchored and from which he faces pressure and pleasure with absolute confidence that neither can overcome him.

A record-breaking sprinter in his youth — his collegiate mark in the 60-yard dash stood for decades — Kofi A. Annan has revealed, in his first term, the tirelessness, stamina and patience of a long-distance runner. Throughout the ups and downs of the United Nations efforts to cope with the new world disorder in recent years, from the carnage in East Timor to the global response to terrorism, he has stayed strong, serene and focused.

The world will need these qualities as the United Nations embarks upon the challenges of the 21st century. The future of the world organization has not, for many years, looked as promising as it does now, in a planet transformed by globalization, instant communications and the random menace of terrorism,

Kofi A. Annan has often spoken of those “problems without passports” — poverty, conflict, refugees, the environment, drug trafficking and now terrorism — which are beyond the power of any one country, however powerful, to solve on its own.

How the United Nations will respond to these challenges — or, more to the point, be allowed by its member states to respond — is uncertain. What is certain, though, is that as it does so, it will be led by a man of integrity, humanity and deep personal strength.

KA 94e5. Interim Head, UN Department of Public Information. This article appeared in The Earth TimesConference News Daily/, 31 October 2001.