Wisdom from the Palaver Tree: Kofi Annan’s impossible job cajoling the world
I have just finished Kofi Annan’s fascinating memoir Interventions. Annan is clearly a man of great stature and influence, who strained every sinew to bring about peace and dialogue during his 10 years as UN Secretary-General but tragically often failed. For all kinds of reasons. But as one might expect (and indeed hope), he has great wisdom to share, even if he cannot claim a string of personal triumphs.
But before a few gems, here’s my brief Amazon review (which you may want to find ‘helpful’?!):
There’s no disputing Kofi Annan’s political stature or integrity of purpose. Nor can the challenges of his 10 years in one of the hardest jobs in politics be underestimated. I imagine that being UN Secretary-General is akin to being Archbishop of Canterbury – you are neither president nor pope, and so any effect you might have depends on the canny use of influence, impartiality and persuasion, rather than actual constitutional power. I can’t even begin to imagine how frustrating and difficult the job must be, let alone doing it for so long.
That said, if Annan is to be believed from this account, there were some encouraging achievements from his time (East Timor independence from Indonesia, Kenya election deadlock negotiations) despite the many debacles (eg Iraq War, Rwanda genocide while he was director of peace keeping). At times this book feels more like a case for the defence than anything else (but then perhaps all political memoirs are like that?). We certainly don’t really get to know him as a man – there are precious hints of his upbringing (his father sounds a fascinating and remarkable person in his own right), little chinks of light into his own family. For instance, it would be fascinating to hear more about his Swedish second wife, Nane, who it transpires is the niece of the renowned Raoul Wallenberg (who rescued scores of Jews from the Holocaust), p258. So the book’s subtitle seems a little misleading. “A life in war and peace” suggests something more autobiographical – instead what we get is more an account of “a career in war and peace”. For all that, this book offers a fascinating window into closed rooms and private discussions.
Uncommonly for diplomats, he is pretty candid about where he sees blame lying for things – he is not beyond criticising his predecessor Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and is robust (rightly) about the twists and turns leading up to the Iraq war. Most significantly, he felt he had a right to speak frankly to Africa’s leaders about their failings – and was perhaps the only African in recent history, apart from Mandela, to have the standing to do this and be listened to. The contrast he makes between Mandela and Mugabe is instructive – the former always understood that institutions are more important than the individuals that run them, unlike his Zimbabwean neighbour. However, is it too much to expect him to account for his own mistakes? I didn’t really discover any of note in this book. Well I suppose you wouldn’t expect that in a case for the defence, and that is perhaps where the flaw in this book lies.
Nevertheless, my respect for Annan increased on reading this book, as did my understanding of what the UN can be at its best. For much of the time, despite its controversies, profligacy and waste, and impotency, I feel sure the world is a safer place because of its existence.
In this respect, my father was representative of a deeper cultural tradition of patience, negotiation, and reconciliation. For Ghanaians, the concept of the African palaver tree has always been a tangible part of our heritage, and a source of the relative peace and harmony among myriad tribes and religions. A place to meet and talk, to seek compromise and settle disputes, to bridge differences and foster unity – this was the meaning of the palaver tree. Of course, this tradition coexisted with centuries of warfare between the Ashanti and other tribes, when compromise was elusive and force deployed. More recently, in the first decades of the republic, a series of military coups that scarred the character of the country and set back its development demonstrated our capacity to fail our heritage.
Nonetheless, the act of talking under the figurative palaver tree has resonance even today, in twenty-first-century Ghana. If you have a problem and you can’t find a solution, you meet again tomorrow and you keep talking until you find a solution. You can disagree with behaviour or a particular position, but you do not resort to calling an opponent worthless. This notion extends to the relationship between traditional chiefs and their tribes, where there is accountability in the case of abuse or arrogance, including providing for the removal of chiefs who have lost the trust and respect of their people. (p21)
But he doesn’t pull his punches about African governance, citing the economic stats at independence of Malaysia and his home, Ghana.
Ghana won its independence from Britain in 1957, at which point its per capita income was $390. Malaysia, too, won its independence from Britain in the same year, a country with, at that time, apparently similar prospects for economic development to Ghana’s but with a lower per capita income of $270…
The contrasting impact of these different trajectories on the lives of all men, women, and children in these two countries is now very clear: today Malaysia has a per capita income approximately thirteen times higher than Ghana’s. Taking this example, colonialism is practically irrelevant to the debate. The nub of the problem is African leadership and African institutions. (p176)
The Challenge of Poverty
Fighting poverty is a key part of the Millennium Development Goals. But of course there are many who shrug in resignation at the intractability of poverty in the world. Here he cites a conversation with former Archbishop of Canterbury, from whom he sought spiritual counsel on this issue. Rowan Williams made a vital, biblical point. After putting the case from Deuteronomy 15:11 that there will always be poor in the land, Williams responded:
“To some extent this is based in thinking that the poor are victims of human sin: that there will always be poor people, because there will always be sinners,” he replied.
“We shouldn’t be complacent,” I responded, trying to find a way out of an excuse for inaction.
The archbishop stressed his agreement: “the idea of shared accountability and social responsibility is explained in the Old Testament, and can be applied to the issue of helping the poor. Deuteronomy 15:4: ‘There should be no poor person among you.’ This is why Deuteronomy 15:11 should be interpreted as instruction that the poor are part of society and should not be ignored, not that we cannot strive to end their plight.” I thanked him for this piece of armory that I had never imagined I would need. (p228)
Then there was this crucial point from economist Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, provides examples from history demonstrating that it is not so much the abundance of resources that is the prime determinant of outcomes for the poor, but the values underpinning their use. During the Second World War, the resources available in Great Britain fell throughout the conflict, particularly in the net availability of food. But (excluding war-related deaths) nutritional health and life expectancy actually rose, and did so dramatically, across the population during the war years. Rather than a decline in care and the state of the vulnerable, the deprivations of war spurred new supportive and sharing social arrangements leading to a radical transformation int he food-distribution and health care systems, with dramatic results. The difference was driven by something very simple: a change in the attitudes to sharing.
This is a vital lesson to take to the years of economic downturn and the tightening of budgets. (p250)
It makes me wonder whether or not we wouldn’t be all better off if we went back to ration cards…
The Legacy of Iraq
Annan holds back his real fire for the final chapter, which is a discussion of the Iraq War. It is pretty scathing and scary.
[US & UK] way of defending the authority of the United Nations and the Security Council was to ignore its authority when its judgment didn’t suit them. And in an extraordinary line of reasoning for a parliamentarian, Tony Blair decided to argue that since they couldn’t receive enough support of their actions in the Council, the Council – and not they – had rendered itself illegitimate. (p364)
By behaving the way it did, the United States invited the perception among many in the world – including many long-time allies – that it was becoming a greater threat to global security than anything Saddam could muster. This was a self-inflicted wound of historic proportions – and one that did immense, and possibly lasting, damage to US standing in the world. (p366)
Evidence of this is the sheer relief the world felt when Obama got in in 2008, hence his rather absurd Nobel Peace Prize (which has a cruel irony now that it is clear he has used more drones than anyone else and Guantanamo is still open for business). One can only hope that in this crazy and dark world there are others like Annan who work for peace, however flawed, compromised and frustrating the process might be. For human lives are at stake (in case anyone hadn’t noticed).
The horror came very close to home. Sergio Vieira de Mello was a close friend of Annan’s and personally commissioned to run the UN work in post-invasion Iraq. But he was killed with over 20 others when the UN compound was bombed. This was a tribute to him and his chief of staff, Nadia Younes.
Sergio and Nadia lived lives of sacrifice and substance. Their deaths both shame and mock the armchair warriors, the television talk-show mudwrestlers, the pontificators, the manipulators and the simplifiers. Their deaths are a reminder that imperium, no matter how benign its intent, is never altruistic and calls forth its own responses. And their lives are a reminder that it is just possible to do some small good in this rank, sorry, blood-drenched world. Steven Erlanger, journalist and friend of Sergio and Nadia, New York Times, August 24, 2003
Annan has no illusions (how can you in that job). But he does still have ideals. And that is remarkable.
The UN is not – and has never been – a pacifist organisation. But on the question of war and peace, if it does not stand up for the principles of its Charter, it not only places itself outside the law but also loses its legitimacy around the world. (p366)