Two weeks after his death, the world continues to mourn the passing of one of the great humanitarians of our time: Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
A man of immense courage and integrity, he continued – right up until the end of his life – to use his influence and enormous powers of persuasion to help rid the world of poverty, injustice and disease. A dream we will hopefully make a reality one day.
It was an honour to have worked directly with Kofi Annan and to have engaged with him on issues around injustice and sustainable development. Unilever always held a special place in his heart. His father worked for the company in Ghana dealing in cocoa exports, and wherever Kofi went, he would always promote and defend Unilever. He was a great supporter of the company – what it stood for and what we are trying to achieve with our model of sustainable and equitable growth.
More broadly, he embraced the role of the private sector in solving development issues at a time when many were doubtful and sceptical. Indeed, he advocated an even greater involvement for business, always using that ‘calm charisma’ for which he became renowned. He was a dear friend and he is sadly missed. He leaves, however, a remarkable legacy.
The fight against poverty and injustice
Though he was best known for his peace-keeping work, his leadership in addressing poverty and injustice were among Kofi’s biggest achievements. From the moment he became Secretary-General in 1996 he made it a top priority for the UN to focus on the elimination of poverty in the emerging world.
It was desperately needed. Think about the world in the 1990s. Poverty was a huge and systemic challenge. HIV/AIDs were rife and child mortality was shockingly high. The world’s response was disparate and inadequate.
That’s why Kofi Annan championed the idea of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Eight goals and a framework of accountability for – among other things – halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV and providing universal primary education. They became a great rallying cry in the fight for a better world and achieved a great deal, not least in reducing hunger and alleviating poverty.
They also served as a forerunner for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed in 2015. And as a member of the High-Level Panel responsible for developing the goals, I had the pleasure of benefiting from his enormous wisdom and insights. Indeed, without him and the MDGs, it is unlikely we would have had the 2030 development agenda and the 17 SDGs that are helping us tackle the challenges of an even more complex age.
As well as serving as a scorecard on the state of world, the SDGs have helped identify the enormous opportunities that exist by investing in those areas most likely to help secure a sustainable and prosperous future.
The relevance of the USLP
This is also the essence behind the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan – identifying areas of greatest social and environmental impact and then determining how our business, especially our brands, can make the biggest difference: whether on sanitation with Domestos, food security with Knorr, health and hygiene with Lifebuoy, gender equality with Dove or the many other examples we have across the company.
In directing us to the areas of greatest need – but equally to those areas where the opportunities are most plentiful – the SDGs are serving as a great roadmap for companies. Aligning with the SDGs is also proving a crucial factor in helping business to restore trust and credibility, which have been so badly undermined over the years.
Fortunately, we started early at Unilever with the USLP and our multi-stakeholder model, and so it is no surprise perhaps that the company has now topped the GlobeScan survey of sustainability leaders – the biggest of its kind in the world – for eight consecutive years. However, to stay relevant like this in a world that is changing at such a rapid pace means that we have far more to do. The opportunities are plentiful. Think of the areas that are growing most quickly as citizens realise we need to change to a more sustainable and healthier growth. For consumer goods companies, it’s a question of having the right proposition for consumers in an age when people’s concern about their own wellbeing, and the wellbeing of the planet, has never been greater.
A total value chain approach
It was a mark of his belief in the role business could play that Kofi was also responsible for creating the UN Global Compact (UNGC). Remarkably, 13,000 organisations are now signed up to the UNGC and its ten guiding principles, based on a core set of values in the areas of human rights, labour standards, the environment and anti-corruption. These were areas where Kofi rightly felt business could make a real difference but were also areas already defined by international agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
These areas all speak to the way we need to do business today and are equally key in helping to rebuild trust, perhaps the most important asset we have. It is also explains why, at the heart of our own Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, is our belief in a total value chain approach: taking a share of the responsibility for everything that goes in our name in order to help ensure respect and dignity for all. It takes a consistent, long-term focus and for Unilever builds on our values as a company of respect, integrity, responsibility and pioneering.
So at a moment of great sadness like this, it is also a source of tremendous pride to us at Unilever that we should have recently taken on the joint chair of the UNGC. It provides a real chance to honour Kofi’s legacy because, together with the SDGs, the ten principles of the UNGC help form the backbone of any responsible business strategy. As business, we owe it to Kofi and to the people we serve around the world, to ensure we deliver on these objectives and play our part in helping to make this a better, fairer world for all.
Columnist: Paul Polman