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The Business of Giving

Exploring philanthropy, non-profits and socially motivated business, from the Gates Foundation to your donation. A fresh look at the economy of good intentions.

October 26, 2009 at 7:04 PM

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A conversation with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

Posted by Kristi Heim

U.N. Secretary General -- it's a position that seems both enormously important and also largely thankless, but nonetheless a job that very few people are actually qualified to do. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, 64, has had mixed results, but as he acknowledged in an interview, he is facing an unprecedented onslaught of global crises all at once. The success of the United Nations is determined by the political will of its 192 member states, not just the man at the helm.

The vast size of the bureaucracy can be crippling, as Ban wrote himself last year: "There is bureaucracy, I discovered -- and then there is the U.N."


U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Seattle to spread the word about climate change.

Today he met with many groups in Seattle, starting with a breakfast meeting at the home of Bill and Melinda Gates, followed by a talk to the World Affairs Council on the U.N. in the 21st century and a lunch sponsored by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce to address businesses about climate change and environmental stewardship. Ban also gave the Political Science Department's 2009 Severyns-Ravenholt Lecture at the University of Washington, where he received an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at a ceremony in Meany Hall.

Under Ban's leadership, the U.N. has strengthened its role as a peacekeeper, improved the economic situation of the world's poorest, removed land mines, made progress toward nuclear disarmament and focused the world's attention on climate change, UW Regent Bill Gates Sr. said in conferring the honor.

"A great Seattle philosopher once said knowledge speaks but wisdom listens," Ban said, quoting Jimi Hendrix.

He called for a "renewed multilateralism," global cooperation that accepts "how closely our fates are interlinked" and "recognizes the rights and responsibilities of all nations."

Multilateralism is not just not just about government, he said. "It is about all of you. You and me and business and civil society organizations around the world - we all have a stake in our common future."

Ban has been visiting U.S. cities six weeks before the a major climate change conference in Copenhagen. He said he has been meeting with Senators and hopes the U.S. Senate will take action before then on a bill to limit carbon emissions.

"I was very much encouraged by such a strong commitment by President Obama," he said, "but we need now more than a commitment -- we need some actual concrete contribution by the United States."

Yesterday my colleague Sandi Doughton and I had a chance to sit down with the Secretary General for a brief conversation. Besides today's story, here are some additional excerpts from the interview.

Q: On climate change the U.S. has been one of the parties that has been slow to come to the table. The percentage of Americans who believe that climate change is caused by humans is low compared to other countries. What would you say to those people who don't believe it's real?

A: This is completely a minority view. There are some people who believe that it's not real, but I can tell you clearly this is a very minority view. The science has made it quite clear.

I have been really trying to send out such a strong message raising awareness among leaders and the general public that climate change is now happening much, much faster than one realizes.

I'm reasonably encouraged that climate change has become the top priority agenda of all the leaders of the world. On September 22, I convened a summit meeting where more than 100 heads of state and government participating, including President Obama. It was the first time that a U.S. president had attended this climate change summit meeting.


People gathered at Seattle Center over the weekend to form a giant human 350 as part of a synchronous action of 4,300 demonstrations around the world. Activists highlighted 350 as the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide, in parts per million, as a target for reducing carbon emissions. The current amount in the atmosphere is 385 parts per million.

Q: Some say the emergence of super rich philanthropies like the Gates Foundation has undermined the effectiveness of the U.N. and its member organizations, like the WHO.

A: On the contrary that is what we really want -- contributions from the business community as well as philanthropies. We need to have political support, but it doesn't give us all that we need. NGOs and philanthropies and many foundations such as Bill Gates Foundation -- they're taking a very important role. The United Nations stands in the center of mobilizing and raising awareness of climate change and food security. When this H1N1 flu broke out I immediately had a meeting with WHO Director Margaret Chan. We even convened a meeting with international pharmaceutical CEOs in Geneva. We were discussing how pharmaceutical companies could help providing vaccines for developing countries. Major pharmaceutical companies have now donated 150 million vaccines.

Q: Regarding the Millennium Development Goals, in your 2009 report you said progress has slowed if not reversed as a result of the food crisis and global economic downturn. What needs to change?

A: With this economic crisis it's natural we need to have a concern that commitment on Millennium Development Goals may be affected. During the G20 summit meeting in London I raised this issue very strongly and urged them to keep their pledges. Not much has been delivered, particularly when it comes to Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa not a single country is now on track to achieve the goals by 2015. That is why I'm going to convene another summit meeting next year. By then we'll have only five more years to go and we have to take stock. That is one subject I'm going to discuss with Bill Gates.

Q: By working in a quiet, low key manner some people say you have reduced the voice of the U.N. Do you think that criticism is valid and is there anything you plan to do to make your voice more powerful?

A: This is largely a misperception. I believe in diplomacy. Diplomacy involves open and quiet diplomacy. When it comes to very delicate matters you do not discuss these matters very openly. When it comes to universally accepted principles, such as human rights and democracy, you speak out.

The world is now going through multiple crises. Have you ever seen when whole international community has been hit all at once by all these crises: climate change, economic crisis, food security, energy crisis, pandemic? Only one of these would come once every 80 years. Naturally there is a high level of expectation of the international community for what the United Nations should be doing. I can understand the frustrations. The international community has not been able to address all the issues all at once. All these integrated issues require a global response. The United Nations operates on the basis of political will and contributions by member states.

It's too unfair if one just brings all these issues to my personal style... In Darfur there's going to be the largest number of peacekeepers in the history of the United Nations. The number, 26,000, would be bigger than all the peacekeeping operations combined 10 years ago. It was me as secretary general who made this 90 percent deployment happen. The Darfur situation from day one I have taken as number one priority. I have been fighting very seriously with president Bashir and working very hard with military generals. It was me who was able to go there and maybe save at least a half a million people. So I hope you will see the picture correctly. The United Nations has been speaking out, and I have been speaking out."


What do you think -- has the U.N. been effective? What should it do differently?

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