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Annan praises study-abroad programs for promoting international understanding

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 28, 2013: While lamenting the continued conflicts in Syria and Iraq, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told thousands of international educators and students gathered here that their experiences can be key in resolving such disputes and preventing new ones.

What doesn’t work, Annan said, is when those on the outside assume that they have better judgment than the people in the midst of conflicts.

In the case of Syria, he said, military intervention “will make the situation much worse.” Annan had stepped down last fall as a special U.N. representative charged with helping to find a resolution to that country's civil war.

As for Iraq, where sectarian violence persists, Annan said his biggest failure as secretary-general was in failing to dissuade the United States and Great Britain from launching the war in 2003.

His broader point, in both cases, was his contention that the lack of international understanding was a contributing factor. 

Annan was the lead-off speaker Tuesday for the  65th Annual Conference and Expo of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which runs through Friday at the America’s Center.

Founded in 1948, NAFSA was originally known as the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, and focuses on how best to encourage and assist the tens of thousands of students – American and foreign – who study abroad, either in the United States or overseas.

Annan lauded overseas education as a way for future leaders to gain the necessary exposure  -- and knowledge – of other cultures that can have a significant impact on their actions later in life.

The importance of ear muffs

To illustrate his point, Annan recalled a profound lesson he learned while he was a college student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. -- and it had nothing to do with the classroom.

Coming from Africa, Annan explained that he had to adjust to the colder climes of Minnesota. But while he bought a coat and other cold weather gear, Annan said he refused to buy earmuffs because he viewed them as “inelegant.”

When temperatures plummeted to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, Annan chuckled, “I thought my ears were going to fall off.’’

He re-examined his views, then went out and bought ear muffs.

“I learned a precious lesson,” Annan said. “You don’t go into a country and pretend that you know better than the locals… You better listen to them and look at what they do.”

The crowd heartily applauded.

Annan, a Nobel Prize winner, told his audience that education, at home and abroad, is crucial in “preparing young people for leadership…on which our future depends.”

“Never before has it been so essential to give people the knowledge, the skills and the wider horizon that they need to become active engage citizens,” he said.

Calls for education equality for women

Despite improvements, Annan said that tens of millions of children – many of them female – are failing to obtain the education to advance their own futures and that of their countries.

“We are squandering their potential and denying them their basic human rights,’’ he said. Among women, Annan said, “one in five are unable to read.”

“No society can fulfill its potential without respecting the rights of women and nurturing their talents,’’ Annan, touching off vigorous applause.

Even prosperous countries like the United States need to confront the problem of inadequate education, he added, saying “one in seven adults…struggles to read.”

With the decline of unskilled jobs, such Americans face chronic unemployment and poverty, Annan said.

Rising unemployment of young people in developed countries pose serious threats, he continued. “We are in danger of allowing an entire generation to be cut off from opportunity and prosperity. This requires radical rethinking of our economies and our unemployment policies.”

Educators and others, in turn, need to re-examine whether young people are being taught the proper, practical skills, Annan said.

Globalism spreads pain and prosperity

On a broader level, the former U.N. chief also sought to drive home the message that no country is an island.

“Decisions taken in one country can have an impact on communities many miles away,” he said, asserting, for example, that the world continues to feel the impact of “the housing bubble that burst in the U.S.”

Climate change also is affecting the entire world, he said, and will require a global solution.

“No country, no matter how powerful or wealthy, can cope with these challenges alone,” Annan said.

His comments about Syria and Iraq came during a question-answer session moderated by Jon Sawyer, former Washington bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and now executive director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a nonprofit organization that provides money for independent reporting around the world.

As he discussed some of the troubled spots around the world, Annan said that “it is easy to become depressed about the state of the world.”

But the heightened interconnection of young people around the world, via social media and education, gives him hope – if they receive constructive encouragement.

“We cannot expect young people to rise to the challenges in front of them, on their own,’’ Annan said.

But later, he added, "The more I see and hear of the younger generation, the more confident I become. They are perhaps the first generation of truly global citzens who seem to understand almost instinctively the responsibility this places on them. We desperately need their fresh perspective."

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