Kofi Annan, children’s radio, and the immense power of charitable action

On Saturday morning I had the tremendous privilege of hearing Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, in conversation with Edward Mortimer, Trustee of the Children’s Radio Foundation, at the University Church in Oxford, where I was taking part in the annual Alumni Weekend, which involved me in chairing a session of Q and A with the Vice-Chancellor in the Sheldonian. Hearing Kofi Annan speak, however, was a highlight of the weekend: it was the first time I had heard him in person, and I was struck forcibly by his dignity, presence and total commitment to making the world a better place. Since retiring from the UN in 2006, Mr Annan has devoted his time to continuing to press for better social policies for the poor and vulnerable, particularly in Africa, and he has also been an active mediator in areas of conflict – in Kenya, for example, in the terrible post-election violence in 2008. He is also a member of the Elders. He had agreed to speak in Oxford to highlight the fantastic work being done by the Children’s Radio Foundation, who empower young people by giving them a voice in the medium which is still the most effective means of communication throughout the great continent of Africa, and it was fascinating to hear of their work.

Perhaps it is because I am more attuned to them personally, having reached that stage in my life where I have a voice and the means and network to support them, but I have the glorious sensation at the moment of seeming to encounter charitable ventures at almost every turn. A week ago I was visited by an Old Girl of St Mary’s Calne who lives in Zambia, in the town of Livingstone, and who is organising a series of events and projects to mark David Livingstone’s bicentenary, raising money too for the Anglican Street Children’s Project. On Friday night I met a fellow alumnus of Oxford University who has recently set up a charity, Mardi, to connect recent graduates of a number of universities in order to share knowledge and experience to help charity organisations in the developing world. Throughout 2011 I have been supporting – through school and through the Girls’ Schools Association – two major charities: The Prince’s Trust (South West) – and in particular their Women Into Enterprise programme, giving business grants to disadvantaged young people – and Plan UK, the children’s charity, which does amazing work in 50 countries around the world to support young people, and which lobbies governments to make a change for the futures of the youth of the world. Their ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign has been – and continues to be – far-reaching, and seeks to address the issue that 75 million girls in the world are not in education. I will have the huge privilege of accompanying them in October this year on a field trip to one of their projects in Bangladesh, where they are working to reduce the instances of early and forced marriage, which prevent millions of girls each year from completing their education.

In all of this work done by the people I meet, I see the real power of action, and what can be achieved in this world if people put their mind to making a difference. We all have our own families to care for, our own circles of friends, our own jobs and organisations to tend … but in addition, if we are to be global citizens and contribute to the development of humanity, then we must all realise that our responsibility – and our capacity to influence – spreads out beyond our immediate relationships. It is incumbent upon all of us to reach out to others and to help make the world a better place.

I asked Kofi Annan a question on Saturday: what advice would he give the girls and young women in my school about what they could do to help? His response was that they should go beyond what they do at home and at school and stretch out to give to others. “If each of us does something, collectively we will make a difference.”

Great words from a great man. Let us heed them.

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