Former UN Secretary-General Kicks Off BU Think Tank

Ban Ki-moon encourages students to think globally

Former secretary-general of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon told a standing-room only crowd at BU’s Metcalf Trustee Center on Wednesday that global partnerships will be the key to solving the planet’s biggest social, economic, and environmental problems.

The South Korean diplomat said the need for such partnerships makes it troubling for him to see US leaders backing away from the Paris Climate Accord, one of his proudest achievements as secretary-general.

“That’s a problem,” Ban said. “I’m afraid the US people may stand on the wrong side of history if they do not return to this [agreement] as soon as possible.”

Ban’s speech kicked off the opening of BU’s new Global Development Policy (GDP) Center at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies.

In opening remarks, Robert A. Brown, president of BU, told the students, academics, and staff in attendance that the center will bring together scholars seeking to actively engage in research and dialogue related to policy.

Center director Kevin P. Gallagher, a Pardee School professor of global development policy, explained the center’s work to those attending, saying that it will cut across disciplines to seek solutions to global challenges. Initiatives may involve the study of consumerism and deforestation in the Amazon, the creation of global development banks in struggling economies, or China’s outsize role in the global economy.

“The GDP Center’s mission is to advance policy-oriented research on financial stability, human well-being, and environmental sustainability across the globe,” Gallagher said. “If there is one leader that embodies all these qualities in our mission, it is Secretary General Ban.”

Ban, who served two consecutive terms as secretary-general, from 2007 to 2016, worked on ways to lessen the effects of the 2009 global financial crisis. He was instrumental in the creation of the UN’s sustainable development goals, a collection of 17 global objectives that aim to address a host of issues, including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality.

In his talk, titled Sustainable Development Goals and Global Citizenship, Ban encouraged the students attending, many of whom plan to work in public health–related jobs, research, or diplomacy, to think of both the planet and humanity beyond national boundaries.

He told the audience that the UN and its members cannot bear the responsibility for making partnerships alone in an era where technology is reshaping the landscape, creating both uncertainty and new possibilities. “I humbly ask you to work together,” he said. “This world is heavily divided, society is divided. It seems like it would be quite difficult to forge partnerships. But there are refugees, there are people who need support.”

Ban acknowledged that extreme global poverty has dropped, but said that this was largely because of China’s soaring economy and rising middle class. He noted that there are still 700 million people in the world who go to bed hungry, 1.2 billion people who lack safe drinking water, and 1.4 billion people who have no electricity and live primarily by candlelight. Inequality is also growing between nations, he said: 50 percent of increasing global wealth benefits the top one percent of the population.

“This is purely unjust and unequal,” Ban said, adding that inequality is one of the reasons the UN created the sustainable development goals.

Such work must also foster peace and security, he said, because without it, people cannot engage in a productive society. Conflicts continue, but the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, with both North and South Korea appearing under the same flag, offer an example of a path toward progress. Such efforts help create an opportunity for a dialogue with North Korea on its policies and nuclear escalation.

“At this time, it would be extremely important to…engage in more meaningful dialogue,” Ban said. “This is my wish as a former UN secretary-general and a Korean citizen.” The United States, China, Japan, and other nations can also be influential by joining such a dialogue.

Ban said he has been encouraged by the #wearestillin pledge by hundreds of US mayors, big business, and others promising to continue efforts to address climate change. And he said he looks to young people under the age of 25 and women as a force for global change because together they are 75 percent of the global population.

Academic institutions are also essential partners, said Ban, who earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Seoul National University in 1970 and a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 1985. “They are launch pads for the solutions to the seemingly insurmountable problems that we face,” he said.

Such statements resonated with Nalim “Jasmin” Choi (SSW’18, SPH’18), a School of Public Health research assistant, who wants to one day work in the public health field helping refugees. Choi was among many South Korean students in attendance, and said she has long been a fan of Ban’s initiatives.

“As soon as I heard he was coming, I booked it,” she said. “He’s done a lot for the refugee crisis in the Middle East, as well as looking at maternal health equity issues. His work is so timely.”

Nabeel Nissar (CGS’14, CAS’18, GRS’18), whose family is from the impoverished and disputed Kashmir region north of India and Pakistan, said he was inspired by Ban’s message. He said he wants to better understand ways he can have a global impact in his science studies. “It’s easy to get sad about all the conflicts all around us,” he said. “But it’s important to recognize the responsibility we have to help.

“I thought it was an empowering speech.”

Author, Megan Woolhouse can be reached at