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New UN official had humorous start at MIT

Kofi Annan of Ghana, the newly elected Secretary General of the United Nations, won his way into the MIT Sloan Fellows master's degree program 25 years ago with a humorous anecdote about the world of diplomacy.

In 1971, when the UN nominated Mr. Annan as a Sloan Fellow, Peter Gil interviewed him. Mr. Gil, now retired in New Castle, NH, was then the associate dean and director of the Executive Programs at the Sloan School.

"It was a very memorable interview," Mr. Gil said in a telephone conversation. "At that time, Kofi had already been at the UN for several years and he was then the director of personnel for Africa."

Mr. Gil, curious, asked him, "What do you do as director of personnel for Africa?"

"He said, `I'll give you an example. Kenya wanted a Russian professor to teach a course for a year. He could only do it in Russian, so he needed a Russian interpreter. I told the Kenyans I would find an interpreter, but Kenya wasn't willing to pay for the interpreter, just the professor. So I found money to pay the interpreter. It all worked very well-so well that the Kenyan government wanted the professor to stay another year. So I went to Moscow to talk to the Russians. They said, no, the professor couldn't stay in Kenya. But they said the interpreter could stay!'"

Mr. Gil laughed at the memory. "It was a marvelous story. I never found out if the interpreter spent an extra year in Kenya with nothing to do."

At Sloan, Mr. Annan "was very conscientious, a very good student," Mr. Gil said. "I saw him several years ago at a Sloan Fellows convocation, where he spoke. He was very, very good, very thoughtful. He has a lovely sense of humor, and he was very well received."

Born in Ghana in 1938, Mr. Annan received the master's degree in management in 1972 and is an active alumnus who has visited MIT in recent years, according to Alan White, senior associate dean of the Sloan School. "He is very dedicated to the UN. He works very effectively across cultures," Dean White said.

Mr. Annan has been undersecretary-general for peace-keeping operations since 1993, except for a year in 1995 as UN special envoy to the former Yugoslavia.

He was educated at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana; Macalester College in St. Paul, MN; the Institut de Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva, and MIT.

He has devoted his career to the United Nations, having served in Ethiopia, New York, Geneva, and Egypt from 1962 to 1974, when he became managing director of the Ghana Tourist Development Co. for two years. Since 1976, he has served in administrative positions at the UN High Command for Refugees in Geneva and at UN headquarters in New York, where he has been director of administrative management services and the budget.

In 1986, he became assistant secretary general in the Office of Human Resources Management for four years, and then became controller in the Office of Program Planning, Budget and Finance for two years before going to the peacekeeping office in 1992 and getting promoted to undersecretary-general in 1993.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 18, 1996.

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