Kumi Naidoo, newly-appointed secretary general of Amnesty International, gave a talk at the Ford School of Public Policy Thursday afternoon on economic inequality, climate change and the role the U.S. plays in global justice. Naidoo, a South African human rights activist, will succeed Salil Shetty in August 2018, who has been secretary general since 2010.
Naidoo began his talk by addressing the concept of creative maladjustment, an idea that was also emphasized by civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. After showing a clip of King’s 1963 speech on the concept, Naidoo suggested humans have become too well-adjusted to economic inequality across the world, and maladjustment would be necessary to push global change.
“One of the challenges for public leadership and public policy is whether we have the courage to analyze the problems without sanitizing what the problems actually are,” Naidoo said. “And speaking true to power, whether it makes some in power lose that power.”
Naidoo returned to the issue of income inequality, giving a personal example of how easy it can be to become well-adjusted to inequality. Naidoo had been heavily involved in anti-apartheid activities in South Africa, and after apartheid ended, many organizations offered positions and equity to well-educated Black South Africans out of pressure to be inclusive and provide equal opportunity. Several of Naidoo’s friends accepted these positions, rocketing into higher socioeconomic class levels, while Naidoo turned down offers, trying instead to direct equity given to nonprofits.
“We looked at them and said, ‘Hang on, if you give us that 10 percent equity, that’s not Black economic empowerment,’” Naidoo said. “‘That’s actually Black South enrichment that only I am going to benefit from.’”
Naidoo also suggested global security needed creative maladjustment, in reference to nuclear weapons and ongoing commentary from President Donald Trump on the state of nuclear security. Naidoo pointed out several countries view Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un similarly, and believe the U.S. does not necessarily have the right to dictate which countries can handle nuclear weapons.
“Why is it that the one country in the world that has nuclear weapons, that has dropped nuclear weapons, that has not tried to say anything about reducing nuclear weapons, what moral basis do they have to say to any other country in the world, ‘Thou shall not have nuclear weapons?’” Naidoo said.
He continued to discuss the convergence of climate change, inequality and “affluenza.” Naidoo defined “affluenza” as a condition of believing happiness can only be achieved through material goods and Naidoo believes it is the biggest disease plaguing people today. Naidoo stressed the need for the U.S. to address how it uses its power to push for global justice, especially as other countries’ perceptions of the U.S. have dropped since the election of Trump.
“I have to say that it’s quite shocking, especially to people who come from struggles against racism and bigotry and so on, to see a political leadership that tolerates white supremacists and Nazism,” Naidoo said. “And simply sees it as differing opinions from others. Today, many people in the world are saying, ‘We can’t wait for the U.S. anymore.’”
Naidoo then discussed climate change and the disastrous effects it is already having in Africa through damaged resources and the ability to make food. He acknowledged the reluctance of many people, including environmental activists, to address the catastrophic effects on humans.
“It’s very important to recognize that the climate crisis is much deeper than many of us are willing to acknowledge,” Naidoo said. “Including, surprisingly, people in the environmental movement.”
Stressing the importance of recognizing the climate change crisis, and the necessity for policy change before effects would become too disastrous for humans, Naidoo said the human race must recognize the grave consequences of damaging the planet beyond repair.
“We don’t have a plan B because we don’t have a planet B,” Naidoo said. “We have one planet and we have to learn to live on it as a human family.”
Naidoo ended his talk by asking the audience to assess their role in global justice and change. He stressed the need for students to use their education to push for change.
“It’s an amazing thing to have the power to understand and analyze the world that education has given you the opportunity for,” Naidoo said. “And I think you all have a moral obligation to use that education for a general public purpose.”
The talk was followed by a question and answer session, where Public Policy graduate student and sophomore Larry Sanders and Nadine Jawad respectively read anonymous questions from the audience.
After the event, Rackham student Eitan Paul emphasized Naidoo’s discussion on coalitions and how to push for change today.
“I thought it was a very inspiring address highlighting a lot of really important global issues,” Paul said. “And offering ways to think about how we can work together and form coalitions to address the huge challenges of today.”
Business senior Chelsea Racelis spoke on how Naidoo’s discussion may influence the way she changes her own methods of activism.
“Naidoo definitely changed the way I frame climate change and human rights,” Racelis said. “The fact that he has been appointed as the secretary general of Amnesty International as a climate activist, largely, is super compelling. I think it’s going to change how I do my human rights advocacy, for sure.”