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Gillian Sorensen was interviewed by Nancy Roof.
NR: Thank you so much for making time to contribute to Kosmos
Journal. We would like to begin by asking, how would you describe a
citizen of the world?
GS: To be a citizen of the world means expanding your circle of
concern beyond family and friends. It means thinking across borders.
It means identifying closely with others as one human family in
different situations and places far away; identifying with others not as
statistics, but as people who care for their children like you and I
do; who have hopes and dreams for health, for meaningful work, for love,
and all the things that are right at the core of the human spirit. It
means understanding that many issues cross borders. It means trying to
experience what it is like to live with nothing, no shelter, no food, no
health care, no opportunity, and no security. When we see suffering,
deprivation and loss we need to experience it fully. That moves us to
act. A global citizen cannot be passive. I remember Eleanor Roosevelt
saying that peace begins in small ways close to home, by assisting the
poor, feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly and for those who are
NR: You have a long and fascinating personal history in global
affairs. Would you tell us something about your story and how it
relates to your becoming a global citizen?
GS: When I was a girl, my grandmother, who was widowed at about
the age of 60, had never been out of this country. She decided that she
wanted to see the world. So, she took me with her on two very long
trips—one to Latin America and one to the South Pacific and Australia
and back—by ship. Those were great adventures. They were not cruise
ships either. These were freighters. It was my first exposure to the
world. My parents also thought in global terms and encouraged me to
study languages. I majored in French and spent my third year of college
in France. I traveled every chance I got. Working with the United
Nations offered new opportunities. In addition, I traveled with my
husband in connection with his work. I had a chance to see a
lot of the world and to meet people of all races, religions and
You could place me anywhere in the world and I would find out how
to make do, how to make friends, how to get along. Yet, at the same
time, I’ve been sheltered and never faced the kind of hardship that many
people have. My courage has never been tested to its maximum. So I
don’t know if I’m really a global citizen, but I want to be. I try to
be. I move in that direction, actively. It’s very important to me.
Mayor Ed Koch appointed me New York City Commissioner for the
United Nations and Consulate Corps when I was about 30. I did that for
12 years. The work of the Commission had a local focus but we dealt
with representatives from around the world, face to face. I learned to
appreciate who they were and what they’ve come through. That training
exposed me to global issues and opened the door to my UN service under
Secretary General Boutros-Ghali and Secretary General Kofi Annan. As
Assistant Secretary General and Head of the Office of External Relations
under Kofi Annan, one of my key functions was outreach and contact with
the 4200 accredited NGO’s. This community of activists reflects every
global concern—human rights health, the environment, the international
criminal court and more. They see themselves as the voice of the people.
They are focused, passionate, and knowledgeable. In the words of the
Secretary General, NGO’s are essential partners of the United Nations.
NR: How many people already engaged in global affairs do you think those 4200 organizations represent?
GS: Millions, millions. The World Wildlife Association has
something like 25 million members. Others, like the International Rescue
Committee have hundreds of thousands of members. Some are smaller, but
the very large membership organizations have enormous resources. Save
the Children, for instance, has its own foreign office. They track
events of the world almost as the United Nations does. NGO’s provide a
way to make change happen, to encourage and move governments and to
assist the UN. In some cases they get ahead of governments. NGO’s
fronted the campaign against landmines. I have enormous respect for the
NGO community. There are a few difficulties there, but by and large
they are a talented and dedicated group. Some have a national base, but
most have international memberships. By the nature of what they do,
most of them are global citizens. That is, they try to think globally,
even though they may focus on a particular issue. NGO’s accredited to
the UN are but a fraction of the civil society universe.
NR: We all have affiliations and loyalties at larger and more
inclusive scales of relationship, from family, to nation, to global, to
kosmos. How do you see the relationship between national and global
GS: We cannot discount national pride and loyalty. I don’t mean
nationalism, which is chauvinistic and defensive. I’m a proud and
patriotic American. But, at the same time, I am a global citizen. We
don’t forget where we came from or where our roots are.
To read the rest of this interview, please see the print issue of Kosmos Journal, Fall | Winter 2005.
Gillian Martin Sorensen, Senior Adviser at the United Nations Foundation, is a national advocate on matters related to the United Nations and the United States-United Nations relationship, addressing audiences as diverse as Rotary International and the Air Force Academy