Honoring global leaders and unsung heroes in a time of world crisis

Clementine G. Starling, deputy director of Forward Defense and resident fellow of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, speaks at the Atlantic Council's Distinguished Leadership Awards on October 14, 2020.

On October 14, amid the devastating public-health and economic crises produced by the coronavirus pandemic, the Atlantic Council celebrated two stewards of the global economy and a legendary performer and philanthropist. During its 2020 Distinguished Leadership Awards, the Atlantic Council gave two Distinguished International Leadership Awards to Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Luis Alberto Moreno, former president of the Inter-American Development Bank, as well as a Distinguished Artistic Leadership Award to musician and producer Lionel Richie.

The awardees “exemplify [the] leadership, vision, and character needed to navigate one of the most uncertain and volatile geopolitical environments ever faced by the United States, Europe, and our allies worldwide,” Atlantic Council Chairman John F.W. Rogers said. “Representing a range of backgrounds and experiences and career paths,” Rogers continued, the honorees are also “bound together around a central theme and common cause to make the world a safer, more secure planet for its global citizens, bringing with it more widely shared prosperity and opportunity.”

The Council also celebrated the life of the late General Brent Scowcroft, a two-time US national security advisor and chairman emeritus of the Atlantic Council, and highlighted several “Unsung Heroes” who have helped their communities and countries weather the storm of COVID-19.

Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe remarked that the all-virtual gala—where dinner tables were replaced with digital rooms and acceptance speeches were given over Zoom rather than at a podium—demonstrated “what we’ve witnessed at the Atlantic Council since we began telework in mid-March, and that is the Atlantic Council’s consistency of purpose and trajectory of innovation.”

Here is a look at the evening’s highlights:

Kristalina Georgieva: “Change is unstoppable”

  • The right leader for the times: Kristalina Georgieva had only been managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a few months before “a once-in-a-century pandemic hurtled the global economy into chaos and recession,” former US Secretary of State and Atlantic Council International Advisory Board member Madeleine Albright reminded the audience. “Fortunately,” Albright added, Georgieva’s deep experience in managing international institutions and providing global leadership at the World Bank and European Commission meant that the IMF had “a leader who did not require any on-the-job training.”
  • The world needs cooperation: Albright emphasized that Georgieva “is confronting an unprecedented set of crises, but also knows we have an incredible opportunity to renew faith and trust in international institutions.” The former secretary of state argued that “in the Americas, in Europe, and across the globe, too many heads of government have moved away from global collaboration and towards a philosophy of going it alone.” But at the same time “the coronavirus pandemic has reminded us that strong steps by national governments and vigorous multilateral measures are complementary, not contradictory. The world needs both, which means in turn that we must have leaders worthy of the public trust.” Georgieva is one of those leaders, Albright said, because she “has made her mark over the past thirty years by helping to shepherd large international organizations through periods of remarkable change.”
  • Embracing change: In accepting the award, Georgieva promised that she will embrace change again as the leader of the IMF. “Change is unstoppable,” she said. “You can choose to be in front of it or be rolled over by its advancement.” While she will continue to “lead the Fund to promote the right macroeconomic, financial, and structural policies,” she is also pushing the IMF to be “grounded in values that matter in service to humanity: compassion, courage, collaboration, and compassion for the people we serve.” She promised that she “will always listen” to the people she serves “and work to translate their aspirations into practical actions,” especially for those “with dire needs and [the] least access to the high corridors of power.”
  • Beware a growing “divergence”: Georgieva warned that the coronavirus pandemic has threatened to reverse falling rates of poverty and inequality. She fears that a poor response to the economic crisis will “allow a divergence in the world that has been converging over the last decades, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, both within countries and across countries.”
  • A plea to keep spending (wisely): While policymakers may be wary of the growing fiscal burden of economic-support measures for struggling businesses and unemployed workers, Georgieva said her main message to governments is “Please spend! Do not withdraw support for the economy prematurely. We’re not out of the woods yet. But also, keep the receipts and spend wisely.”
  • Using her voice: Georgieva explained that she sees a great responsibility in helping transform the lives of the people who most need it. Referencing her experience growing up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, she said that she “benefited from change [that] others led” and now she is committed to doing her “part to lead change for the benefit of others.” Georgieva stressed that she has found her voice, and is “determined to use it, for the good of people and for the good of our planet.”

Watch Kristina Georgieva’s remarks:

Luis Alberto Moreno: Helping Latin America find opportunity in the COVID crisis

  • The final challenge: While COVID-19 hit Georgieva at the beginning of her tenure, Luis Alberto Moreno had to respond to the crisis as his days as president of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) were winding down. “Leaving the IDB under these circumstances has been difficult,” Moreno conceded, as he finished his term as president on September 30. “But it has been a privilege during my last seven months to help the Bank pivot, refocus, and muster all of its strength,” he added. Moreno reported that the IDB this year “intends to approve and disburse a record lending for the region’s public needs, social-safety nets, productivity, unemployment, and fiscal measures to help ensure stability.” While he had to leave before seeing the crisis through, he said he can “leave the Bank with pride in what we have done to set the foundations for building back better.”
  • A record of revitalization: The pandemic was not the first time Moreno helped lead Latin America through an economic crisis, former US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson reminded the audience. “Under [Moreno’s] watch, the IDB played a key role in Latin America’s recovery from the [2009] financial crisis, as he managed the largest capital increase in the IDB’s history,” Paulson explained, adding that the Bank also “created a new arm to support the bank’s private sector-related activities…reformed its innovation laboratory to mobilize financing, knowledge, and connections; and importantly, it became a major driver of sustainable development in the region.” While “so many of our multilateral institutions haven’t adapted to meet the needs of the modern world,” Paulson added, “the IDB is a model of effectiveness.” Moreno, Paulson said, “has positioned the IDB and the Latin American region as a core partner in the transatlantic community.”
  • Treating the pandemic and pre-existing conditions: While attention continues to be focused on containing the economic and public-health fallout from COVID-19, Moreno argued that the IDB going forward “must redouble its work on the so-called pre-existing conditions that have made our region so vulnerable, such as weak inter-regional supply chains, high level [of informal economic activity], and gaping inequality.” He stressed that “we as societies cannot afford to have very few people having a lot, and the many having less. This has been an endemic problem” in Latin America.
  • Opportunity for change: Moreno said that “opportunity can and must come out of this catastrophe,” adding that his “biggest source of optimism” is how the pandemic “essentially put a light” on a lot of problems in the region such as inequality, which policymakers now will be forced to address. He also argued that the current situation looks a lot like the 1930s, “when the United States was very focused in this hemisphere” after the Great Depression. Moreno said he hopes “we can see Latin America be [a] larger focus in the US recovery.”

Watch Luis Alberto Moreno’s remarks:

Lionel Richie: Advocating for people who “need a voice”

  • Using music to give back: Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television and the RLJ Companies, said Richie’s record shows that “one cannot be called by fate to possess and to share the blessings of such awesome musical talent without recognizing that this calling has a purpose.” Highlighting Richie’s role as the 2019 global ambassador for the Prince’s Trust and recognition as the music charity Music Cares’ Person of the Year in 2016, Johnson said Richie’s “commitment and support for causes has played a critical part in helping to make the world better.” Alluding to the global hit “We Are the World,” which Ritchie co-wrote and which helped raise money to assist victims of famine in Africa, Johnson argued that Richie’s music career managed to “span generations of listeners, embrace and captivate global cultures, and challenge all humanity to recognize that truly ‘we are the world.’”
  • Providing a light to the voiceless: Upon accepting the award, Richie argued that “it is very important that we just take fame and power and recognition to give back.” In the world right now, there are “so many people who need a voice, who need someone to speak on their behalf,” he said. “Every chance I get, I like to take that opportunity to give them their voice, to give them their light.” He thanked the Council for the recognition as it demonstrates that “what the world needs now are people who understand the plight of the voiceless.”

Watch Lionel Ritchie’s remarks:

Remembering one of Washington’s finest

  • “The national conscience”: The Atlantic Council honored the late Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, former US national security advisor, chairman emeritus of the Atlantic Council, and president of the Scowcroft Group, who passed away on August 6, 2020. In a tribute video to Scowcroft shown during the gala, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that Scowcroft “added calm, direction, and inspiration” to US foreign policy and that “wherever Brent served,” he “added dignity and stature.” Scowcroft’s “outstanding traits,” Kissinger noted, “were honor and patriotism,” along with his ability “to separate fact from fiction and the essential from the trivial.” For decades, Kissinger declared, Brent Scowcroft “was the national conscience.”
  • A champion for the Atlantic Council: “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he saved the Council on more than one occasion,” Virginia A. Mulberger, vice chair of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, observed. “He had a vision for its purpose and a reason to ensure that the Council not only survived but flourished and would grow to work with another generation,” she explained.
  • No one else like Scowcroft: Scowcroft’s unprecedented two terms as national security advisor were a result of his unique set of qualities, said Stephen J. Hadley, former US national security advisor and executive vice chair of the Atlantic Council Board of Directors. “Brent’s personality, temperament, and character perfectly fit the model he established in the office,” Hadley recalled. Scowcroft was “a person of humility, but with enormous personal and intellectual gifts,” Hadley added, and was “someone who treated everyone with respect, from foreign leaders to personal staff.” Scowcroft was “strong in his conviction that America at its best could be a force for good in the world,” Hadley noted, and “we will not see his like again.”

Watch our tribute to Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft:

Celebrating the world’s Unsung Heroes

  • Appreciating the heroes among us: The Council also highlighted the individuals and organizations named as part of the Unsung Heroes campaign this year, which sought to celebrate those who helped improve the lives of their neighbors and those in need around the world. The heroes were celebrated with a special performance by singer, actress, and humanitarian Vanessa Williams.
  • Meet the heroes: The heroes highlighted by the Atlantic Council included Belarusian pro-democracy activist Maria Kolesnikova; Diana Berrent, founder of Survivor Corps, which mobilizes COVID-19 survivors to help the medical and scientific community combat the pandemic; the Melville Family Foundation, which improves the lives of Black and Hispanic children in southern Dallas by providing economic assistance, ensuring food security, and promoting academic excellence; The Azadi Project, run by Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow Priyali Sur, which helps refugee women learn digital skills to facilitate their integration into the local labor force; Miriam’s Kitchen, which provides meals, housing, and support services for the homeless community in Washington DC; and the Kung Fu Nuns, a group of Buddhist Drukpa that provides remote villages with critical food and material assistance while promoting gender equality, environmental sustainability, and compassionate social action.

Watch our celebration of Unsung Heroes:

David A. Wemer is associate director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.