JOHANNESBURG — The Elders, a new alliance made up of an elite group of senior statesmen dedicated to solving thorny global problems, unveiled itself today in Johannesburg. The rollout coincided with founding member Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday.
The members include Desmond Tutu, South African archbishop emeritus of Capetown; former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan; Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel laureate and founder of the Green Bank in Bangladesh.
The group plans to get involved in some of the world’s most pressing problems — climate change, pandemics like AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, violent conflicts.
It was an extraordinary gathering; a who’s who of famous international leaders, with enough emotion to move some of them to tears.
Under a large white futuristic dome, British billionaire Richard Branson and rock star Peter Gabriel, who conceived the idea for the Elders, gathered enough star power to change the world, or at least that’s the hope.
“The structures we have to deal with these problems are often tied down by political, economic and geographic constraints,” Mandela said. The Elders, he argued, will face no such constraints.
Seven years ago, Branson and Gabriel approached Mandela about the Elders idea, and he agreed to help them recruit others. “This group of elders will bring hope and wisdom back into the world,” Branson said. “They’ll play a role in bringing us together.
“Using their collective experience, their moral courage and their ability to rise above the parochial concerns of nations, they can help make our planet a more peaceful, healthy and equitable place to live, ” Branson said. ” Let us call them ‘global elders,’ not because of their age but because of individual and collective wisdom.”
Calling it “the most extraordinary day” of his life, Gabriel said, “The dream was there might still be a body of people in whom the world could place their trust.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who moderated the event and will serve as its leader, was moved to tears after Gabriel sang an impromptu accapella version of his hit song “Biko,” written about a famous South African political prisoner.
Branson and Gabriel have raised enough money — some $18 million — to fund this group for three years.
Also onboard are names less well known in the United States, including Indian microfinance leader Ela Bhatt; former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland; former Chinese ambassador to the United States Li Zhaoxing.
The group left an empty seat onstage — symbolically — for an elder who was invited, but could not attend because she is under house arrest in Burma, Nobel laureate and human rights advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Mandela and Carter emphasized the group’s ability to talk to anyone without risk.
“We will be able to risk failure in worthy causes, and we will not need to claim credit for any successes that might be achieved,” said Carter.
Carter said the group does not want to step on or interfere with other positive work that nations or organizations are doing but wants to supplement that work.
Several members acknowledged that the actual activities and actions of the group remain to be determined. There are no titles, no ranking of the members. And it is not clear if they will travel as a group, deploy individual members to global hot spots, or simply sit in a room together to develop strategies or assist those who are suffering find help.
But they certainly have high hopes.
“I didn’t like the title “elders,” because I didn’t feel like an elder,” said Yunus to laughter, “but I like the idea.”
Yunus said the world is without direction and he hopes the Elders can provide some direction.
Speaking of the Elders, almost in the way one would describe a cartoon about superheroes, Mandela said, “The Elders can become a fiercely independent and positive force for good.”
Annan added that the group does not “intend to go and take on Darfur or Somalia and resolve it singlehandedly. We don’t have a magic wand,” he said. But he argued that the group could intervene and perhaps force parties to honor agreements.
“There are certain crimes that shame us all,” said Annan. “We all have a responsibility, and I hope the Elders will take the lead in asking the question: What can we do to move the situation forward?
“Sometimes by saying ‘this is enough we can’t take this anymore it must stop,’ we are making a difference,” Annan continued
Mandela and Branson both celebrated birthdays today. At 89, Mandela looked frail. He walked with a cane and Carter helped him to the podium. But once Mandela got there, he stood tall and easily delivered some 10 minutes of remarks.
“He, as you know, walks sedately,” Tutu joked.