If ever we needed the wisdom of elders, that time is now. In our digitally connected world, we cannot plead ignorance of the impacts of environmental degradation, climate change, inequality, violence and greed. What we can do is decide to do our part, however small, to change things. So in 2007 Nelson Mandela convened The Elders, “an independent group of global leaders who work together for peace and human rights.”
The group was the brain child of Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel. Branson, one of the world’s most innovative business tycoons, has combined his creativity with a social conscience. Gabriel entered the public eye as lead vocalist and flautist with the rock band Genesis. He went on to a successful solo career and became an active champion of human rights.
Branson and Gabriel approached Nelson Mandela with their idea. When he decided to support it, he enlisted Graça Machel and Desmond Tutu to help him form the council. When he announced formation of the group on his 89th birthday, Nelson Mandela said:
This group derives its strength not from political, economic or military power, but from the independence and integrity of those who are here.
They do not have careers to build, elections to win, constituencies to please. They can talk to anyone they please, and are free to follow paths they deem right, even if hugely unpopular.
The Elders met for the first time in Johannesburg in July 2007. Their independence and collective wisdom quickly made them welcome advisors and councillors in challenging situations. Their work has ranged from their first mission, to Sudan in 2007, to their November 2013 debate on ethical leadership, held in Capetown. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are now Honorary Elders. Other Elders are Marti Ahtisaari, Kofi Annan (Chair), Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Harlem Brundtland (Deputy Chair), Fernando H. Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Hina Jilani, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson and Ernesto Zedillo. You can learn more about these extraordinary world leaders on The Elders Web site.
These elders could be resting on their considerable laurels. Instead they are working tirelessly on behalf of people everywhere. They give me hope.