Necessary wisdom from the elders

On July 18, 2007, twelve senior statespersons met to form a group called the Elders. That date may not go down in history, but who knows?

Yme Woensdregt

On July 18, 2007, twelve senior statespersons met to form a group called the Elders. That date may not go down in history as a turning–point—but who knows?

The concept began in a conversation between British billionaire Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel. Their idea was simple: many communities look to their elders for wisdom and guidance or to help them resolve disputes. In an increasingly interdependent world—a “global village”—might it be possible for a small, dedicated group of individuals to use their collective experience and influence to help tackle some of the most pressing problems facing the world today?

Branson and Gabriel took their idea of “global elders” to Nelson Mandela, who agreed to support it. In that small way, a group known as “The Elders” was born. They are a group of men and women who have been influential in shaping nations and communities in the ways of peace and justice, and who now lend their credibility, skills and leadership to addressing some of the intractable issues of our world.

What makes an elder? According to their website (, they are people “who no longer hold a public office, and who are independent of any national government or other vested interest. They should have earned international trust, demonstrated integrity and built a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership. They share a common commitment to peace and universal human rights, and bring a wealth of diverse expertise and experience.”

They are the peace makers, the peace builders, the social revolutionaries who have transformed their own countries. These independent global leaders work together for peace and human rights. In short, they are change makers, people who “lead by example, creating positive social change and inspiring others to do the same.”

Branson and Gabriel also put their money where their mouth is, funding the work of The Elders for three years. There is very little bureaucracy, and if there are hierarchies, their presence is overlooked. They keep it simple. They remain in constant contact with each other and meet twice a year.

The first Chair of the Elders was Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa. After six years, he relinquished the position in favour of current Chair Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General. Other elders include former President Jimmy Carter, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, Burmese freedom advocate and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, and others. Visit their website so that you might learn more about these wise elders and their work.

They are involved in many different issues: working towards peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a campaign to end child marriage in many parts of the world, promoting inclusiveness in an increasingly pluralistic world, helping to revitalize the peace process in the Middle East. These are all massive issues, and need the best work and thinking from creative people all around the world.

One of the most hopeful aspects of their work for me is a program launched in June 2012 at Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. The Program is called Elders+Youngers, in which the Elders have partnered with four young activists about the kind of change which is needed to secure a sustainable future for our planet. Together, they are addressing human and environmental crises on a global scale. The Elders are mentoring young people in an online conversation about the world we are leaving to future generations.

Gro Harlem Bruntlandt, the Deputy Chair of the Elders and the first woman Prime Minister of Norway, indicated that Rio+20 “may have failed to do what we all believe it should have done – to change the path we are on and ensure we develop in a sustainable and equitable way.” That’s not cause for discouragement, she continues. “But I know that far from becoming disillusioned, you and your peers will work harder than ever to drive the change we need.”

We can all get involved in their work. Kofi Annan says, “I am often asked, ‘What can people do to become a good global citizen?’ I reply that it begins in your own community.”

It’s like the old bumper sticker: Think Globally. Act Locally.

Good words to support the way we live.

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