Branson forms a band of ‘Elders’: Mandela, Carter…


Richard Moore

This could be a good idea, or it could be just 
another waste of time, like those "End World 
Hunger" concerts.


Original source URL:

Richard Branson forms a band of 'Elders' with Mandela, Carter, Tutu and others

By Michael Wines
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

JOHANNESBURG: Melding serious statesmanship and a 
large slug of audacity, the former South African 
president Nelson Mandela and a clutch of 
world-famous figures plan to announce on 
Wednesday a private alliance to launch diplomatic 
assaults on the globe's most intractable problems.

The alliance, to be unveiled on Wednesday during 
events marking Mandela's 89th birthday, is to be 
called "The Elders." Among others, it includes 
the retired Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu; 
Jimmy Carter, the former U.S. president; the 
retired United Nations secretary general Kofi 
Annan, and Mary Robinson, the human-rights 
activist and former president of Ireland.

Many, including Mandela, have been early and 
harsh critics of President George W. Bush and 
American foreign policy, particularly toward Iraq 
and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group's 
members and backers insisted in interviews, 
however, that they are guided neither by ideology 
nor by geopolitical bent.

Mandela states in remarks prepared for Wednesday 
that the fact that none of The Elders holds 
public office allows them to work for the common 
good, not for outside interests.

"This group can speak freely and boldly, working 
both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever 
actions need to be taken," the remarks state. 
"Together we will work to support courage where 
there is fear, foster agreement where there is 
conflict, and inspire hope where there is 

Whether governments that become the objects of 
The Elders' freelance diplomacy will agree 
remains to be seen. One of the group's founders 
and principal sponsors, the British tycoon Sir 
Richard Branson, said that those leaders whom he 
had briefed - including Prime Minister Gordon 
Brown of Britain and the South African president, 
Thabo Mbeki - "very much support the initiative."

"There will always be skeptics of any positive 
initiatives, but these are people giving up their 
time for nothing," he said of The Elders. "Most 
individuals in the world would welcome a group of 
people who are above ego, who, in the last 12 or 
15 years of their lives, are above partisan 

Precisely what problems The Elders will tackle is 
unclear; none have yet been selected.

A spokeswoman said the group would jointly decide 
where to step in, based in part on the 
seriousness of an issue and their ability to 
contribute to a solution.

In interviews, Branson and Carter offered two 
quite different hypothetical situations: The 
Elders might be able to help resolve regional 
crises like the wave of guerrilla fighting and 
kidnapping in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger River 
delta, Branson suggested.

For his part, Carter said the group might address 
problems like the waste and lack of coordination 
among aid organizations providing health care in 
developing nations. "The Elders won't get 
involved in delivering bed nets for malaria 
prevention," he said. "The issue is to fill 
vacuums - to address major issues that aren't 
being adequately addressed."

If the concept and the name seem a bit outsized - 
a diplomatic league of superheroes, one might say 
- that may stem from their ties to Branson, who 
rarely does anything in a small way.

In a telephone interview, Branson said that he 
began thinking about a the notion in 2003, after 
he sought to persuade Mandela and Annan to travel 
to Baghdad to ask Saddam Hussein to relinquish 
power in Iraq. The two agreed, but war broke out 
before arrangements were completed.

Later, after working on a concert for one of 
Mandela's charities, Branson flew home with Peter 
Gabriel, the British rock musician and 
human-rights activist. "I was talking about the 
need for a group of global elders to be there to 
rally around in times of conflict," he said, "and 
Peter said he'd had a similar idea, but using the 
global Internet to help elders relate to the 
world community."

Thus was born The Elders, named after the 
preeminence of elders in African village 
societies. Over the last year or so, Branson held 
a series of meetings at his Caribbean base, 
Necker Island, at which potential members and 
backers were recruited to the cause and asked to 
contribute their own ideas.

Carter said the meetings were a tightly held 
secret. "Before we went I didn't know what the 
meeting was all about," he said. "I went because 
of Sir Richard. We'd talked earlier about the 
possibility of a biofuels plant in my town, 

Branson and Gabriel contributed funds to begin 
the project. Asked how much it would cost, 
Branson replied, "Obviously, it's not cheap." But 
enough donors have given money to finance The 
Elders' first four years of work, he said, and he 
anticipates that raising still more will not be 

  Copyright © 2007 The International Herald Tribune |

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