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Published:October 11th, 2007 04:29 EST
Who Needs the Elders?

Who Needs the Elders?

By Krzys Wasilewski

What do former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, have in common? They all were in charge of either a powerful country or an international organization. They all received the Nobel Peace Prize. They all failed. Now they have formed “the Elders,” a club of political pensioners to “make the world a better place.”

According to the Elders' official history, the idea was born in 1999. That year, the singer Peter Gabriel and businessman Sir Richard Branson came up with a concept of gathering Nobel Peace Prize winners who, together, could “guide and support our 'global village.'” What the ex Genesis musician and the founder of Virgin Airlines had in mind was establishing a group whose members would be recognizable enough to attract attention from the media around the world. Two years later, Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel, a Mozambican U.N. official, were privy to the lofty goal and became “immediately enthusiastic.” As word spread throughout golf resorts and retirement homes, more and more people were involved. The first four were soon joined by a number of other attention-hungry politicians, economists, writers and philosophers, who had the best times of their public careers long behind them.

The Elders come from different countries and continents, represent different styles and cultures. What they have in common, however, is the fact that if not all of them, then certainly the majority, failed when they could really have made a difference.

Jimmy Carter took the oath of office in 1977 after beating incumbent president Gerald R. Ford. The nation expected the new commander-in-chief to fix the plummeting economy, restore the United States to the position of the free world leader and bring decency to American politics. The thirty-ninth president succeeded in none. The rising unemployment and skyrocketing oil prices, together with a decreasing standard of living, became the gloomy reality of the late 1970s. The failure to rescue the kidnapped American diplomats in Iran proved that the Carter Administration was completely impotent when it came to the issues of national interest. Years after leaving the White House, Jimmy Carter has engaged himself in fighting for the independent Palestinian state, often accusing the Israelis of “apartheid” and “chauvinistic politics.” Fortunately, no one– except Palestinian extremists and ex pop stars– seems to take him seriously.

On the other hand, Nelson Mandela has received unanimous praise as the icon of fighting for equality in the racially divided South Africa. He spent most of his life in prison, never loosing his great spirit and hope that, one day, the white minority rule would end. When apartheid fell apart in 1994, Mandela became the country's first black president. He smoothly steered South Africa through the difficult times and managed to prevent racial tensions. But despite those unquestionable successes, Mandela left the office aware of his failure. The country's economy was in the biggest crisis in its history. Corruption and crime seemed to become an inseparable part of the new times. Thousands of white citizens hastily immigrated to Great Britain and Holland for fear of falling prey to violent gangs which ransacked affluent areas. Now, at 89, Mandela hopes his experience will help other troubled nations.

Contrary to Carter and Mandela, Kofi Annan parted from world politics very recently. For ten years he was at the helm of the most powerful international organization, the United Nations. The amiable Ghanaian politician was elected as the only man who had enough strength and ambition to save the fallen institution from total disintegration. If there were anyone who could unite the United Nations again, it would be Kofi Annan. Yet, the Secretary General stepped down from his post in disgrace, facing the accusation of corruption and misappropriating the notorious oil-for-food funds. After only six months of staying out of the limelight, Annan has emerged as one of the main faces of the Elders. Apart from the mentioned three, the Elders consists of a number of people with similar history. Hardly any other formal group can boast of so many famous names: former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, general secretaries of important organizations– the list goes on and on. Hardly any other group has gathered so many failed politicos.

“The Elders will use their unique collective skills to catalyze peaceful resolutions to long-standing conflicts, articulate new approaches to global issues that are or may cause immense human suffering and share wisdom by helping to connect voices all over the world,” affirms the official statement. It sounds encouraging. Like in ancient times, and also in the 21st century, elders would gather to deal with world problems and come up with peace-saving solutions. But on dozens of pages of lofty speeches and press releases, it is impossible to find an answer to the question: “How are they going to do it?”

Perhaps even more important a question is whether the world really needs them. Although the Elders preach about democracy with almost evangelical zeal, they themselves are not democratically elected. Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and the others form one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, whose membership depends on past political affiliation. If you are a liberal, you are in; if you are a conservative, stay away. The key to the membership lies in the hands of the entrepreneur Richard Banson; he funds the club and decides who is worth being in. This poses another question about who the Elders really represent– the world community or just a small fraction of rich and bored businessmen? What is more, the group lacks any substantial support from national governments, which are still the most important actors on the international stage.

According to the Elders' website, one of the top priorities for the group is to help find the solution to war-shattered Darfur. But apart from calling for peace, the statement does not say how they will do it. So far, all of the major players have failed in Darfur– the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union; to say nothing of countless diplomatic efforts led by the United States and Great Britain. Another initiative could only complicate the already seemingly unsolvable problem in northern Africa.

Politicians are always judged by what they do, not by how touching the speeches are that they deliver. It is true now; it was true hundreds of years ago. Part of the reason why ancient gatherings of elders wielded the power comparable to the sovereignty of kings in the Middle Ages was that they enjoyed great respect within their communities. The Elders' short history is full of beautiful words pronounced by the most distinguished statesmen of the 20th century, but lacks the essential: successes. The contemporary world does not need the Elders who can only ramble on.

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