A group of elders–former statesmen and community leaders like Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson (former president of Ireland) and Kofi Annan–joined together in South Africa to “save the world.” The group–the vision of rock star Peter Gabriel–will engage in “some of the world’s most pressing problems — climate change, pandemics like AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, violent conflicts.”
So, is this the new trend in international statesmanship, “retired” world leaders partnering with celebrities and business leaders to fill a leadership gap? Carter has been doing this for decades: Using his position as a former president to negotiate international agreements and raise awareness. What’s new is the high profile nature of ex-presidential initiatives like the Clinton Global Initiative and the collaboration they form with current industry and popular culture leaders like Bono, Richard Branson and now Peter Gabriel.
There are two views to this trend, both a little disheartening, or at least cynical. The first is that this is all about ego. Bono, Clinton, Branson, Bill Gates… all these guys realize that incredible success in their respective fields does not measure in terms of legacy to solving some of the world’s most intractable problems: poverty in Africa… disease… climate change. And I’m sure to some degree this is true. After all, it’s unlikely any of them would have been successful without their egos.
But there’s something else potentially at work here, which can be viewed as both a tragedy and an opportunity. Namely, that the nature of politics today serves only to elect leaders who fail to lead. Whether it’s because the system fosters leaders whose sole motivation is power or because the political environment in countries like ours is such that courage in leadership equates to non-electibility, I don’t know. The result is the same. Bill Clinton has said as much himself:
So what you can do as a former president is — you don’t have the wide range of power, so you have to concentrate on fewer things. But you are less at the mercy of unfolding events.
So if I say, look, we’re going to work on the economic empowerment of poor people, on fighting AIDS and other diseases, on trying to bridge the religious and political differences between people, and on trying to, you know, avoid the worst calamities of climate change and help to revitalize the economy in the process, I can actually do that.
Nelson Mandela put it this way:
“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.
The optimistic view is that–like new models of philanthropy or models of sustainable business–these types of initiatives are the expression of a new model of world leadership. What’s missing, unfortunately, is the voice and engagement of the common person. It’s good that our leader emeritae are attempting to fill the vacuum, but ultimately our political environment needs to change.
In the meantime, I’ll hope that the elders initiative will be more than just photo-ops. After all, it’s the brainchild of Peter Gabriel for whom I have special affection. My son’s middle name is “Biko,” named after Steven Biko whom I was first introduced to thanks to Peter Gabriel.