The idea first took shape in conversations between two old friends, musician Peter Gabriel and inventive entrepreneur Richard Branson. What the world needs now, they decided, is a nucleus of wise elder statesmen and women to grapple with seemingly intractable global issues that governments and international institutions overlook or have failed to correct. Gabriel and Branson sold the concept to Nelson Mandela, and in July 2007 The Elders were launched by Mandela at a ceremony in Johannesburg.
In less than five years, the ten former national and international leaders, along with two honorary members, who form The Elders—six of whom are winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and five, former heads of state or government—have been globe-trotting, with the luxury of time to spend immersing themselves in issues in the field, far from government offices.
The Elders, collectively or in smaller subgroups, have published many statements and held many meetings with major political players around the world. There have been no sensational breakthroughs so far, however. From the beginning, they have said that headlines are not their goal; they aim to offer analysis and guidance. Consequently, their work is not very well known, even among foreign-policy experts. Being former leaders goes only so far, and there have been embarrassing setbacks: The Elders were shut out of crumbling Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe, to cite the most glaring example.
Who are The Elders? Their chair is the retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Mandela, now in his 90s, as an honorary member and adviser. The others are Martti Ahtisaari, a Finnish diplomat and former president of Finland who also led crucial United Nations missions in Namibia and Kosovo; Kofi Annan, UN secretary general from 1997 to 2007; Ela Bhatt, a pioneer in women’s rights and economic empowerment in India; Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and later head of UN missions in Iraq and Afghanistan; Gro Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway and director-general of the World Health Organization; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil; Jimmy Carter, former American president; Graça Machel, a leader in children’s rights, author of a groundbreaking 1996 UN report on children in armed conflict and former minister of education and culture in Mozambique; and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN high commissioner for human rights.
Like Mandela, the Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is also an honorary Elder; they keep a chair empty for her. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank microcredit network and also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was a founding member but dropped out in 2009.
Collectively The Elders are coming together around issues that reflect their mostly liberal points of view and are looking for ways to energize support. They strongly backed recognition of Palestinian statehood by the UN. They condemn homophobia in Africa. Most recently and controversially, they have defied a taboo against criticizing cultural values and myths that hold back development in many poor nations.
In September they launched a campaign against child marriage. For a group that would seem to have a geopolitical agenda, this move into the social and cultural arena—with a central focus on girls—may seem surprising. For them it is logical. In many places, the intelligence, skills and productivity of half the population—the girls and women—are missing from national life. Development stalls, poverty grows and the ingredients for conflict accumulate.