Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"The Elders" and the Rest of Us

The Elders :: theElders.org

So, a friend on Facebook posted this link (see above) to The Elders' website, a new site offering an old idea.  If you have not heard, The Elders are a group of powerful Men and women focused on helping solve global problems.  This impressive list of include: Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Anna, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Brundtland, Fernando H. Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Muhammad Yunus, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Under their history page, it states:

"1999. Peter Gabriel begins a conversation with Richard Branson about the Elders -- a new gathering of world leaders who will come together to guide and support our 'global village.' for their model they looked to traditional village elders, trusted by their people to resolve conflict within their communities.

In 2001 Gabriel and Branson take their idea to Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel.  Mandela is immediately enthusiastic and, with the help of Graca Machel and Desmond Tutu, sets about bringing together the group of Elders you see here today.

Never before has such a powerful group of leaders come together. Free from political, economic or military pressures.  The only agenda of the Elders is that of humanity.  And their only purpose is to easy human suffering in these essential areas:

1.  Offering a catalyst for the peaceful resolution of conflict.

2.  Seeking new approaches to seemingly intractable global issues.

3.  Sharing wisdom: reaching out to grassroots Elders and to the next generation of leaders.  Listening and helping to amplify voices for good all over the world."

On the surface, this feels like a good idea.  In fact, several of my personal heroes are in this group including Mary Robinson and Jimmy Carter.  Next, I am sure that this group has "our" best in their sights.  And like these "Elders," I also wish to see our "global village" a peaceful one.  Indeed, my dissertation is about how we can build cosmopolitical solidarity  rather than simply a focus on economic globalization.  Yet I am uneasy.

Why?  Because unlike the claim made above, powerful groups like this has existed in the past and will exist in the future and I am not sure that a "top down" approach is what we need.  A village that utilizes any type of "elder," utilizes a hierarchal structure where the most powerful among us tells the rest of us what is good for us.  When thinking of Kenneth Burke, the communication theorist, I agree that we are goateed by hierarchy, but I do not think this is always a good thing--and we should fight our urge to reproduce strict hierarchal forms.  Yes this group consists of impressive and compassionate people and are great women and men, but they do not speak for me necessary and to assume to do so is bothersome.  I did not elect them . . . they elected themselves.  I may accept their advice, be in awe of their power, their compassion and their strength, but part of cosmopolitanism must be a global process where we, as the so-called village, work from the bottom-up to create this new world.  Again, we must create a process of learning and growing together from a bottom-up, not a top-down process (and yes I see the irony of this post in that simply suggesting this adjustment is a top-down approach).  Regardless, all I am hearing from this website is that these "Elders" will let us bottom feeders know what to do.  It may be harsh, my usage of bottom feeders, yet that is the inference.

The WTO, the World Economic forum, the G8, the World Bank as well as other organizations are all filled with their own elders telling us how to be, what to do, and when to do it.  It has not worked.  Granted, this organization sounds much different than those listed, but still there is the problem of the top-down approach, and what about global inclusion, transparency in activity, and decision making and the like?

Further, just like the other listed global organizations, "The Elders" are not free from political, economic, or military pressures.  None of us are and if we think we are, we are fooling ourselves.  You cannot work in any nation today without dealing with these pressures.  If you are helping to resolve a conflict, you are likely dealing with one of the three above "evils."  If your are talking any global issue, you are definitely dealing with economics, military might and political pressures.  Finally, the sharing of wisdom about our communities and how our communities can live, compete and function globally, you must also deal with specific military, economic and political pressures.  They exist and effect all us us--including "The Elders."

What I would beg of "Elders" is this: help facilitate and participate in a forum where process from the bottom up is encouraged among the people of this world.  One reason I like President Elect Obama so much is his insistence and encouragement of "service" from not only those at the top, but all of us (at the bottom). Encourage a type of cosmopolitical building as we see with the World Social Forum who, as an organization (World Social Forum Official Web page), refuses to create mandates but offers space for local groups to learn how to work together globally (read their charter of principles here).  In fact, they work against hierarchy and for a parallel approach to peace and change.

I must admit that only having the "Elders" website to go by, I have no real idea of their concrete work.  Yet going from the wordage of this organization, I see more of the same - the now deemed elite directing the chorus.  Nothing new there.



  1. the need to be told what to do, how to save yourself by an elder Authority, strikes me as a form of immaturity. That said, sadly, a lot of people are simply stuck in the same mode of thinking that they reached in junior high or so, and they never really get out of it.
    I wish I had an answer to that, but I dont, except ones that basically involve Authority again. People just need to evolve, dammit.

  2. Dave,

    I know you are right on this and as my sister noted, many people desire and need this type of leadership. further, I do believe their intentions are honorable. yet, as you suggest, people need to start to learn how to do for themselves as well. This is huge,and I think the Obama team has it right when they ask for citizen service.

    Did you have a good new year and holiday?

  3. meh.

    Holidays are good because I see my family more, but never terribly exciting because there's little travel or adventure.

    That sounds stupid doesnt it? So I take back my "meh".


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