Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Turning 89, Mandela GIVES a Birthday Present

After ranting yesterday about the dangerous consequences of shallow political thinking, I was comforted to read Rebecca Harrison's Reuters report from Johannesburg this morning. Nelson Mandela has used the occasion of his 89th birthday to offer a present to the world at large:

Nelson Mandela marked his 89th birthday on Wednesday by launching an international group of elder statesmen, including fellow Nobel peace laureates Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter, to tackle the world's problems.

As birthday tributes poured in, Mandela said the group of "elders" would use almost 1,000 years of collective experience to dream up solutions for seemingly insurmountable problems like climate change, HIV/AIDS and poverty.

The leaders, who include former Irish President Mary Robinson and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, would also use their political independence to help resolve some of the world's most intractable conflicts.

"Using their collective experience, their moral courage and their ability to rise above nation, race and creed, they can make our planet a more peaceful and equitable place to live," said Mandela, wearing his trademark silk African-style shirt.

Mandela is, of course, no stranger to problems that are too complex to be addressed by quick fixes or for which, following the warning of H. L. Mencken, the quick fix may do more harm than good. However, there are several interesting auxiliary points that make the "story behind the story" just as interesting as the story itself. Most interesting of these points is that the idea actually did not originate with Mandela himself:

British entrepreneur Richard Branson and singer Peter Gabriel -- who performed an a capella version of his anti-apartheid protest song 'Biko' at the launch -- came up with idea of launching a braintrust of world leaders seven years ago.

They asked Mandela, who has officially retired from public life and will not play a major role, to launch the group and select its members.

Note, also, that the idea took seven years to progress from wouldn't-it-be-nice-if to a concrete inception. This, in itself, constitutes a resistance to the quick fix. What would now be nice would be some sort of chronological sketch of what happened over those seven years, as there may be some lessons to be learned about the need for "gestation" when dealing with complex problems.

Finally, it is worth mentioning some impressions from Carter that were included in Harrison's report:

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said governments had frequently failed to tackle the world's big issues and conflicts because they were beholden to voters, inhibited by their own political agenda and beset with domestic problems.

"We will be able to risk failure ... and we will not need to claim credit for any success," he said.

To some extent I felt I could read this as a vindication of yesterday's rant: For all the virtues of representative democracy (and I doubt that I could live under any other form of government), there will always be a tension between the complex thinking demanded by complex problems and the need for political expediency. An independent body that does not have to deal with that tension is likely to be less inhibited in exploring the complexity in the depth that is demanded. Also, Carter has the courage to acknowledge the risk of failure, because this is a group that can absorb that risk without fear of jeopardizing any of the personal stakes the members have.

We should all thank Mandela for the present he has given us. It has great potential to serve us in this current time of crisis. I just hope that we can collectively value it to the extent that we can use it wisely.

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