Graça Machel and Richard Branson in South Africa in July 2017. (Credit: The Elders #WalkTogether)
One safe prediction for 2018 is that the biggest global problems we face will not disappear, and might indeed deepen unless radical action is taken. Millions of people feel left behind by the forces of globalisation, and are easy prey to the siren songs of isolationism, xenophobia and racism. Trust in the institutions of government, business and the multilateral system is at an all-time low, making it easier for the cynical peddlers of populism to win votes by offering scapegoats and seemingly simple solutions.
What can be done to resist this? The world needs innovative, creative and audacious ideas to tackle the challenges of the future and counter widespread pessimism.
One source of inspiration, we suggest, can be found by looking not to the future but to the past. In July 2018 it will be 100 years since the birth, in the South African village of Mvezo, of Nelson Mandela, one of the most visionary and influential political figures the world has seen.
For those of us who knew and loved him, he will forever be the man who led his people to freedom, who suffered under and then vanquished the evil of apartheid in South Africa, and who built a new democracy with magnanimity, wisdom and vision. But millions of people are alive today who were not even born when Mandela walked out of prison a free man. What is remarkable, and what gives us hope for the future, is how his life and legacy continue to inspire these younger generations.
With our friend Peter Gabriel, we were both privileged to work with Madiba ten years ago when he founded the Elders, a group of independent former leaders chosen to take forward his work on peace, justice and human rights. (Jimmy Carter, a former American president, Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first female president, and Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, were among the original Elders.) He mandated the group to “support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair”.
Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter at the launch of The Elders in Johannesburg in July 2007 (Credit: Benny Gool / The Elders)
In their first decade, The Elders have highlighted “forgotten” issues of injustice and discrimination like child marriage, provided a clear moral voice for urgent action on climate change, and worked to resolve conflicts from South Sudan to Côte d’Ivoire. But too many of today’s leaders are pursuing policies that are consciously antithetical to the values that Mandela espoused, or are wilfully spurning their responsibilities to their people.
The politics of nationalism, from “America First” and Brexit to ethnic sectarianism in India and Myanmar, loosens the ties that bind us together in our common humanity. This is so regardless of whether ideas are espoused from conviction or out of cynicism. The resulting policies stifle business and threaten the foundations of growth across all markets. The pursuit of protectionist agendas and the politics of intolerance also draw attention away from humanitarian crises which urgently need attention—and which, if left unattended, will come back to haunt those who think they can hide behind walls and raise the drawbridge.
In 2018, we believe a new approach is needed. If politicians fail to provide adequate answers, ordinary citizens themselves must speak out. This is why the Elders have launched an initiative called Walk Together.
Crowds join WalkTogether march in Cape Town, in July 2017 (Credit: The Elders #WalkTogether)
One hundred ideas to change the world
This seeks to harness grassroots creativity by collecting 100 of the most innovative and workable ideas to further the causes of peace, health, equality and justice. The Elders and young leaders will present these ideas to the world in July 2018, to honour the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. Through public engagement and digital outreach, we will gather the ideas from a broad range of policymakers, civil-society organisations and grassroots groups. These should offer practical, system-oriented proposals that can be implemented worldwide.
These 100 ideas for a freer and fairer world should empower people, and reinforce the importance of the values Madiba strove for. As we continue his long walk to freedom, we will be inspired by the words with which he launched the Elders in 2007: “I believe that in the end it is kindness and generous accommodation that are the catalysts for real change”.