Their names are familiar, their faces recognizable, their credentials impeccable. They have a mission no one can question: "To contribute wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world's toughest problems."
Announcing the formation of a new alliance, known simply as The Elders, former South African president and Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela, one of its founding members, said: "This group can speak freely and boldly, both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken. Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair." The elite alliance was unveiled on Nelson Mandela's 89th birthday last month in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Elders, an idea first conceived by Mandela, South Africa's Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, British entrepreneur Richard Branson and musician-activist Peter Gabriel, includes some of the world's most illustrious personalities, including former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former US President Jimmy Carter, and Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel laureate and founder of Grameen Bank, a micro-finance enterprise in Bangladesh. The group also boasts a number of amazing women.
Mandela's wife Graca Machel is a well-known international advocate for women's and children's rights and founder of the non-profit Foundation for Community Development in Mozambique. In 1994, she was appointed by the UN to assess the impact of armed conflict on children. Her report, affecting governments, UN agencies and others, established an innovative agenda for the protection of children in conflict countries.
Ela Bhatt is widely recognized for her pioneering work in grassroots economic development. Dedicated to improving the lives of India's poorest, most oppressed women, she founded the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in 1972. It now has more than a million members.
Gro Harlem Brundtland, a physician and former Prime Minister of Norway, gained international acclaim for her work on sustainable development in the 1980s. She chaired the World Commission of Environment and Development.
Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), has been a human rights activist most of her life. Currently, she serves as president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative.
Each of these extraordinary women brings her unique skills and experience to the work of The Elders. Said Machel, "I have worked with extraordinary people at the community level; people who have brilliant ideas and are making a huge effort to solve problems, but often their contribution is localized, and their voices are not strong enough to be heard. The Elders can play a role in amplifying the voice of the millions of citizens of the world."
Bhatt adds, "For building a non-violent peaceful society in the nations of the world, constructive work is integral. Violence cannot contain freedom. Freedom springs from constructive work. Each nation and each citizen will have to build it brick by brick, person to person. Constructive work is the milestone of peace and good relations."
Peace and good relations are at the heart of The Elders' vision to "catalyze resolutions to long-standing conflicts, articulate new approaches to global issues that may cause immense human suffering, and share wisdom by helping to connect voices all over the world". Over the coming months, the group will be considering what issues to work on, based on the magnitude and importance of the challenges they see before the world. Some issues that are expected to be on their agenda are climate change; pandemics like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis; and violent conflicts.
And to fulfill their mission they will be looking to partner with established groups "in a way that helps shine a light on work already underway". Branson and Gabriel have raised enough money - approximately $18 million - to fund the group's activities for the next three years.
Jimmy Carter says he sees The Elders as "a small but independent group that may fill an existing void in the world community". Robinson adds, "Part of the wisdom of The Elders is to remind the world that we actually have universal values."
The group has not given ranks or titles to any of its members, though Tutu will serve as its leader. And it is also not clear whether they will work collectively to spread awareness or deploy individual members across the globe, or simply develop strategies to assist those who need help.
Perhaps the words of Desmond Tutu are the most resonant: "Despite all the ghastliness that is around, human beings are made for goodness. The ones who ought to be held in high regard are not the ones who are militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They are the ones who have a commitment to try and make the world a better place. We - The Elders - will endeavour to support those people and do our best for humanity."