A Few Thoughts on Super Friends, Elders, and St. Crispin’s Day

by Chris Borgen

Yesterday Richard Branson announced the establishment of a group of senior leaders from around the world who would lend their considerable experience and diplomatic “star power” to addressing various international crises ranging from violent conflicts, to AIDS, to climate change, among various possible issues.

Although the description of the group, known as the Elders, reminded me of the “Wise Men” of the Trumen and Kennedy Administrations, the dominant metaphor being used by the mainstream media is to liken them to a band of superheroes.

As for the Elders, the International Herald Tribune explains their genesis:

In a telephone interview, Branson said that he began thinking about a the notion in 2003, after he sought to persuade Mandela and Annan to travel to Baghdad to ask Saddam Hussein to relinquish power in Iraq. The two agreed, but war broke out before arrangements were completed.

Later, after working on a concert for one of Mandela’s charities, Branson flew home with Peter Gabriel, the British rock musician and human-rights activist. “I was talking about the need for a group of global elders to be there to rally around in times of conflict,” he said, “and Peter said he’d had a similar idea, but using the global Internet to help elders relate to the world community.”

Thus was born The Elders, named after the preeminence of elders in African village societies. Over the last year or so, Branson held a series of meetings at his Caribbean base, Necker Island, at which potential members and backers were recruited to the cause and asked to contribute their own ideas.

ABC News describes the group’s composition:

The members include Desmond Tutu, South African archbishop emeritus of Capetown; former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan; Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel laureate and founder of the Green Bank in Bangladesh…

Also onboard are names less well known in the United States, including Indian microfinance leader Ela Bhatt; former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland; former Chinese ambassador to the United States Li Zhaoxing.

The group left an empty seat onstage — symbolically — for an elder who was invited, but could not attend because she is under house arrest in Burma, Nobel laureate and human rights advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.

As for what they would do, there are a variety of possible models. Once again from the IHT:

In interviews, Branson and Carter offered two quite different hypothetical situations: The Elders might be able to help resolve regional crises like the wave of guerrilla fighting and kidnapping in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger River delta, Branson suggested.

For his part, Carter said the group might address problems like the waste and lack of coordination among aid organizations providing health care in developing nations. “The Elders won’t get involved in delivering bed nets for malaria prevention,” he said. “The issue is to fill vacuums – to address major issues that aren’t being adequately addressed.”

Looking at this from this as an academic interested in international institutions a few questions pop into my head.

First, how much actual institutionalization will there be? Branson has mentioned that even thought he Elders are not getting paid, the tab is somewhat expensive and that there will be others involved. So is this the birth of a very high-profile NGO or is it more ad hoc? The move from ad hoc relations to formal institutionalization can be a key determinant in effectiveness, see for example the sea-change in the shift from the periodic Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to the institutionalized Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (to use an example from the world of international organizations).

This group can also lead to some interesting observations concerning transnational advocacy. In particular, to what extent does diplomatic star power translate into effectiveness? We’ve written before about the entrance of celebs like Bono and Angelina Jolie into policy debates. Bono has already played a part in organizing his considerable efforts in new organizations such as DATA and the One Campaign. Bono has become a combination of gadfly and cheerleader, waging jeremiads on the G-8 and shaming leaders into making public commitments. But how well this translates into actual structural change remains to be seen. To what extent, then, are publicizing and shaming—possibly the greatest assets of the fame factor—effective.

The Elders, I would note, bring something else to the table besides fame—namely experience at the very pinnacle of international politics. Does this mean that Niger Delta separatists, for example, will listen to them? Or George Bush? I don’t know. Perhaps it is the spillover of their efforts—getting other people to get involved and support a myriad of advocacy groups and specific policies—that will eventually foster political change.

You know, kind of like that scene in Spider Man 2 when all the people on the train defended Spidey from Dr. Octopus.

But, superhero analogies asides, there is something interesting here about finding the levers that cause long-term change. Rather than solutions coming from “elders” or from the grass roots, intransigent problems such as these need to be attacked from all angles. High-profile activists and civil servants and grass-root efforts are needed. And so, while I am enthusiastic about the founding of the Elders as they provide one more angle of attack, we must also keep in mind that, like that scene from Spiderman 2, such problems will only be solved through widespread cooperation, not because of a few heroes/leaders/institutions acting on their own. Perhaps one of the greatest roles of such leaders, then, is to rally support and stave-off fatigue. Less Superman and more Shakespeare’s Henry V giving his St. Crispin’s Day speech.

But, rather than Shakespeare, I’ll close with a lyric from the Flaming Lips’ “Waiting for Superman”:

Tell everyone waiting for Superman
That they should hold on as best they can
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift.


2 Responses

  1. I guess my worry is that this tends to stroke egos many of which I imagine are really quite outsized as it stands. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am a little fatigued by elites trying to tell me how the world should be when at the same time they have private interests that make them act this way or that. I wrote about what I called the Watson-Edstrom conundrum about this duality in a piece a few years ago at Mississippi Law Journal. I guess any effort that helps us dialogue and reduce the risk of armageddon should be imagined. Of course, I have deep respect for the heroes here. I love that Mandela on a recent birthday advised that he is now officially a “has-been” – wonderful self-deprecating humor.



  2. Very interesting – but people working in the development field should view this new group as just one more potential resource to tackle the actual problem at hand. That problem is a lack of institutional capacity for developing and learning from long term strategies of engagement through institutions. We have massively underestimated the difficulty of developing the institutional capacity to build institutional capacity. If we need heroism now, it would be a heroic commitment to learn how to build better institutions — not to continue show boating as individuals. The wisest of men should admit that they are fools when it comes to solving this problem. Wasn’t this the vision behind the creation of the UN? And if the UN is a failure, isn’t it because of our ongoing lack of commitment to the vision that led to its creation? Finally — at the end of the day, isn’t it also our failure as lawyers that we take no responsibility for legal institution building? Thus while we tinker with normative problems (as we learn to do in law school) we have next to nothing to say about the widespread failure of legal institutions around the world. Mea culpa, my friends!

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