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Mandela Forms Group of Global Elders to Focus on World's Ills

To celebrate his 89th birthday, South Africa's elder statesman, Nelson Mandela, has launched a group of global elders to bring their collective experience to addressing some of the world's most pressing problems. VOA's Delia Robertson attended the launch in Johannesburg and filed this report.

Combining hundreds of years of experience between them, the group of 10 of the world's leaders represent all corners of the globe. Chaired by South African Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu the group, to be known as The Elders, includes former President Jimmy Carter, past U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Muhammad Yunus president of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank for the poor, and Ela Bhatt, India's pioneer in grassroots development.

Mr. Mandela, who said he is trying very hard to take his retirement seriously, will act only to inspire and motivate the group, to which he hopes in time to add more people.

The Elders has its genesis in a proposal put to Mr. Mandela in 2001 by musician Peter Gabriel and British entrepreneur Richard Branson that the so-called global village needed guidance and help from wise and independent leaders to solve seemingly intractable problems.

Nelson Mandela says the members of the group are not elders because of their age, but because of their individual and collective wisdom. And, he said, they are free to put the needs of the world's people first.

"This group derives its strength not from political, economic or military power, but from the independence and integrity of those who are here," he said. "They do not have careers to build, elections to win, constituencies to please. They can talk to anyone they please, and are free to follow paths they deem right, even if hugely unpopular."

Funded by a group of founders brought together by Branson and Gabriel, The Elders will use their skills and contacts to try and find and promote sustainable resolutions to long-standing conflicts. They say their work will complement and not duplicate or compete with the efforts of other organizations.

Mr. Mandela says they will use modern technology such as the Internet and mobile phones to draw in and connect people across the globe, to highlight problems, and potential solutions, at the community level.

"They can help foster and introduce innovative ideas and little known solutions to connect those with real practical needs with those who have something to give," he added.

Former President Jimmy Carter said the leaders are no longer constrained in the way they were when they headed governments or large organizations with particular constituencies.

"The elders have only two basic things, one is the collective experience and knowledge and integrity that we bring to the deliberations, and the second is one that we did not have when we were in public office and that is complete freedom to escape from the restraints of political niceties and to be able to do as Nelson Mandela pointed out so vividly in his talk, we can talk to anyone and become involved in any issue and bring our collective knowledge to it," said Mr. Carter.

Richard Branson said the group of elder statesmen and women will bring hope and wisdom back into the world, and play a role in ending human suffering.

Peter Gabriel, in an impromptu rendition of his hit song, "Biko", reminded those present that the eyes of the world will be watching The Elders from now on.