When Nelson Mandela founded The Elders in 2007, he urged us to “support courage where there is fear”. Looking back at the events of 2014 and ahead to the global challenges we confront in 2015, it can seem that our world is almost paralysed by fear.
There are those for whom fear is a daily reality – people who fear for their lives and those of their loved ones; people who face the constant threat of violence, disease, or hunger.
But there are also fears that have less basis in fact – fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of ‘the other.’ Often irrational, these fears can lead us to retreat behind barricades, turn our backs on those in need, and persecute those we see as a threat.
We see this in our reluctance to give shelter to those who flee violent conflict; in the rise of aggressive nationalism and identity politics; and in growing religious extremism and sectarianism.
And then there are the fears we all too often see in our political leaders – the fear of losing face, of losing popularity, of losing power. These concerns may seem trivial, but when our leaders are in the grip of such fears, the prospects for our world are dire indeed.
All too frequently, leaders will concern themselves with matters that are closest at hand, while the most serious issues are often more distant – geographically or in time. For example, if we fail to tackle climate change the worst effects will be suffered by future generations and by poor countries far from global power centres. And I have to ask whether we would still be struggling to find effective treatment and vaccines for Ebola if it had been a problem in the cities of Europe or North America rather than in Africa.
Today more than ever, we need far-sighted leaders who can see beyond their national boundaries and beyond the next election.
Looking back at the world’s most distinguished and respected leaders, it was never their ability to deliver tax cuts, impose strict immigration policies, or launch acts of armed aggression on other countries that earned our admiration. It was their wisdom, their integrity and their compassion for their fellow human beings.
A unique position
As Elders, we understand the constraints that can inhibit our political leaders. Several of my fellow Elders have held political office at the highest levels and are well aware of the pressures that leaders can face. This understanding, coupled with the freedom of no longer being in office, puts us in a unique position to support and encourage today’s leaders to take the courageous decisions the world desperately needs.
For example, in the past year, we have travelled to Iran and Myanmar to offer whatever help we can as these countries’ leaders take the often precarious path towards reform, greater openness, and ultimately, a more peaceful existence.
The Elders have also spoken out about the need for governments to provide greater protection for women and girls, and take a stand against the violence, discrimination and oppression they suffer in many societies.
2015 will be a crucial year in the battle to avert a climate change catastrophe, and in the run-up to December’s Paris summit, we will be supporting efforts to secure a bold new binding agreement to cap carbon emissions. We are calling for an equitable agreement under which the world’s richer countries support the aspirations of other nations to follow a sustainable development path. Such an agreement is clearly in the interests of our entire planet but it will require far-sighted courageous action on the part of our political leaders.
They would do well to recall the words of Franklin D Roosevelt in his inaugural address as US President in 1933: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
But Roosevelt went on to say that courageous leadership requires the understanding and support of the people. We need to make clear to our leaders what we expect of them; we need to hold them to account; but we also need to let them know that if they have the courage to do the right thing, then we will support them. We need to help them overcome their fear; share their burden; and be willing to pay the price of progress.
For progress rarely comes without a price: social change means being prepared to share; a just and ordered society means accepting constraints on our behaviour; and making peace with our enemies means being open to compromise and forgiveness.
Progress means participation
As we begin another new year, I am confident that it will be the power and willingness of ordinary citizens – especially young people – to catalyse positive change and support courageous, compassionate leadership that will make a difference. Everyone can play their part – whether it is through participation in democratic processes, through peaceful protest against injustice, through harnessing the power of social media and new modes of communication, or simply through offering support and solidarity to those in need.
This is where my greatest hopes lie for 2015. On behalf of all the Elders, I wish you a happy, healthy and peaceful year.