Lesley-Anne Knight reflects on her time as CEO of The Elders, celebrating its successes, and highlighting the challenges ahead.
The Elders with CEO Lesley-Anne Knight in Cape Town in 2013
As many of you will know already, I am retiring this month as CEO of The Elders, after three rich and rewarding years. So I would like to use this opportunity to offer some personal reflections on the work of this wonderful organisation and its future challenges.
When I joined The Elders in 2013, the world faced many of the same problems it is confronted with today. Climate change, human rights abuses, social and gender inequality, and armed conflict continue to pose serious political and moral challenges.
Throughout my years as CEO, we have witnessed some significant achievements in global cooperation that have provided The Elders with cause for encouragement – such as the approval of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement in 2015.
During these processes, The Elders worked hard to ensure that world leaders were fully engaged and that they realised their responsibility to future generations to secure strong goals and an equitable agreement.
But for me, these achievements – however laudable – are tempered by a deep sadness and frustration at the international community’s lack of progress in addressing inequality and injustice, and in bringing several devastating long-term conflicts to an end.
Meanwhile, discrimination and injustice towards women and girls remains far too widespread across much of our planet. As recent interventions by Mary Robinson and young activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner made clear, we cannot hope to make progress in tackling threats like climate change unless women’s voices are heard, respected and included in the political, economic and scientific process.
"Where are today’s Mandelas? Where are tomorrow’s Elders?"
The Elders have always promoted the concept of ethical leadership as a key ingredient for developing and maintaining peaceful and equitable societies. But there are times when more is required: if we are to end the chronic cycles of death and destruction that plague parts of our planet, we must have leadership that is not just ethical, but courageous too.
The crises we must confront now, and in the years ahead, demand leaders who are prepared to think the unthinkable, who are not afraid to make sacrifices, who will risk upsetting powerful vested interests and take bold steps forward for the greater good.
History provides examples of the power of such leadership; one that always comes to my mind when thinking of The Elders is the extraordinary dialogue between their founder Nelson Mandela and President F. W. De Klerk that brought about the peaceful end of apartheid and the transition to democracy in South Africa.
Looking at the bleak prospects for peace in 2016, one can’t help but ask: Where are today’s Mandelas? Where are tomorrow’s Elders? These questions I leave to my successor as CEO, but I take comfort from the knowledge that her or his work will be supported by the Elders themselves, our Advisory Council, the staff of the Secretariat and our wider network of friends and benefactors whose contributions are so dearly valued.
With warm wishes and gratitude to all,