THE group photograph showed six elderly gentlemen and a lady of a certain age, but on the extreme right of the picture a younger man with flowing golden locks seemed to be pushing to get himself in the picture. It looked like Richard Branson, but what was he doing among a group with Nelson Mandela at is centre whose collective age must certainly have been well above 500? It turned out that the group is called The Elders and that Mr Branson has had the idea of forming and supporting it since 2000; last week, on Mandela's 89th birthday, he finally got them all together.

The Elders is based on the idea of traditional African villages where the older members of the community offer their accumulated wisdom to anyone who seeks it. So Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, Mohammed Yussuf, and others still to be invited, will sit outside their metaphorical village hut and wait for the world's leaders to beat a path to their door. Mr Mandela explained the Elders' mission in this way: “They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.” The resemblance of these aspirations to Margaret Thatcher's when she stood outside Downing Street in May 1979, should not lessen our admiration for the willingness of these elder statesmen to offer share their wisdom. Mr Carter's idea that the group should “fill vacuums” by addressing major issues that are getting insufficient attention is a good one. Good luck to them.


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