JOHANNESBURG, July 18, 2007 — -- The Elders, a new alliance made up of an elite group of senior statesmen dedicated to solving thorny global problems, unveiled itself today in Johannesburg.
The rollout coincided with founding member Nelson Mandela's 89th birthday.
After a grand entrance, Mandela, the former South African president, announced the rest of the Elders.
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.
The group plans to get involved in some of the world's most pressing problems -- climate change, pandemics like AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, violent conflicts.
It was an extraordinary gathering; a who's who of famous international leaders, with enough emotion to move some of them to tears.
Under a large white futuristic dome, British billionaire Richard Branson and rock star Peter Gabriel, who conceived the idea for the Elders, gathered enough star power to change the world, or at least that's the hope.
"The structures we have to deal with these problems are often tied down by political, economic and geographic constraints," Mandela said. The Elders, he argued, will face no such constraints.
Seven years ago, Branson and Gabriel approached Mandela about the Elders idea, and he agreed to help them recruit others. "This group of elders will bring hope and wisdom back into the world," Branson said. "They'll play a role in bringing us together.
"Using their collective experience, their moral courage and their ability to rise above the parochial concerns of nations ? they can help make our planet a more peaceful, healthy and equitable place to live, " Branson said. " Let us call them 'global elders,' not because of their age but because of individual and collective wisdom."
Calling it "the most extraordinary day" of his life, Gabriel said, "The dream was there might still be a body of people in whom the world could place their trust."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who moderated the event and will serve as its leader, was moved to tears after Gabriel sang an impromptu accapella version of his hit song "Biko," written about a famous South African political prisoner.
Branson and Gabriel have raised enough money -- some $18 million -- to fund this group for three years.