Cloak and dagger aura can't hide statesmen's lofty goals
A visit to Hong Kong by a star-studded advisory body left as many questions as answers, writes Peter Kammerer
There is a whiff of Opus Dei or the Freemasons about the Global Leadership Foundation. It has a registered office and small secretariat in London, a listed telephone number and an information sheet detailing its honorary patrons and members. But like those two secretive global organisations, what the foundation gets up to, where and how is something of a mystery.
Founder and former South African president F.W. de Klerk yesterday lifted the veil on some ot its activities during a visit to Hong Kong, but he left a host of questions unanswered. As he explained, to do otherwise would lessen the organisation's chances of meeting its objectives. Those goals are above board: the foundation aims to use its roster of former national leaders and high-ranking officials to improve the world by making their experience and wisdom available to governments in need.
Similarly, there is nothing cloak and dagger about the advisers, all of whom have or once had an international profile. Hong Kong's chief secretary from 1993 to 2001, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, is among them, along with Mr de Klerk and 21 others like former Philippine president Fidel Ramos, one-time French prime minister Michel Rocard and ex-Indian premier I.K. Gujral. The patrons include Mr de Klerk's successor, Nelson Mandela, and US President George W. Bush's father, former president George H.W. Bush.
Nor did Mr de Klerk do anything to hide why he was in Hong Kong with the foundation's secretary general, Sir Robin Christopher: they were meeting Mrs Chan and fund-raising.
But the cloak came swiftly down - albeit with an explanation - when the matter of specifics was raised.
'We're not a secret organisation, but we offer confidential advice to governments, especially in the developing and underdeveloped world,' he said. 'Sometimes a leader is afraid of a loss of face if he or she is seen as somebody who has to be rescued by an outsider. The leader would therefore prefer to get solid, objective advice from people who have no agenda of their own, who don't represent any specific interests whatsoever.
'He or she evaluates the advice, decides what to do and the decision is then announced as his or her decision. It's not something thrust upon them,' Mr de Klerk said.
Of the nine nations the foundation has been involved with since its inception almost three years ago - five in Africa, two in Asia and one each in eastern Europe and Latin America - only one was named: Swaziland. That was because the leaders of the Aids-afflicted country had let it be known they were being helped. Exactly what the discussions with the country's government involved neither man would say.
With the ground rules made clear, Mr de Klerk and Sir Robin detailed the foundation's work - names and specifics aside.
'We have been involved in three definite projects, two of which are ongoing, and in one case, continuing mentorship is developing with us going back every six months and with our advice being heeded and implemented,' the former leader of apartheid-era South Africa said.
'Two were in Africa, one was in eastern Europe. We have one definite new project, a very important one of an important country in Africa, and we have three more on the near horizon. One definite project tied up only days ago is in Southeast Asia.'
Mr de Klerk said that another possible project - he turned to Sir Robin for help and was told, 'in this part of the world' - involving Asia was in the offing, and another near to fruition in Latin America.
Mr de Klerk, 70, hit on the idea that former world leaders could help their in-office counterparts while working with his own pro-peace foundation, set up in 2000, three years after his retirement from politics. It had been suggested to him that he should put his skills learned while in office - negotiating, fighting corruption and resolving conflicts among them - to wider use. He contacted other fellow former leaders and the idea evolved.
Through word of mouth, contacts and other past and present politicians, what had been a suggestion was now operating, with the result that 'we're on a roll', he said.
The foundation's membership rules are simple: no sitting politicians can participate and members must have clean records and be of good character. Because of the confidentiality pledge, self-publicists need not apply; this is an organisation for quiet achievers only.
Governments helped were encouraged to pay direct expenses incurred by the foundation, but not all could afford to, so fund-raising was necessary, Mr de Klerk said. Donors included large corporations such as banks and insurance firms, wealthy individuals or families and grant-making organisations.
No leader has yet taken the initiative and directly contacted the foundation asking for help, the former president said; all projects had so far come about through word of mouth. But Mr de Klerk said plans were afoot to broaden the foundation's approach through a brain-storming session to be held in June.
There is no shortage of advice, for nations big or small, as Mr de Klerk demonstrated. China, which has been cultivating friendly ties with African nations in recent years through aid, trade and investment, was picked out. With President Hu Jintao in Africa on an eight-nation, 12-day visit, Mr de Klerk had some sage words for the leader.
'As an African, I welcome the involvement of leading countries with strong economies,' he said. 'China, as a very strong emerging economy and emerging world power, has to be welcomed. It is understandable that there is a strong selfish element in the involvement of any country in another country's economy and that is to secure resources, whether it's oil, coal or whatever else is needed.
'Africa has much to offer in the way of resources and China is hungry for them. There's nothing wrong with that.
'What should be avoided is that involvement through aid, imports and exports should not develop into a form of prescriptiveness, where big brother starts to tell small brother what to do, for instance, how to vote at the UN. This is very dangerous.'