A tale is shared about a British envoy and his colleagues at the United Nations who were inquired about their wishes for the holiday season. The British representative responded with a desire for a box of exquisite, handmade chocolates, but was taken aback when other ambassadors listed more altruistic hopes such as “Peace on Earth”, “Stability”, and “An end to global poverty”.
During this season, when we are confronted with a tumultuous and divided world, our aspirations must extend beyond just our own desires. They must be centered on addressing the immense problems that are crippling our planet – the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the devastation in the Middle East, and the increasing presence of poverty and disparity both domestically and internationally.
Despite the despair that lingers over Kyiv, Gaza, and the survivors of the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel, finding hope may seem like a futile effort. However, I am reminded of a painting that briefly hung in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island. Titled “Hope” and created by Frederick Watts, at first glance it may appear more fittingly named “Despair” as it portrays a blindfolded young girl struggling to play a harp with most strings broken. Yet, as Mandela shared with me, there was no contradiction: even when faced with seemingly hopeless situations, it is crucial to maintain hope. This is exactly what he embodied: despite spending 27 years in prison, battling TB, facing execution threats, and witnessing the hanging of his friends, he never lost hope that one day he and his country would be free.
Despite the bleakness in communities that ministers may overlook and the despair of those they will never encounter, there are glimmers of hope within the confines of our homes. Recently, UK charities and corporations have joined forces to address the issues of hunger, homelessness, and poverty. While we traditionally view society as consisting of three sectors – markets, government, and communities – a fourth sector has emerged. This new sector involves collaboration between businesses and charities to create a “multibank,” recognizing the reality that surplus goods from companies (such as food, clothing, bedding, toiletries, and furnishings) can be utilized by charities to assist those in need.
Given the current situation where certain groups of consumers are unable to afford the products of companies, and with charities willing to collaborate to prevent necessary items from going to waste, a new coalition of compassion has been formed. This group aims to establish a chain of hope, connecting wealthy corporations who are able to be generous with families who are struggling and have limited resources.
From this recent development and looking at past events, it is clear that even in difficult circumstances, hope can be revived with the presence of effective leadership. Without taking action, a vision is merely a daydream, and action without a vision can lead to disastrous outcomes. However, when vision and action are combined, they have the power to change the course of history. For example, John F. Kennedy’s speech for peace in 1963 brought about the first nuclear test ban treaty only three months later after the tense Cuban missile crisis. Similarly, the unexpected camaraderie between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev resulted in the largest reduction of nuclear weapons ever seen after Reagan asked Gorbachev if he would come to the aid of the US in case of a space asteroid threat.
The environmental advancements in the 1980s, specifically addressing the hole in the ozone layer, were achieved through collaboration between Russian and American scientists. The success of the 2015 Paris climate accord, despite the prevailing protectionist mindset, was a result of environmental activism. During the 2008 financial crisis, China and India were willing to cooperate in finding a solution, and the G20, composed of the 20 wealthiest countries, provided a $1 trillion rescue package, the largest in history. These achievements were only possible because leaders recognized the seriousness of the situation and were able to unite for a shared goal.
These pivotal moments give me hope. We are familiar with the conditions of a Middle East peace agreement that would result in a two-state solution. In 2008 and 2009, I was involved in detailed negotiations where the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and the former Saudi Arabian King Abdullah examined revised maps of settlements and discussed the financial and security arrangements necessary for a lasting peace. Now, it is crucial for the entire world – including the western countries, Arab nations, and Brics bloc – to collaborate. If they can isolate the two main obstacles to a two-state solution – Hamas and the far-right Israeli group – and build upon the recent willingness of most Middle Eastern countries to recognize Israel, some good may come out of the terrible events of 2023 by 2024.
Ukraine – now firing only one missile for every four Russian forces detonate against it – should have the resources to stand up to a Russia that must learn it will only re-enter the international community if it gives up on its attempt to subjugate a sovereign state. We know how to avert climate catastrophe, but the wealthiest oil-producing states who have gained trillions in windfall profits should be persuaded to take the first steps to funding the mitigation and adaptation desperately needed in the global south.
We are aware of the actions necessary to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, and disease, and it is the responsibility of the wealthiest nations to do their part. As Mandela once said, what seems impossible can become possible with our efforts.
Gordon Brown was UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010
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