Philanthropist Tom Oliver is a man of many talents. A singer, songwriter and pianist, Oliver has performed at well-known venues around the world.
For the past few years Oliver has focused on tackling the most pressing challenge on the planet – bringing about a state of world peace.
In August, Oliver’s World Peace Partnership held the inaugural World Peace Festival (www.worldpeacefestival.org) in Berlin, with the goal of seeking holistic and sustainable solutions to achieve global peace. Attended by peace activists, philanthropists, students, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, government and NGO leaders, policymakers, military generals, high-level business executives, and UN officials and ambassadors, the weeklong festival has spurred participants to take concrete steps toward peace.
As Oliver puts it, “Everything should be about really having an impact on the ground.”
About 500 guests from 32 countries – including a significant percentage of women – attended the conference that was part of the festival, which also included arts and cultural programming such as a film festival open to the public. Organizers decided to keep the size of the conference manageable to enable meaningful interaction between the speakers and the audience, and among the speakers and panelists. WPF will foster an ongoing relationship with all participants, who also will have an opportunity to connect through an intranet, Oliver notes.
Among the key initiatives launched at the World Peace Festival is The Arms Deal, a campaign to tax profits on arms exports. The initiative will use smart philanthropy and investment to create a fund “to eradicate poverty and provide equity as the sustainable foundation for peace and development around the world,” Oliver says.
The arms program boasts an impressive list of supporters, including military generals and Nobel Peace Prize laureates. According to Oliver, the Development for Peace program will include a mass activation campaign coupled with public advocacy to enlist “the right countries as first movers.” He points out that if the six biggest arms-manufacturing countries adopt the tax, $2 billion per year would be generated to help meet the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals of ending poverty and hunger. Other programs announced at the festival fall under the categories of governance for peace, environment and peace, and inner peace and religious tolerance.
Oliver said he was especially pleased with the “terrific support from the UN.” UN official Jordan Ryan took an active part in the festival, speaking on several occasions and participating in pre-conference sessions with global leaders. Jordan is UN Assistant Secretary-General, assistant administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and director of the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery. UNDP also invited several other leading UN officials from around the world, including UN ambassadors, to participate in the sessions and panels. The results of the conference were submitted as an official contribution to the UN General Assembly.
Other dignitaries at the conference included Nobel Peace Prize laureates Mairead Maguire and Shirin Ebadi; Tim Cross, a retired Major General from the United Kingdom; Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace and creator of the Global Peace Index; Benjamin Kunbuor, Interior Minister of Ghana; Clare Short, former UK Secretary of State for International Development; and Arun Gandhi, non-violence activist and grandson of Mahatma Ghandi. Michelle Bachelet, the head of UN Women and former president of Chile, appeared via video to announce a partnership with the World Peace Festival.
Also addressing the conference via video was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who told the audience, “This great event is a milestone for our times – a turning point in the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to transform violent conflict. It merits your whole-hearted support.”
Participants agreed that the conference was extraordinary because of the diverse group of people who attended. Oliver said, “This was part of my original vision. When we bring a very diverse group of global leaders and experts from all areas together around the subject of peace, we can find new solutions that are truly holistic and sustainable.”
The World Peace Festival prompted the creation of a Fund of Hope that was kick-started by a wealthy private investor in partnership with the WPF to improve the prospects of disenfranchised people and thereby help to stabilize societies. Best-selling author Deepak Chopra vowed to spearhead an effort to get 100 million people involved before the next festival and start a global movement for peace.
A relatively new member of the Global Philanthropists Circle, Oliver was already acquainted with several members, including Killelea, Philipp Engelhorn (founder of Cinereach), and Brigitte Mohn (who heads the German Stroke Foundation and the health program at Bertelsmann Stiftung). Oliver is excited by the “high caliber and brilliant minds” of the people he’s met. “They are dedicated to improving the lives of others around the planet, and making the best possible contribution they can as individuals,“ he says. Killelea and Mohn both spoke at the World Peace Festival.
Peace starts with me
Judging by his many successes, one might be tempted to think that everything always has come easily for Oliver. However, he was a heavy stutterer as a child who overcame his physical difficulties and learned to speak five languages fluently. He committed himself to use his power as an individual to change the lives of as many people as possible for the better.
Oliver also was strongly influenced by his cosmopolitan upbringing. Born in Germany, he grew up living both there and in the United States. He earned a scholarship to attend Choate Rosemary Hall, a private boarding school in Connecticut, and later enrolled at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. His wife is Brazilian.
“A multi-religious, cosmopolitan upbringing has helped me to realize that religious tolerance is a very important part of peace and a very important element in the prevention of conflict,” Oliver observes.
Although he says he is not religious, Oliver is clearly spiritual. “Being one with nature is a crucial element of inner peace; and peace starts with each and everyone of us,” he says. As a consequence, “Peace starts with me” is the theme of the World Peace Festival. Part of its plan is to show people practical paths to peace, and make them aware of the importance of inner peace in their own life and its relevance for world peace.
Oliver was inspired to create the World Peace Partnership and hold a World Peace Festival when he returned to Berlin after a memorable performance in Spain in 2005. “Music has always been a bridge by which people connect to their inner self,” said the classically trained musician.
“After a fantastic concert, I was so full of energy and passion,” Oliver recalls. He stood at the Brandenburg Gate, which had become a symbol of division and despair but is now a “worldwide symbol of freedom, peace and reunification,” he says. “Looking back, it seems clear to me why [the vision] came to me in that city, at that moment, and that time and that location.”
Oliver didn’t act on his idea immediately. Instead he moved to a new home in the south of France and began growing the vision “from the inside out.” About three years ago, he started approaching people about the partnership and the festival.
Although he knew people around the world through his schooling and performing career, “ninety-nine percent of the connections and networks that we have brought together I did not know before I started the initiative,” he says. “People from around the globe started to respond to the vision immediately and were highly motivated and energized to join the movement, contribute and make a difference.”
Oliver draws inspiration from the environmental movement, which came from a marginal campaign driven by “the California crowd” to become a mainstream concern for everybody, and especially corporations, he says. In addition, environmentalists have regularly brought together global stakeholders to address issues such as global warming, scarce resources, extinction and other environmental threats. “Peace has not seen that to the same extent,” he says. “Peace is the new green.”
Deepening understanding of peace
While the economic benefits of “going green” have come into sharper focus in recent years, the bottom-line impact of peace is just beginning to emerge, in large part due to the efforts of Steve Killelea and the Global Peace Index (GPI), which he created in 2007.
The Australian-born IT entrepreneur posits that for nations and the world, peace and economic well-being are inseparable. The Global Peace Index measures 23 indicators and ranks 153 countries on their relative peacefulness.
For 2011, the GPI rates Western Europe as the most peaceful region in the world, while Sub-Saharan Africa is the least peaceful. The top five most peaceful nations according to the index are Iceland, New Zealand, Japan, Denmark and the Czech Republic; the United States ranks 82nd.
“The GPI helps you better understand attitudes needed to create peace,” Killelea says. “Focusing study on peace is different than the study of conflict. The things you do to stop conflict are different than what you would do to create a resilient society that is self-sustaining.”
He began to see the logic of changing focus in this way about seven years ago while traveling in the Congo, one of several areas where his family foundation, The Charitable Foundation, operates. “I was a businessman wandering through Africa wondering -- if we can’t measure peace, how do we know whether our actions are helping or hurting?”
He created the GPI because he believes peaceful conditions are necessary for economic growth. As he explained in a recent interview published by the Foreign Policy Association, “If one thinks about peace then it is easy to see that when violence is reduced then all sorts of efficiencies enter into the system. Stable environments allow for better long-term planning thereby reducing risk, reductions in the cost of insurance and security, freer movement of people and an environment more likely to attract capital.”
Killelea has traveled the world explaining the GPI concept, and believes it’s gaining traction. He said that business schools and universities have extended the research, examining the relationship between per-capita income and peace, and the growth of markets under peaceful conditions, to cite two examples.
The Institute for Economics and Peace (www.economicsandpeace.org), which produces the GPI, estimates that a 25% increase in world peace would add $2 trillion to the global economy. “That would be enough to fund the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, pay for 2020 carbon-reduction targets for the European Union, pay off in one hit all the debt of Portugal and Ireland, and still have $1 trillion left,” he says.
Killelea has learned that the difficulty of achieving the ultimate goal is even greater than he thought. “There are a lot of situations that are more intractable than I ever imagined,” he says. “We are more ignorant than what I realized beforehand about peace. Peace is undervalued in society.”
He characterizes selfishness as the greatest obstacle to peace. “It’s putting your own wants and desires before everyone else’s,” he says. “Many people think peace is fine as long as it’s on their terms alone. Once you get into the vicious cycle of violence, it leaves everyone so damaged that it’s very hard to get back to peace.”
Nevertheless, he’s convinced that pursuing peace is the only viable strategy. “There are phenomenal challenges facing the world in the next 20 years,” he says. “Unless we have a peaceful world, we won’t get to the point of addressing these problems.”
Tom Oliver is optimistic that peace is attainable. “Our plan is to take the World Peace Festival around the globe and to create a true mass movement for peace that includes men and women, all religions, races and nationalities. We need to make peace fashionable for young people, more mainstream, and put it on the corporate agenda,” he says.
“This is about rebranding peace.”
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