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Sir Shridat Ramphal on Willy Brandt

Sarah Judith Hofmann / reDecember 18, 2013

Willy Brandt is known for his East-West dialogue, but his dedication to development policy is nearly forgotten. Sir Shridat Ramphal, a member of Brandt's North-South-Commission, remembers a great cosmopolitan.

Sir Shridath Ramphal together with Jimmy Carter and Willy Brandt (Foto: picture alliance/UPI)
Sir Shridath Ramphal together with Jimmy Carter and Willy BrandtImage: picture alliance/UPI

From 1977 on Willy Brandt directed the North-South Commission of Robert McNamara, then World Bank President. The commission was founded to break the ice between the industrialized countries in the Northern hemisphere and the developing countries in the South. The commission was made up of representatives from 18 countries. Among them were well-known politicians like Olof Palme (Sweden), Katharine Graham (US) or Sir Shridat Ramphal (Guyana), who was the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations at the time.

Mister Ramphal, we are celebrating Willy Brandt's 100th birthday. What is your memory of Willy Brandt?

I first heard of him in the context of Europe, of East and West. But I met him when he turned to me to help him in developing the North-South-Commission. He was part of my life for nearly 10 years. He taught me a great deal about being a human being in our world. He was the greatest internationalist that I have ever known.

Sir Shridath Ramphal together with Queen Elizabeth II 2009 (Foto: Anthony Devlin/AP Getty images)
Queen Elizabeth II and Sir Shridat Ramphal at a reception to mark the 60th anniversary of the CommonwealthImage: Anthony Devlin/AFP/Getty Images

In Germany and in Europe we mostly see Brandt as the person who built a bridge from East to West. Would you say that he achieved something comparable in a dialogue between North and South?

He was trusted. Brandt was trying to explore the practical tools with which poverty could be ended and the South would have a better chance. Robert McNamara had turned to Willy Brandt because he believed that people would listen to Brandt and to a commission lead by him. He knew that Brandt was a man with compassion. And that he was accepted by the developing world, by Africa, by Asia, as a man of sincerity and honor. But it remained an unfinished part of his life. I think he was very unhappy that he could not move the Americans, could not move the Europeans as quickly as he would have liked in the direction of a new economic order which would heal the wounds of poverty.

I could imagine that even within the Commission there must have been some tensions between the industrialized countries and the developing countries. How did Brandt act when these tensions flared up?

He made people understand that it was a mutual interest that these divisions in the world cease. There wasn't any annoyance and anger when he tried to get us to agree. And he was very pleased when in the end the Brandt-Commission was able to produce this report which made a great impact in the world with international institutions and countries. It changed the whole mood of the North-South debate. It didn't lead to instant success, but it placed a global debate in a new context.

Willy Brandt and former British Prime Minister Edward Heath with a copy of the second Brandt report (Foto: picture alliance/dpa)
Willy Brandt and the former British Prime Minister Edward Heath present the second Brandt ReportImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But why didn't the Brandt-Commission achieve much more – even until now? What were the obstacles to make this vision of a better world become true?

It calls for a great deal of enlightenment of the world's leadership. Enlightenment which Brandt had, but which I am afraid was not and is not shared by many leaders. The clash between national interests and creating a global society - which he saw in line with national interests - that clash has never been effectively resolved. So his legacy is very important.

Willy Brandt stands in front of a group of sitting men (Foto: icture alliance/dpa)
Willy Brandt heads his first meeting of the North-South-Commission in Gymnich near Bonn, Germany.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Are the main questions about a new economy, about the gap between rich and poor, still relevant today?

Every word of the Brandt-Commission's report is still relevant and acutely relevant if we are talking about humanitarian intervention. His contributions to Europe are great, of course. He won the Nobel Prize. The contributions he made subsequently through these commissions I think were just as substantial. You can't win the Nobel Peace Prize twice – but he deserved it.

Nelson Mandela recently died at age 95, he was the same generation as Brandt. Would it be exaggerated to compare these two men?

Both of them came out of suffering, both of them came out of exile, Mandela 27 years of imprisonment. They suffered and they overcame. Not as a physical but as a mental process of peace and reconciliation. God forbid that we have to have the suffering before we can have the enlightenment, but it is a fact that this is a process which lead to Brandt and to Mandela. I had the privilege to know both. I don't see that there are equals today. The world needs men of that quality, women of that quality. But perhaps they will come. Willy Brandt and Nelson Mandela "I am prepared to die for my ideal" are blessings of our generation. I hope that the generation that follows us looks back and remembers them to the point where they follow them.

Willy Brandt and Nelson Mandela. (Foto: Sven Simon/imago)
Willy Brandt meets Nelson Mandela during a visit in BonnImage: imago/Sven Simon

We, as Germans, see Brandt mostly as a German and great European, you called him “the greatest internationalist” in the beginning of our interview. What made Brandt a world citizen?

He rose above nationalism, above race, above religion, he was a world citizen. I think he genuinely believed that his country was the globe. And that his duty as a global citizen was to make the whole world better. I wish that the whole of Germany would have given him the credit he deserves for his life and his ideas when he was alive. Germany tended to treat him as someone engaged with partisan politics. For many years and a big part of his life, he had risen beyond German politics and become a world statesman. I hope that we remember him that way. I would certainly be thinking of him as the world citizen of the 20th century.

The interview was conducted by Sarah Judith Hofmann.