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30 Living People Who Have Made the World a Better Place, and Some More Who Might

December 13, 2013

It’s the time of year when the media delights in nominating Men of the Year, Women of the Year and goodness knows what else of the year. But years are fleeting things, and the passing of Nelson Mandela leads me to wonder who he leaves behind of similar moral and life-enhancing stature, even if their achievements may not match Madiba’s.

Here’s an entirely personal list of people who – probably or possibly – history will judge to have left the world a better place than they found it. None are saints. Several have dark sides. But then so did Nelson Mandela.

The Righteous and the Bold

Let’s start with the probables. Some of these people feature in the list because of their life’s work. Others because in response to a single issue or experience they took action that influenced opinion or directly led to positive change for the few or the many:

Ezzeldeen Abu Al-Aish: Palestinian gynaecologist who lost three children to an Israeli shell in Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s action against Gaza in 2009. Wrote an autobiography, I Shall Not Hate, based on his experience. It must take almost superhuman strength of character to forgive the people who took the lives of three daughters and a niece. I hope the people of Syria find similar strength.

Tariq Ali: He is in this list not because of his long career as a leftist writer and activist. With some of his political beliefs I agree, with others not. But it’s as the writer of the Islam Quintet, five luminous stories set in various periods of Islamic history, that I honour him. Set in Muslim Spain, Palermo, Syria, Ottoman Turkey and modern Pakistan, the Islam Quintet is a masterpiece.

David Attenborough: Has dedicated much of his career to reminding humanity that we are not the only species on our planet. “Natural History” is an inadequate description of Attenborough’s TV output, of which Life on Earth, The Living Planet, The Blue Planet and the Frozen Planet are the most monumental. Not to forget that as a BBC executive he commissioned Monty Python and “landmark” series such as Civilisation and the Ascent of Man.

Margaret Atwood: Profoundly moral writer whose tales of the dysfunctional future warn us of the potential consequences of the technology and political structures we are creating today.

Yuri Avnery: Brave and tireless campaigner for peace between Israel and Palestine. At the age of 90, Avnery is still fighting the fight, even if most of his compatriots seem deaf to his message.

Daniel Barenboim: Aside from his huge impact as a pianist and conductor, Barenboim’s efforts to promote dialogue and understanding between Israelis and Arabs, particularly through the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, an Arab/Israeli youth orchestra he co-founded with Edward Said.

Tim Berners-Lee: Who should we be praising for the creation of the Web? The US military with its fail-safe network of communication nodes? The universities that first started sharing information via ARPANET? Or Berners-Lee, who wrote the software that helped the Web to become a utility without which the world as we know it would collapse? For sure, if he had not done it, someone else would. He is to the internet age what the Wright Brothers were to aviation.

Warren Buffett: A major philanthropic donor who has donated 85% of his massive investment fortune to charity.

Jimmy Carter: One of those US presidents who has achieved far more in retirement than he did in office. Tireless influencer, negotiator for peace and election observer.

The Dalai Lama: Probably the most respected religious figure in the world today. Unwavering advocate for the right of Tibet for self-determination. Dignified symbol of Tibetan Buddhism.

Roméo Dallaire: The only military man in the list. Canadian general who led the UN peace-keeping force in Rwanda and is credited with saving the lives of over 30,000 Rwandans during the civil war. After Rwanda, Dallaire became a Canadian senator, and campaigned extensively against the use of child soldiers in Africa.

Lula Da Silva: Brazil’s last president presided over effective social programmes and economic management at home, and an advocate for non-aligned nations abroad. He has gained the rare distinction among Brazilian leaders of becoming a globally respected figure.

Robert Fisk: Angry, idiosyncratic and never prepared to bow to fashionable ideology, Robert Fisk has been a campaigner against corruption and injustice in the Middle East for 40 years. Few Western journalists are as respected and hated in equal measure within the region.

Pope Francis: A little early to predict his ultimate legacy, but if he continues to exemplify the essence of his faith as opposed to becoming the pillar of an ossified and corrupt church establishment, he will surpass all of his predecessors since John XXIII in making a real impact to the spiritual welfare of his flock.

Bill Gates: Whether or not you believe that the company he built has been a force for good, there are many people who will be thankful for the work of his foundation in funding medical research. He deserves much credit for the example he set in donating a huge slice of his wealth for that enterprise, and for his efforts to persuade others to do the same.

Bob Geldof: Live Aid, need I say more? Driving force of the charity mega-concert.

Mikhail Gorbachev: Whether through weakness, force majeure or clear-sighted acceptance of the inevitable, Gorbachev helped to transform the lives of citizens in former satellites of the Soviet Union, even if the collapse of communism has led to mixed consequences in his home country.

Stephen Hawking: Hawking will be remembered for two things: for popularising cosmology and for his dogged determination to stay alive despite crippling disability. Technology that was never available to previous generations has helped him to prove that where there’s a mind there’s a way.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Not of the same stature as Mandela, but a principled and courageous opponent of the Burmese generals who have enslaved her country for the past four decades.

Angela Merkel: One of the few political leaders to have merged from the past decade with much credit. Calm, unflappable, firm and boring. Played a leading if not universally uncontroversial role in restoring a modicum of stability to the Eurozone at a time when the debt crisis could have sparked a global depression.

José Mujica: A national president who donates 90% of his modest salary to charities that benefit the poor and small entrepreneurs, and drives a Volkswagon Beetle doesn’t necessarily make this list for that reason alone, but it certainly helps. The President of Uruguay is a former guerrilla fighter, like Mandela, who has grasped the opportunity to pursue change through political office.

Elon Musk: The South African-born Paypal billionaire is hard to beat for sheer chutzpah. A man with big plans to revolutionise space travel, as well as ground transportation. If succeeds, he will truly change the world.

Youssou N’Dour: Introduced the music of Africa to millions in the West, a consistent advocate of African social causes and promoter of inter-faith understanding.

Steven Spielberg: His work celebrates humanity. Included because of Schindler’s List, but his life’s work is a song of wonder and optimism.

Andrew Sullivan: Whatever one thinks of his political writing – and I have a lot of respect for much of what he says – Sullivan was one of the first serious writers to embrace blogging wholeheartedly. Many bloggers, including me, have been inspired by Sullivan’s example.

Desmond Tutu: A lifelong and articulate moral force against apartheid in South Africa who made a crucial contribution after its downfall through the national Truth and Reconciliation Committee.

Terry Waite: His efforts to negotiate the release of the Hezbollah hostages in Lebanon, and the dignity and forgiveness he showed when finally released in 1991 after four years of incarceration, earned my undying respect.

Jimmy Wales: Yes, Wikipedia is an imperfect instrument. Yet it represents the first effort to create a global knowledge base accessible to ordinary people as opposed to an elite minority. For that Jimmy Wales should be honoured as someone who has truly made the world a better place.

Ai Weiwei: A renaissance man for China whose stubborn refusal to be silent over his country’s human rights abuses has met with imprisonment and confiscation of his assets. He represents in this list many other Chinese dissidents, such as Liu Xiabo and Chen Guangcheng, who have suffered persecution for their views.

Muhammed Yunus: His Grameen Bank inspired a thousand other microfinance initiatives. Even if his reputation is tarnished by various allegations against him, the model remains, and has transformed the lives of many.

The Jury’s Out

Here are some others whose impact is unquestionable, but whose legacy is doubtful. Each, except possibly Hassan Rouhani, has made a significant mark. I don’t include them in the long list because it remains to be seen whether our descendants will thank them, curse them or simply forget them.

Jeff Bezos: A hundred thousand small booksellers would bemoan his achievement, but Jeff Bezos changed the world when he proved that internet commerce was safe (relatively), easy and, for the seller, profitable. Will his creation be the first step towards a world divided between the lazy, timorous or wealthy who shop from the safety of their own homes, and the rest of humanity that by choice or necessity still risks life and limb by going to shops?

Jamie Dimon: I cite the CEO of JP Morgan Chase not because of his personal contribution to the wretched reputation that the banking industry enjoys today, but in the hope that he and his rapacious colleagues will one day be recognised as the last of a breed that have subverted the role and purpose of banking over the past two decades. Should that turn out to be the case, then he and his friends will have truly changed the world for the better.

Al Gore: Will “An Inconvenient Truth” turn out to be a prescient warning that raised the profile of a global peril, or vulpine howl at a full moon?

Barack Obama: The most undeserved recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in recent years? Will his practice of avoiding the customary American knee-jerk response to foreign crises supposedly affecting his country’s vital interests be judged as wise and far-seeing, or will he be seen as a weak president whose reticence in Syria and willingness to negotiate with the Iranians paved the way for the spread of Islamist terrorism and the entry of malign forces into the power vacuum he has created?

Hassan Rouhani: Will the President of Iran become his country’s De Klerk or Gorbachev, and open the floodgates that drown the oppressive oligarchy that rules Iran? Or is he just another wolf in sheep’s clothing? Time will tell.

Craig Venter: Venter’s work in sequencing the human genome and creating artificial life forms could truly change life on our planet for ever. But will his work have benign consequences? If we are able to create new life forms will we use that knowledge for the benefit of mankind or for commercial, social or political gain. The patenting of genes is surely a bad omen.

Jigme Singye Wangchuk: As King of Bhutan, Wangchuk inspired the notion of Gross National Happiness as an alternative to other measures of a nation’s prosperity. By challenging the concept that economic growth automatically increases the happiness of a nation, GNH causes us to question the entire basis under which most of the world orders its societies. Will others follow Bhutan’s path? Does any government genuinely care about the happiness of the governed?

Mark Zuckerberg: No single software application has made a bigger impact and reached a wider audience than Facebook. Is it a boon or a curse? Will it be a precursor to a world that better respects diversity of values and culture, or will it stagnate into a platform for narcissism, voyeurism and bland uniformity? I suspect that the outcome is largely out of his hands. His legacy largely depends on what he does for the rest of his career.


Much of my career has been spent in the Muslim world. On the basis that “the wings of a butterfly in Brazil can create a tornado in Texas”, here are my wild card picks: four people who by their contribution to human understanding in the Middle East, though perhaps modest in comparison with that of some of the giants above, also deserve honour and respect:

Ahmed Al-Omran: Saudi blogger and journalist who over his years of writing has shown us another side of the world’s leading oil producer. Sometimes in anger and sadness, other times in affection. Ahmed has pushed against the red lines of official approval and shown us a society that is flawed, dysfunctional but never truly evil. He and his ilk are the future of a better Saudi Arabia.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith: Through his beautifully-described travels in search of the medieval sage Ibn Battutah, Tim shows us other expressions of Islam that contrast with the grim conformity of conservative Muslim thinking. We see a Muslim world that is as richly diverse as those where Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity hold sway. As one young Saudi once said to me “we are not all terrorists”. Mackintosh-Smith is one of those who abundantly proves that statement.

Haifaa Mansour: The director of Wadjda, is another person who through her film shows the humanity that thrives beneath what observers of Saudi Arabia might judge to be the crushing social structure underneath which the country’s women appear to struggle.

Malala Yusefzai: By her courage in defying the Taliban and the very fact of her escaping their wrath still holding the values that led them to try to kill her, Malala is a defiant symbol for all women who labour under patriarchal repression. Her enduring contribution may be yet to come.

As will be obvious, these are individuals who have appeared on my radar over many years. Some are my heroes. No doubt you can think of many more outstanding individuals whose names I have not mentioned, either because of ignorance or my limited perspective. I hope you will fill some gaps by nominating your own heroes in comments on this post.

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