09th November 1997


Home Page Front Page OP/ED News Business

An idealism out of realism

Her ice-blue eyes occasionally reveal flickers of old Viking wrath, but throughout the interview, she exudes the cool confidence of someone determined to win over the globe with her words and deeds, rather than by the sword. Imran Vitachchi meets Norwegian ex-Prime Minister Ms. Gro Harlem Brundtland. She is as sturdy in build as one of those crafts her forbears used, centuries ago, to sail out of the safe isolation of their fjords and conquer distant lands.

Arne and Anna with GrandmaHer ice-blue eyes occasionally reveal flickers of old Viking wrath, but throughout the interview, she exudes the cool confidence of someone determined to win over the globe with her words and deeds, rather than by the sword.

And when she speaks, this ex-Prime Minister of Norway, the first woman in her country to have held that office, and thrice at that, keeps at an equally steady keel.

Colombo last week was a two-day port-of-call for Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, on her first visit to Sri Lanka in over 20 years of public service. On a tour of five Asian countries, she is canvassing regional governments to endorse Oslo's nomination of her to fill one of the top slots in the United Nations system, Director-General of the World Health Organisation.

"My travel, my work, and my meetings have never brought me directly to Sri Lanka," she says. "It's about time that I'm here."

Brundtland is pitching her campaign for the WHO vacancy in 1998 on what she sees as the twin pillars of health and education. Without these, no nation can hope to grow and prosper in a world of ever-diminishing natural resources. She says: "Health is important to fight poverty. Those things are two sides of the same coin."

Education, in her opinion, must not be overlooked. The power of knowledge, observes Brundtland, can prevent the scourge of diseases endemic to poor nations, as well as modern ones associated with lifestyles of richer nations.

"It's really impossible to prevent illness without the spreading of knowledge and awareness," she says. "And also, generally, if you have a basic education at least, you can make choices in your life, because you know on what basis to make those choices [of lifestyle]."

Although Brundtland commends Sri Lanka's record in health and human services, she contends that older scourges, such as Malaria, and newer ones, such as HIV-AIDS, will persist as long as the island is gripped by war.

"I think some of it is also related also to the problem of the conflict in the country," she says. "It is draining the possibility and the potential for human development and for efforts in improvement."

Brundtland recognises that Sri Lankan women have an important "participatory" role to play in all this. They are indispensible in not only ensuring that their children grow up with healthy bodies and minds, but in guaranteeing that younger generations will inherit a sound environment on which their future survival will rest.

She seems to embody an all-encompassing outlook on the world. Small wonder, that in international humanitarian circles, Brundtland, 58, is known as the "Mother of Sustainable Development", the global environment and development doctrine with which she has been so closely linked.

Her concern for the dispossessed of the Earth dates back to when she was a girl growing-up in post-war Norway, she says. Inspired by the example of doctor parents who helped to pioneer the country's model social welfare system, from an early age she set out to follow in their footsteps and go further.

"During my upbringing, I was always discussing, reading about the positive political development that people should be equal and that we should give everyone the same opportunity," she recalls.

In 1983, after rising to the top of the Norwegian Labour Party, and becoming her country's youngest leader at the age of 41, upon the invitation of the UN Secretary-General, she founded and chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development. Its report, Our Common Future, led to the convening in 1992 of the Rio Earth Summit.

To bring about this common future, Brundtland has pressed for a dual strategy. Rich countries would commit 0.7 percent of their national GDP to official development assistance, while rich and poor countries alike would allocate 20 percent of their national budgets to health and human services.

But sadly, notes Brundtland, few nations especially richer ones have lived up to their grand commitments of Rio and subsequent summits.

"Here [in Sri Lanka] this is lower than that [20 percent of national budget] and you have a big defence budget," she says. "There is a great potential for a peace dividend."

In practising the gospel of a Common Future, Brundtland insists that the North should not "wag its finger" at the South, ordering it to clean up their environmental act while Northerners consume most of the Earth's scant resources. In her book, rich and poor alike live in an inter-dependent world.

But Brundtland's humanitarianism is borne not only of idealism. It is grounded in realism and national interest too, as she admits. Working with poor nations to solve common problems is, in her view, a realistic way to secure lasting peace for the planet.

"The potential for conflict will increase if people have great needs and there is a great disparity between different population groups with regard to the possibilities in life," she says.

Brundtland has an impressive list of credentials to her name, spanning the fields of medicine, public health, and environment. She's also been awarded a host of international peace prizes, except for the most prestigious of them all, one named after a certain Norwegian who made dynamite.

On this score, Brundtland does not rule out the possibility that either herself, or any other Norwegian officials, might consider a role of honest broker in bringing the warring sides in Sri Lanka's civil war to the negotiations table.

"Norway will be active, as we have been, in trying to promote a peaceful development in Sri Lanka, and being ready, at any time, to be entering into here even more directly, if and when that potential appears," she says. "We would be ready, at any time, that this is something that Sri Lanka wants."

The Liszt legend

A performance of the Liszt Legend of St. Francis' Bird Sermon together with a reading of the text of the legend will be given at the British Council hall, Colombo, at 6.00 p. m. on Monday, November 10, under the auspices of the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Western Music Panel of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka.

The lecture demonstration will be presented by Mark Amerasinghe (reading) and Valentine Basnayake (piano).

Here Prof. Valentine Basnayake, Chairman, Western Music Panel of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka writes of St. Francis and Liszt and the links between them.

The Franciscan Legends of Liszt

The great 19th-century composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Hungarian by birth , settled in Rome when he was 50 years. He wished to enter holy orders. He graduated through the first four of the seven steps to priesthood, thus becoming an abbe at the age of 54. From that time until his death in 1886 at 74 he wore the brown tunic of the Franciscans.

Among the religious works that Liszt wrote in his early 50s are the two Franciscan Legends. The first of these is called St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds, (also called the Bird sermon), and the second is St. Francis of Paola walking on the waves.

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of the bird sermon was born in Assisi, Italy, in 1181. The name given to him at christening was John - Giovanni Bernadone. His father, Pietro di Bernadone, was a merchant.

St. Francis's nature - awareness took the form of recognizing the individuality of plants and animals and rocks and pools and indeed of any object. He called them Brothers and Sisters. St. Francis died in 1246, aged 45.

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt himself is named after the other St. Francis - the 15th century St. Francis of Paola who walked on the waves. St. Francis of Paola was himself a friar of St. Francis of Assisi before he founded his own order of the Minims.

Legend of St. Francis preaching to the Birds

The story as related in The little flowers of St. Francis is as follows:

One day at Cannara, as St. Francis walked along in the green plain to the south of Assisi, he lifted up his eyes and saw the trees which stood by the wayside filled with a countless multitude of birds, at which he marvelled, and said unto his companions, "Wait a little for me in the road, and I will go and preach to my little brothers the birds." And he went into the field and began to preach to the birds that were on the ground. And forthwith those which were in the trees came around him. The birds awaited him, their wings hovering, their beaks open, their necks stretched.

"My brothers the birds, you owe so much to God your Creator that you must always and everywhere sing His praises. You are free to fly about just where you want. You owe Him thanks for the air which is your element and which He has appointed for you. You do not have to sow or reap, for God feeds you. He gives you rivers and fountains, where you can drink; mountains and valleys, where you can rest in safety; high trees in which you can build your nests. Because you do not know how to spin and sew, God has clothed you and your little ones with two or even three thicknesses of vesture. All this shows how much your Creator loves you, so prodigal has he been in the good things He has given you. Remember then not to fall into the sin of ingratitude. And always remember to praise God."

The Liszt legend

Liszt's Legend of St. Francis preaching to the birds lasts ten and a half to eleven minutes. There is nothing in the score to explain in detail what the various parts of this piece of programme music signify. The following interpretation is a personal one.

The work consists of three sections. The first section consists of twitterings in the upper half of the keyboard to give an impression of bird vocalizations and bird song. I suppose it corresponds to the first sentence in the story;

"One day at Cannara as St. Francis walked along in the green plain to the south of Assisi, he lifted up his eyes and saw the trees that stood by the wayside filled with a countless multitude of birds; at which he marvelled."

This first section lasts about three and a half minutes. Towards the end of it there is a flurry still in the treble perhaps corresponding to the sentence in the tale;

And he went into the field and began to preach to the birds that were on the ground; and forthwith those that were in the tress came around him. The birds awaited him, their beaks open, their necks stretched and their wings hovering."

The second section, about five and a half minutes long, is the sermon. The left hand plays a recitative in a tenor voice. It corresponds to the sermon:

The third and final section lasts about one and a half minutes where the saint

"made the sign of the cross over the birds and gave them permission to depart. Thereupon all the birds rose into the air, with wonderful songs."

Continue to Plus page 9 * 'The dangers of waging peace'

Return to the Plus contents page

Read Letters to the Editor

Go to the Plus Archive



Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to or to