Do prizes work?

Camilla Toulmin's picture
Blog by
13 October 2011

After recent announcements of winners for the Nobel prize, the World Food prize and the African leadership prize for good governance this blog asks, do prizes work?

This evening, former presidents Lula da Silva of Brazil and John Kuffuor of Ghana received the World Food prize in the grand setting of Iowa’s state capital Des Moines. The citations lauded the role each had played as leader of their nation in focussing on broad-based economic growth, food production and safety nets for the poor. Both former Presidents were almost speechless with pleasure at the honour accorded to them, and the feeling of fellowship and achievement between them and their friends was tangible. There was a lot of back-slapping and hugging.

Earlier this week, Mo Ibrahim announced the winner of the African leadership prize for good governance and great leadership in Africa, which this year has been awarded to the former President of Cape Verde, Pedro Veronia Pires. The country’s first prime minister in 1975, he helped guide Cape Verde through democratic elections; the country is now hailed as an African economic and good governance success story. There was clearly some relief from the foundation that they had managed to find an acceptable candidate after two years without an adequate nominee.

The last two weeks have also seen a slew of Nobel prize winners, for literature, economics and peace. I must admit that my heart leapt when I saw the Peace prize go to three women for campaigning on women's rights: Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkul Karman and the President of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, who champions the rule of law, rights and governance in the country. Another inspiring woman, Wangari Maathai, whose life I celebrated here, was the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. It is much needed recognition of the hard, often lonely road taken by tough women leaders.

We have also seen the Right Livelihood Awards (known as the alternative Nobel) given to a range of excellent locally based activities that also deserve strong recognition. So, do prizes work? What are they for?

I doubt that a good woman or man in power marks out a different path today because they hope for a future prize. Nor do I believe, sadly, that the greed, self-interest and weakness of a bad leader – wherever they are – can be re-wired by the prospect of winning a prize. But these ceremonies allow us to re-affirm the values and behaviour we know to be right – to celebrate people who have worked hard and swum hard against the tide, even if this risks making them unpopular.

Prizes can help by creating a platform that forces people to talk about who won, who should have won, and why. It creates a talking point about the underlying issues. The prize winners love being recognised and celebrated for what they have achieved, especially once they have left office. It is right that we should make explicit our admiration for wisdom, courage and leadership.

As we head towards the next Earth Summit at Rio in June 2012, qualities such as wisdom, courage and leadership seem in particularly short supply. Too many governments seem cowed by the financial crisis underway in Europe, and unable to budge given the digging in of heels by interest groups who have no vision for the longer term.

While we seek to recognise honour through prize giving, we should perhaps also flag dishonour, and make more visible those whose actions have acted against the public interest, who’ve pushed corporate interest above collective benefit and who’ve lobbied government to prevent crucial policy changes, though there would be less back-slapping and good cheer.

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