I know I promised a blog series on some of the issues facing Bangladesh at the moment, but I felt that I had to address Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi’s shared Nobel Peace Prize win first. I have seen a lot of posts on social media about whether the recipients deserve the prize or not, including one of my own where I suggested Malala at least has not done enough yet. I have also seen several decrying the political nature of the prize, which is hardly news given some of the previous winners (like Kissinger, Obama and the EU) and some notable absentees (like Gandhi, U Thant, Nusseibeh and Dorothy Day, and the obvious snubbing of Snowden and Manning this year). These topics will continue to raise debate and, frankly, are too subjective for me to adequately address in just one post, if at all.
What I wish to talk about is how the Nobel Peace Prize can be detrimental to the efforts of the honourees and how I really hope that Malala and Satyarthi do not suffer the same fate. Receiving this accolade is undoubtedly the highest point in anyone’s career and the prestige it affords should not be ignored. However, the concern I have is that being a Nobel Laureate has, in the past few years, become a badge of completion of the beneficiaries’ causes. Since the award is not given posthumously and since it comes with a sizeable monetary prize, one would think that the notion is to promote a worthy movement and support its growth. Despite this, recent winners of the Peace Prize have often failed to continue their work.
Al Gore has virtually disappeared off the face of the Earth he has tried so hard to protect. If one thinks of celebrity environmentalists now, the person that comes to mind the most is Leonardo Dicaprio, not the former Democratic presidential candidate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the win with him in 2007, has carried on its efforts, but he is no longer an active player in the movement. Given the recent climate change summit at the UN and the continued resistance to accepting global warming in the US Congress, it is not like his presence is no longer needed. If anything, the increasing scientific evidence in support of his cause, combined with events detrimental to it like the Tar Sands pipeline, should galvanise him to continue his work. He is probably the only individual who has both the credentials and the name recognition required to bring about the change that is required now, and it is a shame that his most significant decision since his win has been changing his diet to veganism in 2013.
Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank are Bangladesh’s only Nobel Laureates across all disciplines, winning in 2006. Recognised for their work in micro-credit, their victory was a historic day for the country, even with the flaws in the system that they worked to implement. The next step should have been utilising the money and the fame afforded by the victory to fix the problems faced by micro-credit, of which there are many, and I am not referring to cosmetic issues like the lack of men involved. Micro-credit had started as a means of allowing the poor to borrow collateral-free loans and break out of the traditional capitalist banking system but, for all its good intentions, it has spawned its own system of exploitation and loan sharks. Interest rates have skyrocketed and most borrowers are unable to break out of the system because they have no other means of income. Instead of tackling such destructive problems, however, Yunus, Grameen, and their supporters are quick to dismiss any criticisms, often using the Nobel Peace Prize as justification for their indifference. They have branched into other projects and have dabbled in party politics, with damaging results, but their micro-credit initiative has stagnated. Having volunteered there as an intern, I can attest to how many employees are happy to scoff at naysayers because “we have won a Nobel; what have they done?”
Laureates who are in the political sphere have fallen into the same trap. Obama, of course, is the most commonly cited example, with his drone strikes and continued use of Guantanamo chipping away at any integrity he has left. Others, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, the trio of women’s rights activists who won in 2011, have been unable to build on their work because people are no longer interested. Unlike the other Laureates I have mentioned, they have strived to continue their campaigns, but have not been able to gain any more traction since their win. Karman has continued with her activism, being particularly vocal during the Arab Spring, but is no longer part of the conversation on women’s rights. Sirleaf has had to cut down on her commitments in order to continue her presidential tenure unchallenged. And Gbowee has struggled to deal with the pressures of superficial fame, choosing to take a break from her work because rights groups in Africa either want to use her as an ineffective mascot or ignore her because she has achieved more than them. It would seem that awarding the Nobel is as much a means of saying “thank you, now please shut up” as it is of encouraging humanitarianism.
Together, Malala and Satyarthi have been working for the improvement of children’s rights in a region where it is often forgotten. Malala’s shooting is well-known of course, but it is important to remember that her father had been working for girls’ education for much longer and she herself had been advocate for the cause for several years beforehand. Satyarthi’s quiet involvement to end children’s trafficking has gained less attention but has perhaps had more of an impact in real terms. They not only represent two belligerent nations, they also represent two completely different generations who are fighting the good fight in an arena that goes unnoticed most of the time. My sincere hope is that they break the trend we have seen in recent years by pushing ahead with their causes and by refusing to let others shut them down. By combining their resources and their newfound fame, they can create a genuine platform for children’s rights that can influence policy across the region with the support of international organisations and governments alike. As cliched as it might sound, they actually have the potential to make a difference. If they are able to do so, we can finally say that the Nobel Peace Prize means something again, if it ever did in the first place.