Politicking the Nobel Prize – A Slightly Jaundiced Recollection

Politicking the Nobel Prize – A Slightly Jaundiced Recollection

(Update, responding to Roger above:  Let me stress that I have zero knowledge about Nobel Prizes apart from what I describe from my own experience below.  I don’t mean to generalize about them, although it sounds that way in part below.  If there is any generalization that comes out of the experiences I mention below, it is about the nature of networked advocacy, where networks, because of their loose nature, can be destabilized by such things as Nobel Prizes.  The other thing I wanted to mention is that I don’t mean, although again I see that’s how it sounds below, that groups go out doing good works to try and win the prize.  But in the case of the landmines campaign, at least, once it was in the air that the Nobel prize might go to someone or something connected to landmines, at that point organizations and individuals emphatically saw themselves in competition with one another, precisely because each saw itself as no less worthy and understanding that it would only go to one (or two).  My observation is not that people go out to do good works in order to seek the prize – it is, rather, that once in the doing of good works and then faced with the possibility of the prize being awarded to someone or something within the general category, positioning can – and in the landmines case, did – occur because no one thought themselves any less worthy of the honor.  Moreover, although I do indeed think, from simple time spent in the company of each of the people I mention below, that personal ambition was a significant part of the positioning process once the possibility was on the table, it is also crucial to understanding just how significant it was from the standpoint of an activist or organization’s fundraising.  I recall a meeting of a couple of these groups, members of the ICBL although I don’t recall if Jody was there (probably not, as tensions were high, to say the least, because most of these other folks had a strong feeling, justified or not, fair or not, that she had done a lot to put herself, and not just the ICBL, forward for the prize) with Soros not long after the prize was awarded; ever the practical, hardheaded philanthropist, he asked, “What are your plans to monetize the prize?” Because, from his point of view, he wanted to stop being the leading foundation funder and instead see the prize translate into contributions from a much wider audience.  And he was right, and this was also something that the prize givers also had in mind.  But this then led to a nasty fight over demands and expectations that Jody would as a matter of course turn her part of the prize money over the ICBL; as she said, however, and quite rightly, “No one in the ICBL seems to understand that Nobel Prizes are great, but they also make you pretty much unemployable.”  I don’t want to generalize about Nobel Prizes, as I know nothing about them overall, except my experience watching this one.  But once the possibility of a prize was in play, and known to be in play, at least in the landmines situation, the lobbying and positioning were intense.  And highly distracting.  I’m not being cynical here, just realistic about very human motivations.  Perhaps the takeaway is that networks have their own limitations.) 

I read Roger’s article with complete fascination – what a marvelous and painstaking research task! – and just wanted to add one practical comment about lobbying and the Nobel Prize.  I’ve been close to one Nobel Prize in my life, the 1997 prize to the international campaign to ban landmines (ICBL) and Jody Williams.  The experience has led me to two conclusions – first, that the making of Nobels is, like sausages, not for the witness of the faint of heart or the naively idealistic.  Second, I have some real questions as to the effect of the Nobel Prize, or at least a badly-timed Nobel Prize, on the cause advocated by prize winner.

It won’t exactly surprise anyone to know that lobbying is an intense part of the Nobel Prize process.  It was certainly that in the landmines campaign.  I had been the director of Human Rights Watch Arms Division when the campaign got going and the ICBL founded, and worked closely for years with Jody Williams and everyone else at the ICBL.  By the time the campaign was getting closer and closer to a Nobel, as indicated by many signals from insiders, I had moved from HRW to the Open Society Institute, and from there to a teaching job – but had stayed on at Soros’s request on a committee of three people, plus a director, that handed out Soros money to support various parts of the ban campaign.  The OSI committee was both above the fray in the lobbying for the Nobel Prize within the ban community, but was itself the subject of lobbying by everyone who wanted a grant related to landmines.  

So, for example, Roger cites to the Walk Without Fear Book … hmm.  I have deep and abiding theoretical problems with its view of global civil society in “partnership” with international organizations and, for that matter, with much of the grand theory behind “norm entrepreneurship.”  But at that point, in 1996 or so, its editors were vehemently demanding Soros money to do a book that, so far as I could tell, was as much a puff piece to Canada and its foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, as anything else.  When I suggested the Canadian foreign ministry could fund it, seeing as it was the book’s chief beneficiary, well, ouch.  The Soros money was supposed to be strictly targeted at concrete ways of moving forward the ban campaign: it turns out, however, that just as in Hollywood, everyone has a screenplay in their desk drawer, in the NGO movement, everyone has a documentary film to be made that will change the world.  Perhaps most remarkable was UNICEF asking for money.

As it became more or less evident that landmines had seized the imagination of the Prize committee, then a remarkable amount of energy went out of outwardly focused work on the campaign and a dismaying amount into positioning one group or person or another as the natural recipient(s) of the prize.  So far as I could tell – this is rude, but I was far from alone among informed people in holding this view – Axworthy’s primary motivation for getting on board the ban campaign and essentially turning Canada’s foreign policy apparatus over to it was the desire to get the prize.  Ditto for the then-president of the ICRC – three or four senior staffers in Geneva told me that when he, or the ICRC, did not receive it, he disappeared into his office and sulked for days.  Afterwards, there was a gala dinner for Senator Patrick Leahy who – like all the rest, Axworthy, the ICRC, lots of people and groups – had done heroic service on behalf of the campaign – pretty much as a consolation prize.    

Is it a bad thing to dangle the possibility of the prize before individuals in powerful positions, in order to spur them on to worthy causes?  I think, speaking as someone watching the whole dang movement and acting as a gatekeeper for the campaign’s largest source of foundation funding throughout, that the awarding of the prize in 1997 was badly timed.  It distracted the movement, and brought to the surface conflicts among groups, personalities, issues, money, publicity, etc., that had been reasonably buried so long as there was nothing at stake besides the campaign’s goals.  I think it should have awarded a couple of years later, and to the campaign alone.  I understand the motivation to have a named individual in the service of norm entrepreneurship and all that, but both in the runup and the aftermath, the naming of a single individual did an enormous amount of distracting damage to the campaign, in a way that naming the ICBL alone would have avoided.  You could see at the time how the energy went from focusing on the outside world – to trying to come up with new and creative ways to get the US on board, etc. – to inside gossip, bitterness, and fighting over the right to describe oneself in fundraising literature as “winner.”  The position taken by a great many of the hundreds and hundreds of organizations that, however active or supportive or fiscally-sponsoring of the ICBL they were, or weren’t, was that they, as members of the ICBL, were entitled to put on their fundraising literature “winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize.”  Networks, networks, networks – I think that had a certain effect in diluting the fundraising power of the prize.

The prize money, too, turned into nastiness.  When international law scholars talk about networks, the ICBL exemplified the whole idea – so much so that a few months after the prize was awarded, the Nobel committee called, mystified, asking where to wire the prize money.  But the ICBL was a pure network – it had no corporate or legal existence, no bank account, a pure creature of the pooled organizations.  Even Jody Williams was not an “employee” of the ICBL; she was paid by Bobby Muller’s VVAF – until rifts over the prize caused her to leave there with extreme bitterness splashed all over the papers.  I was asked, in my capacity as a nonprofits lawyer, ex-general counsel to the Open Society Institute, and someone close to the ICBL but not part of it, what should happen with the money; I suggested it might be a good moment to formalize the ICBL.  In any case, I said, it struck me as not optimal to hold the money in dollars in a US account by a US organization because the ICBL sometimes had engagements with countries under US sanctions law, among other things, plus a great many more tax rules and reporting requirements than most European jurisdictions; Britain, under its strict charities laws, not a good idea, either.  This rather good, practical legal advice was taken, however, as a slur on organizations in those places in the ICBL – as though I had suggested they were going to steal the money.  But what this really exposed was a deep concern among the ICBL member organizations that whatever organization did actually have the money in its accounts might have undue influence over its use – only no one wanted to say that.  

But note that one effect of the Nobel prize was to alter permanently the hithertofor very loose network form and to force, if not the outright creation, then a deep discussion, about corporate and permanent organization.  Political, juridical, fiduciary, and, really, campaign commitment, commitment to the cause, were all shifted on account of the awarding of the prize.  I realize that many others around in that period would sharply disagree, but I myself think the prize would have been more effective, and less damaging to the campaign at that point, had it been awarded a few years later.  I don’t think it stirred the cause onwards so very much at that point, even in the ensuing publicity (a fair amount of which was negative, because the squabbling was very public), or at least no more so than it would have done under calmer circumstances in, say, 2000 and a new US administration that might have been more effectively lobbied via the prize – and it might have done less damage and produced less distraction.  Maybe this is one organizational behavior folk-lesson of prize awarding – the relationships in loose “networks” of norm entrepreneurs are easily upset by this kind of outside prestige contest, precisely because they are so loose and unstructured.

I think we academics are supposed to refer to this kind of personal recollection as “thick description.”  But “cheap shots” might seem to some as more accurate; apologies if anyone takes offense at this and I do understand that others who were around then will remember and see things very differently.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
International Human Rights Law, Organizations
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.