Monday, October 11, 2004

A Giant Step Up At the Nobel

Wasn’t all that long ago that Nobel Peace Prizes were handed out to the likes of Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela. At least two out of those three are deserving men who have done much to advance the causes of peace throughout the world.


But they were easy choices, perhaps too easy. Already famous, already known worldwide, and one wondered if the prize was yet one more accolade or was founded to mean more, to be a catalyst rather than a mantle. Surprisingly, in that context, Ghandi never won one. There were some strange choices as well. In 1994, Yasser Arafat shared the prize with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, a selection that may have been based more on optimism than experience. Few people in this world have backed away from peace more consistently than Yasser Arafat.


Year by year, the parade went by. Mother Teresa? Who could possibly quarrel with that? Kofi Annan? Yep. So, like many such awards, the Nobel has been up and down as it made the obvious and not-so-obvious choices, but one way or another they seldom raised eyebrows. Until last year. Last year the committee chose an Iranian woman little known outside her country, Shirin Ebadi, for her lifelong work promoting democracy and human rights in Iran. A lawyer, judge, lecturer, writer and activist, she has spoken out clearly and strongly in Iran which was never an easy or safe choice under either the Shah or ayatollahs. Who is this woman? was the immediate question and thus the question became the celebration, which in my mind is a giant step up for the award.


Confirming that last year’s choice was no fluke, the committee this year selected Wangari Maathai, at age 64 one of Kenya’s and Africa’s first modern women. Read up on this special woman while she’s still fresh in the news because if I get started, this column will go to forty pages. There are of course hundreds and perhaps thousands of people out there like Wangari, who use their lives and risk their lives to make a difference within the circle of their influence. They are the true internationalists, knowing in their gut that the world must be changed first down the street and then one town over. Last year was a home run for the Nobel Peace Prize and this year, their first chance to step to the plate again, they hit another.

The Nobel committees are a secretive bunch, as well they should be, and I doubt they talk much among themselves. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if this current direction of the Peace committee were to seep under the door at economics. The Nobel Prize for Economics has long gone to academics, my personal favorite being Milton Friedman in 1976. But there are others who till in the fields of economics and some among them who have left theory behind to raise bumper crops. Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank come immediately to mind. A Bangladeshi economist, you can read about his astounding Bank at http://www.grameen-info.org/book/index.htm and the trouble you take to learn about him will reconstitute your faith in humanity. Not a bad bargain for a few minutes time.


Maybe someone at the Nobel will check it out as well.