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Nobel Prizes Too Narrow

Jabeen Bhatti interviewed Jakob von UexkullDecember 8, 2006

The Right Livelihood Foundation will award its "alternative Nobel prizes" in Stockholm on Friday. DW-WORLD.DE spoke with their founder -- Jakob von Uexkull -- about the awards and what he hopes they will accomplish.

Jakob von Uexkull founded the prizes in 1980Image: AP

DW-WORLD.DE: How did this award originate?

Jakob von Uexkull: I grew up in a politically aware family and later traveled much as a freelance journalist. As a result, I saw a lot of problems around the world first-hand. But I also saw that people working toward solutions were not always taken seriously. When you get the Nobel Prize, you are taken seriously. However, the Nobel prizes are quite narrow. They take the approach that most problems can be solved through western science, that technological progress can solve everything. I wanted to challenge that notion, because I think that is not in the spirit of Alfred Nobel, who wanted to reward those who give the greatest benefit to humanity, whose work has relevance to the future. But he was the inventor of dynamite and I was just a stamp dealer. So I approached the Nobel committee and asked them to create a prize for ecology and one that deals with efforts to help the poor. I was turned down immediately. So I started my own prize.

How did you do that?

When I was a boy, my pacifist father took away my toy guns and replaced them with stamps. I got thoroughly immersed in it as that world fascinated me, and I began collecting and developing this useful skill. I sold my collection and used the proceeds ($1 million, 740,000 euros) to fund the prizes. I still keep up with that world, with the contacts, and it is still a good way to get donations -- at a Berlin benefit concert for us recently, a man donated his collection worth about 10,000 euros.

Alternativer Nobelpreis für indische Frauenrechtlerin Ruth Manorama
Ruth Manorama (in green) from India won this yearImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

What did you hope the Right Livelihood Awards would accomplish?

I wanted to get a debate going about what are our greatest priorities, what work has the greatest benefit to mankind, what are those markers and what is courage -- those "walking the talk" to quote the Native Americans. I wanted to see those honored who are not just at risk of going to jail but whose work makes a difference on a lot of levels and across borders. And I wanted to see that their solutions to certain problems be better known and replicated.

How do others see the awards?

Well, many others in high positions, and even Nobel laureates and those in the Nobel family are highly critical of the Nobel prizes as too narrow. One laureate even told me that "your awards are more in the spirit of Alfred Nobel," that the Nobel prizes are in the spirit of the last century and these are in the spirit of the new one. For example, the Nobel prizes for economics are quite ideological and might honor great advances in economics but they don't generally reward work in sustainable economics. Others, some very high level people, have pushed for a new Nobel prize to honor environmental work but so far have been rejected. Interestingly, though, there is now a feeling that the Nobel peace prizes -- which have recently shown more flexibility -- have gone too far. But I think that this is the right thing, that they should not just honor those who work to reduce armies.

Alternativer Nobelpreis für Whitaker Chico Ferreira Schöpfer des Weltsozialforums
Chico Whitaker Ferreira (Brazil), Daniel Ellsberg (USA) and the International Poetry Festival of Medellin also won this yearImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Who is awarded your prize?

About 100 nominations come in every year, and about half are truly deserving. We reward people whose work is a work in progress, not grass roots activists but those who have already made an international impact but might be generally unknown or ignored by the media and who can really use this award to further their work. We award this honor to people whose work has a lot of lessons for others.

How does the award impact them?

In every case I have ever seen, it helps them beyond just sending them a check and a letter. It mostly helps open doors for them, get the publicity and the recognition, and that is often more important than the money. That is why we also have an honorary award, for those who don't need the funds. Does it help some activists out of jail? No, not necessarily. For example, in Nigeria, it did not save activist Ken Saro-Wiwa from execution on trumped-up charges, although his cellmate has said it did save some of his fellow activists from being killed. But in Latin America, for example, it led to economist Manfred Max-Neef in Chile being released from jail a few days later, because of the outpouring of attention and letters. And in Guatemala, Helen Mack, who fought for justice for her activist sister's murder, was told by the chief of police that she was now "untouchable."

Schweden Alternativer Nobelpreis 2006 Stockholm Right Livlihood Award Jakob Von Uexkull, left, and Marianne Andersson, right
Jakob von Uexkull announces the winnersImage: AP

Do you have hope that such efforts can really make a difference?

I always feel hopeful, even if I am not optimistic. The state of the world is worse now that when I started this (in 1980). For me, hope just means that there are solutions that exist, but whether we implement them is another issue. We are making it more difficult every day we delay. When we have the right leadership, we don't need a decade for change, sometimes only months.

One problem is that the future has no organization to speak for it. It is one of our core values that we want to leave the world better than we found it, but that value is not represented by an organization. These have existed in the past. For example, the Tamils in pre-colonial India had a council of seers that examined the needs of future generations and had real power.

Still, when I see work by people such as those we honor, these pioneers, I am hopeful.

Born in Uppsala, Sweden, Jakob von Uexkull studied in Sweden and Germany before attending Christ Church at the University of Oxford, from which he graduated with an M.A. in politics, philosophy and economics. Since then, the dual Swedish and German national has been a writer, lecturer, professional philatelist and, at one time, a member of the European Parliament (for Germany's Green party). In 1980, he sold his holdings of rare postage stamps to provide an initial endowment of about $1 million for the Right Livelihood Awards, which award annual prizes worth about 270,000 euros on the day prior to the Nobel Prize ceremony. Additionally, he is a co-founder of The Other Economic Summit (TOES), a former trustee of the New Economics Foundation in London, a patron of Friends of the Earth International and a member of the Global Commission to Fund the United Nations. Uexkull has served on the Board of Greenpeace, Germany, and is currently on the Council of Governance of Transparency International. He lectures and consults widely and has recently proposed a World Future Council to speak up for the interests of future generations.