Well, we’ve all heard that President Barack Obama is this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner. And yes, we all think it’s stupid, even those of us who like and admire the man. It’s a step up from Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin, and — amazingly — Henry Kissinger, architect of the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, enabler of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, assistant to the murder of Salvador Allende and General Schneider, among many other testaments to human rights. As the great musical satirist Tom Lehrer said, “political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize.”
I understand that the Nobel Peace committee thinks that giving the prize to those involved in current events gives leverage to people who are trying to make changes for the better. It may be, for instance, that the great Aung San Suu Kyi is alive because the Peace Prize gave her too much international recognition to be quietly shot. But one would have thought that the Prize’s track record with giving the award to those who turned out not to be such admirable peace-makers would have made the committee a little more circumspect, and perhaps consider the policy adopted by the other Nobel committees of only awarding the prize to those with an established reputation. It doesn’t prevent controversy completely, as if any award system could do that, but you don’t ever see the science committees making mistakes on the scale of awarding the Physics Prize to perpetual-motion scammers.
In this spirit, I nominate my own Peace Prize this year. I am aware that some will criticise my choice immediately because I am about to recognise two white males from rich countries. I am also aware that some will criticise my choice as being too medical when there is already a prize for that. But, you know, I think the prizes should be awarded regardless of race or gender or class, and secondly that the outcome was based on extraordinary political and management skills. The director of the WHO called it “a triumph of management, not of medicine.” These men negotiated successful programs with the US and the Soviet Union and China and Middle East nations and African nations and South American nations at the height of the Cold War. They succeeded in both India and Pakistan at the height of their undeclared border wars. They succeeded with both blacks and whites in South Africa during the worst of the anti-apartheid riots and retaliatory crackdowns. They developed power structures that were decentralised, flexible, and capable of rapid response despite the monolithic (and often openly oppositional) culture of their sponsor. They invented brilliant new training techniques. (If only George W. Bush’s cronies at FEMA had learned a fraction of these lessons.) And most importantly, they saved hundreds of millions of lives, predominantly among the poor and powerless.
The men I am thinking of are D. A Henderson and Frank Fenner, the key figures behind the WHO Smallpox Eradication Program that wiped the virus from the list of human miseries. If you think their work was unremarkable, consider the fact that the WHO’s current campaign to eradicate measles and polio has been disrupted by lying imams in North Africa and West Asia leading to outbreaks washing back into areas that were cleared of disease a few years ago. I would also point out that Fenner is now in his nineties and that the Nobel Prize is only awarded to the living.
I recommend my choice for the consideration of the Nobel Peace Prize committee members (whom I naturally believe to be regular readers of this blog).