What could an international award funded posthumously by the 19th century Swedish inventor of dynamite mean for a young person in the tumultuous Africa of the 21st century? Isn’t Alfred Nobel’s prize just an excuse for the world’s glitterati to tug on fancy clothes and offer up lofty speeches about unreachable ideals?

The 2019 award to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, given for ending the two-decade stalemate with neighboring Eritrea, has brought this question into sharp relief. Easing tensions in the Horn of Africa and reuniting families are notable, emotionally potent gains. Yet how might Abiy’s peace energy travel well beyond that hotspot to influence other places?

“For me, nurturing peace is like planting and growing trees,” Abiy said in his Nobel acceptance speech in December. “Just like trees need water and good soil to grow, peace requires unwavering commitment, infinite patience, and goodwill to cultivate and harvest its dividends. Peace requires good faith to blossom into prosperity, security, and opportunity.”

For Abiy, searing memories of carnage in the conflict with Eritrea motivated his peace overture.

“Twenty years ago, I was a radio operator attached to an Ethiopian army unit in the border town of Badme,” he recalled in his Oslo address. “The town was the flashpoint of the war between the two countries. I briefly left the foxhole in the hopes of getting a good antenna reception. It took only but a few minutes. Yet, upon my return, I was horrified to discover that my entire unit had been wiped out in an artillery attack. I still remember my young comrades-in-arms who died on that ill-fated day. I think of their families too.”

And as the Nobel committee showed by awarding the 2018 prize to two individuals fighting the scourge of rape as a weapon of war, the honor often serves as a wake-up call.

Congolese gynecological surgeon Doctor Denis Mukwege and Iraqi activist Nadia Murad shared the 2018 Nobel for efforts to raise awareness and deal with the damage of sexual violence. Murad escaped sex slavery by Islamic State militants and “has shown uncommon courage in recounting her own sufferings and speaking up on behalf of other victims,” the Nobel committee said.

Mukwege has treated thousands of women at his Panzi Hospital in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The United Nations estimates that more than 1 million women and girls have been raped during two decades of conflicts in the central African behemoth.

Doctor Mukwege at his hospital

 “This Nobel prize is a recognition of the suffering and the failure to adequately compensate women who are victims of rape and sexual violence in all countries around the world,” Mukwege told reporters outside his hospital in Bukavu, on the southern shore of Lake Kivu near Rwanda.

A look back at Nobel Peace Prize honorees reveals how the world’s most cherished humanitarian award can inspire us to take up peacemaking within our own spheres of influence. Here are 7 ways the prize can change us:

1. OUR WANDERING ATTENTION IS DIRECTED TOWARD A PROBLEM THAT MATTERS.

Fluffy celebrity squabbles, fickle fashion trends and hyperbolic, social-media fueled grievances over pretty much nothing crowd out our view of critical challenges. Hunger, deforestation, water scarcity, inequality, ethnic purges and manifold abuses endured by women in the developing world demand sustained attention. The Nobel Peace Prize signals where we need to look.

2. WE DISCOVER NEW HEROES AND MODELS FOR LOCAL ACTION.

While Nobel winners in science or literature tend to be towering figures operating at genius level over decades (Curie, Einstein, Hemingway), the peace laureates sometimes look a lot more like the rest of us.

Yes, world leaders have claimed the honor, from Nelson Mandela to Jimmy Carter to Mikhail Gorbachev, yet so have Guatemalan indigenous-rights advocate Rigoberta Menchu, Liberian women’s peace activist Leymah Gbowee and, famously, Pakistani girls-rights champion Malala Yousafzai. Ethiopia’s Abiy, Africa’s youngest leader, heralds the youth wave poised to produce change agents across Africa.

In Oslo, Abiy reflected on his guiding philosophy of medemer, a homegrown Amharic word that he said “signifies synergy, convergence, and teamwork for a common destiny.”

“I like to think of medemer as a social compact for Ethiopians to build a just, egalitarian, democratic, and humane society by pulling together our resources for our collective survival and prosperity,” Abiy explained.

“In practice, medemer is about using the best of our past to build a new society and a new civic culture that thrives on tolerance, understanding, and civility. At its core, medemer is a covenant of peace that seeks unity in our common humanity.”

3. THE STRUGGLES OF NOBEL LAUREATES REFRAME LOCAL CHALLENGES.

We may not be able to lead a movement to replenish forests and empower rural hopes as Kenya’s Wangari Maathai did, yet maybe we could take action to protect a biodiverse patch of nearby wilderness sustainably used by communities. Shifting a nation’s democratic trajectory might be out of reach, though perhaps we can help build dialogue across ethnic, economic or religious lines in our village or province. While the Nobel may reward the scale of an achievement, impact is an equally important measure. And impact is crucial at any scale.

Claim your prize at home

4. YOU START TO DEAL WITH LINKED PROBLEMS.

Malala brought attention to girls being denied education. Pulling back the camera, we see underlying issues: girls expected in some societies to accept a future with far fewer opportunities than boys; the voices of women absent from crucial social and political conversations around development, peace and governance; and the need to awaken men to the social and economic costs of gender inequality. 

5. WE SEE HOW GROUP ACTION CAN CHANGE THE GAME.

Twenty-seven times the Nobel has gone to organizations, with the International Committee of the Red Cross claiming the honor three times (1917, 1944 and 1963) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees twice (1954 and 1981). Linking up with like-minded individuals can be the most effective way to make change.

When four Tunisian civil-society organizations banded together to help reinforce the North African country’s fragile democratic transition, Tunisians across the political spectrum ended up the winners. The Nobel committee took note in 2015, declaring that the National Dialogue Quartet had made a “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy.”

6. OUR FOCUS SHIFTS FROM TALK TO ACTION.

Above all, the winners of the Noble Peace Prize tell us stories about taking action, moving from talk to engagement. They may have to overcome fears and cross frontiers of stigma and social disapproval. Taking a stand might draw out the haters, and worse: Doctor Mukwege had to flee his country at one point for fear of being killed when he denounced the long-running armed conflict and called for accountability.

Action means taking on – and managing – the risks to reach the desired result. The peace laureates show us how to make those moves.

7. THE PRIZE REMINDS US: PEACE IS ATTAINABLE.

The Nobel Peace Prize emerged in humanity’s most deadly century, which claimed millions of lives from the battlefield trenches of Europe as empires crumbled, to the gentle hills of Rwanda as ethnic hatreds exploded. Striving to build peaceful resolutions to conflict, or to ease tensions before conflict can erupt, is inspiring work on the day of the prize and during the other 364 days of the year, too.

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