The awarding of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been met with – at best - muted enthusiasm in the UK media. Two main complaints have been aired. Firstly, the award to the OPCW has been interpreted primarily as being for its current role in Syria, and therefore some see the prize committee as committing the same “hope over experience” mistake of President Obama’s award in 2009. Secondly, the prize winner’s backstory has been treated as rather uninspiring, and contrasted unfavourably with the unquestionably dramatic life stories of other candidates, such as Edward Snowden, Denis Mukwege, or especially, Malala Yousafzai. It is hardly the fault of the OPCW that it is more difficult for people to be as excited about celebrating a faceless organisation, but following last year’s award to the EU (and congratulations if you can still remember their win), it seems particularly surprising that the committee has again chosen a large bureaucracy over some of the high-profile individuals in the running. We expect international agencies to work for global peace; it is surely far more remarkable when, for example, a school girl living under the Taliban does so. As one acerbic commentator put, “the Nobel committee has awarded the prize to an international agency for being an international agency”.
A poll in the Daily Telegraph before the announcement had more than 60% of readers choose Malala as the deserving recipient. There is no doubt that her story has widely captured the public imagination; her charisma and above all bravery have been an inspiration to activists, in particular young females, around the world. Although some have suggested that she is too young to win, or that a win might be counter-productive for her in the long run by piling more pressure on her, few have questioned that her bravery has merited the acclaim she has received.
One element of coverage of Malala’s story has interested me, from a peacebuilding perspective. Malala first became known locally for her stand for girls’ education (and partly through an anonymous blog about life under the Taliban). Her international fame came after she was shot at point-blank range by Taliban gunmen. Since then Malala has been extensively interviewed by the international press. The focus of the interviews has always been on life under the Taliban, why she felt she had to stand up for female education, and on being the victim of such a brutal attack. Interviewers have not tended to ask her what actual impact her blog had, or her activism for female education. It has been taken as self-evident that what Malala did was remarkable and worth celebrating, irrespective of whether, say, any additional girls enrolled in school as a result of her campaigning.
I think there is an interesting contrast here between the way the public has assessed Malala’s actions, and the way we in the peacebuilding world are usually taught to think about peacebuilding work. If – prior to her attack – Malala had approached most peacebuilding donors, she would likely have been asked for a detailed proposal with project outputs and outcomes; perhaps a Theory of Change, even (if the funder were particularly cruel) a logframe. For donors, the focus is always on what impact projects will have.
I don’t intend to challenge these requirements, since they are put in place for good reason, to allow donors to best assess what impact their funding might have. But the Malala case I think reminds us of something that can’t be captured in any normal evaluation framework, which is the power to inspire.
This post is not intended as a criticism of the OPCW. Like most of the rest of the world, I knew nothing about them before Friday, though can now clearly understand the tremendous impact their work has had since 1997. I recommend Derek Brown and Shirley Moulder’s blog for a celebration of what OPCW has achieved, as well as what still needs to be done to eradicate chemical weapons completely.
But I think the contrast in public reactions to the OPCW and Malala shows us something important: that we in peacebuilding need to look not only at immediate impacts, but remember to celebrate and cherish the bravery of ordinary peacebuilding activists. We should not look only at the immediate good their work achieves, but also recognise the moral good of people standing up for peace, no matter the costs.