Today is the annual Nobel Prize award ceremony; a prestigious event honoring this year’s greatest thinkers, peacemakers and creatives with a glitzy and glam celebration in Stockholm. Nearly 30 years ago, my grandfather Nelson Mandela entered the same awards, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending South Africa’s devastating apartheid.
I am grateful and honored that my grandfather won a Nobel Prize. But when I consider the slow response of the West to the woes of the Global South, including how it has taken years for Western leaders to respond to apartheid, I wonder: Was he simply given the prize for making the Committee look good? for the Nobel?
Like many other aspects of modern life, the Nobel Prize – like other prizes – has a representation problem. It has been 121 years since the first Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901. But the vast majority of recipients are from the global north and only a handful are minorities or women. Of the 954 people who have won a Nobel Prize, only 6% are women. Worse, although the first black recipient was in 1950, only 16 black people have won since then, and no black person has ever received one of the medicine, physics, or chemistry awards.
Of course, this is a commentary on the wider society itself, where minorities and women are often discouraged from STEM subjects due to a wide range of systemic problems: economic disparities, gender stereotypes, or simply because the field already lacks recognizable role models.
And while the Nobel Prize may only be a symbolic snapshot of global inequalities, the reality is that it has real-world consequences. Nobel Prize winners receive money (to the tune of 10 million SEK, or about $900,000), but they also receive the prestige and leadership to continue to shape the future of their fields. Whether it’s on matters of peace, chemistry or literature, winning a Nobel Prize thrusts great thinkers and leaders into the spotlight, where they can speak at events around the world, inspire like-minded people, and galvanize others to lend their support. their cause.
For years this acknowledgment seems to have been channeled towards Western causes, creating a deeper deficit between the global North and the global South, which appear to be at odds with almost every global issue.
And it’s not hard to see why. The impending crises of the world are unfolding along various fault lines in the Global South. Conflict, food shortages, climate change – those in the Global South are bound to be disproportionately affected, yet are continually overlooked. There are countless untapped and underfunded projects, inventions and individuals from the Global South who, with the right representation or platform, could revolutionize the world.
For example, Edna Adan Ismail was Somaliland’s first trained nurse-midwife who spent her entire life trying to end female genital mutilation (FGM). From the Middle East, Dr. Mohammad Abdulkarim Al-Issa, who recently led the senior Islamic delegation to Auschwitz and dedicated his life to fighting anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in the Muslim world. And finally, Abdul Sattar Edhi was a Pakistani humanitarian who started a nationwide relief organization: he was nominated for a Noble several times but never won.
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This is just the tip of the iceberg. In the years since MeToo and Black Lives Matter, light has been incrementally shed on the Nobel Prize process. In recent years, the committee has been urged to address representation gaps through solutions such as quotas, or even by revealing the details of their secret selective process and opening them up to scrutiny. Yet, to this day, officials seem resistant to change.
Nobel diversity is critical to expanding platforms to individuals who can change the pulse and amplify solutions for the world’s most pressing emergencies. In the end, my grandfather deserved his award. But his appointment should not seem, as I do, a sign to shield the committee from judgment and allow the cycle of Eurocentric powers to continue. Recognizing individuals from the Global South must be the norm, not the exception.
Ndileka Mandela is a writer, social activist and head of one of South Africa’s leading rural uplifting organisations, Thembekile Mandela Foundation, which focuses on education, health, youth and women’s development in rural villages.