Jury meeting and Laureates’ selection: Every Award is political!
Here we go again: The end of August marks our upcoming Jury meeting and the selection of the four new Right Livelihood Laureates. However, something is different this year: the gathering will be all digital for the first time. The jury report, the extensive document containing all the information about the nominations, is also digital only for the first time.
Having participated in the Jury meetings since 2001, Right Livelihood’s Executive Director, Ole von Uexkull, confirms some things one could easily suspect: it’s not always about consensus and agreements. Uncomfortable faces and slamming doors have also been part of the selection dynamics along these 40+ years of choosing Laureates.
Right Livelihood: You started at Right Livelihood researching nominations. You made field visits for years, wrote the reports for the Jury and were a voting member. But you also join the Communications Team afterwards when looking for the best strategy to announce every new Laureate. Do you realise you have a broader perspective than anyone at this decision table?
Ole von Uexkull: Yes. First of all, since last year, I’m no longer a voting member but the chair of the Jury, which is fantastic. I’m now the one who’s been serving longest on that group, and this meant an excellent upgrade. It was an extraordinary move because I really changed my perspective. And suddenly, I felt I didn’t have any favourite nominees anymore. Instead, my role was to moderate between these brilliant minds that we have around the table. I was convinced by everything said in the room, and I didn’t feel the damage in the end, like, “Oh, this one didn’t make it”. So that’s really a beautiful task. And they asked me to do that because I’ve been in that process more than 20 times, and I know everything that can go wrong. It is, of course, an intense process. And it’s a critical decision because someone is becoming a Laureate, not just now or this fall, but for their entire lives.
There is also a good separation from the Jury members, who come there as volunteers. It is my job to give them good feedback and to bring in that perspective of what happened to the Laureates chosen last year, two years, or three years ago. Because we only have four Awards to give each year, we need to maximise the impact.
RL: What does it mean to maximise the impact when selecting a Laureate?
OU: First of all, that real change always has to be about shifting dynamics, shifting control, power, money, legitimacy, and influence. Sometimes, I miss that in some initiatives. It’s so important to acknowledge that we live in a hugely unjust world in how resources and power are distributed. And because we know that the world can’t grow endlessly, we must discuss how they are distributed. That came out clearly in a discussion with the Jury: This is about power and influence. And when we analyze nominations, we look at that. Do they, in some way, shift a power equation?
Secondly, there is a lot about how the nominees change hearts and minds of what people think is true and what people think is correct, but also about the softer aspects of why you want to change society, how is the connection with the causes that you work for.
The third aspect many talked about was the importance of getting the tactics right. Because when you want to change society and have limited resources, it’s super important to learn from the experiences of other social movements, to have a strategy and to evaluate what methods work and what do not work so well. So those are the big questions that make the collective wisdom of that group.
RL: Is it in the answers to these questions where we could find what all Laureates have in common?
OU: Laureates are as diverse as the world’s problems. But they do have in common that conviction that together, we can work for the common good and that to do so, you have to change power dynamics. It’s among the most challenging things you can do to build power for positive alternatives in the world where, unfortunately, power has been grabbed by a very few. It’s both the conviction that we can change and transform societies based not on personal interest but on what is best for everyone and based on incredible creativity and endurance in finding the methods to do so. They also have in common that they all stand for larger movements or causes. They all have allies in their struggles; they all have people who they depend on and who stand with them. We’ve always tried to make that visible, not to say it’s only these four people as individuals.
RL: Listening to you, Right Livelihood is now assuming its political role more explicitly! Would you agree with that?
OU: I would agree. That was also something I needed to understand, even for myself. When we approach the end of this selection process, there are some fuzzy criteria for quality. From our experience, we know that some people are more successful than others, and some strategies are more effective. Some have managed to mobilise more people than others. Some may have a solution or a new method. That’s the more objective quality criteria. But towards the end, we have 20 people or groups like that. And then it is a political decision. So, it is essential to be confident when saying that we want to intervene in political processes. We believe in the political process and strengthening the people we give awards to. We also believe in the work that comes afterwards: linking them together in a global network, and, again, it’s about building power. It’s about building influence. So that’s fundamentally political, yes.
RL: If the sense of opportunity is part of the political criteria, why do you pick Laureates that could be chosen next year or the following?
OU: There are always concrete alternatives provided by people and communities on the most urgent global challenges. Of course, it’s always tempting to say, “OK, everyone’s talking about the war in Ukraine and here is someone who stands up for documentation of war crimes and international law and, by the way, has been doing so for more than 10 years.” But the Award doesn’t always have to be linked to something on everyone’s mind. Sometimes, Jury members have been making the opposite argument. I remember, for instance, when the fantastic Catherine Hamlin and her fistula hospital in Addis received the Award. I’m sure that it has been known for 50 or more years how to do surgery on women who suffer from fistula after birth or after being raped. The Jury said, “No woman should still suffer from that when it is so clear and well-developed how you can treat these injuries.” So, in that case, the really amazing work of Dr. Hamlin was to say, “We have to roll this out, we have to make it available to everyone, we just don’t accept that this is an issue still and that any woman should be exposed to that.” I’m sure for some other Laureates it’s like that as well. Sometimes, change is incremental, and sometimes, it changes step by step. I think we have to support both.
RL: So there are arguments and counterarguments. This process may have some unfriendly moments, people getting annoyed or impatient…
OU: Yes. Because it’s painful. Imagine that 12 people went into a process with four favourites each. That is up to 48 favourites. And 44 of them won’t receive awards. Many people would not see the ones they were most attached to in the final group. So it’s vital to leave some time also for letting go and only then really liking the group of four. There’s so much learning in this process! It’s an intense process, with a lot of listening. It’s also about being open to being convinced. Someone explains why another nomination is relevant, and you get attached to that nomination!
Most of us have never met the people we talk about. But in the discussions, they become alive nominations because Jury members often work with or come from the same kind of fights, struggles, and social contexts as these nominations.
RL: How do you prepare for the upcoming meeting? The first totally digital ever!
OU: We’ve done a couple of hybrid ones during COVID. It was essential for us to realise we would not do that anymore. Everyone in the same room, or everyone on the digital link, because it was not good when we had five, six Europeans in the room and then the other ones on the screen, because then you have two different groups. So, this is going to be the first totally online for everyone. It’s going to be a bit less intense as we have a 12-hour time difference in the group, from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Boston, USA or Santiago, Chile. It will work because it will be a digital meeting with people who’ve met before; it is precisely the same composition as last year. We’ve all been through many boring online conferences by now. But this is so fascinating. We’ll keep up the energy in a good way because all of us on the Jury are absolutely fascinated.
Also, the Jury report will be only digital for the first time. So we don’t need to print things and send them out. We’re preparing by giving everyone digital security training to store it safely on a device and ensure that no one else can access it, even if someone steals it.
RL: Apart from chairing the meeting, you have another unique role: being the one in charge of relaying the good news to the selected Laureates!
OU: The first thing I do when the meeting is concluded is to call the Laureates; that is fantastic! It’s frightening, though. I check the phone number three or four times and then ask them their name, like, “Hi, who am I talking to? Who are you? Can you say that again?” Because I’m so afraid that I’ll tell someone they’ve just won our Award and get it wrong! Sometimes, it’s a name I’m unfamiliar with, so I need to be 100 per cent sure. But it’s so beautiful; they all know they’re nominated, and many have read quite a bit about Right Livelihood and its meaning. It’s an instant thing, and already you have a relationship with these people. That’s always as if I know them because, in many of the new Laureates, you recognise something that you know from former Laureates: a certain attitude towards life, even though they have to deal with such heavy things.
And then meeting them is so amazing! After we’ve read so much about the nominees, we’ve been working with pictures and films and talking about them and with them. And still, they are just people like you and me. They are ordinary people who make a difference. The most important thing to learn from the Laureates is that we should never think we’re powerless.