A room full of Nobel Peace Prize winners: now that’s something special

The Nobel Peace Prize is a small and highly select but rather strange club

Share

The 13th Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Warsaw this week might have been held in the dungeons of Warsaw Castle for all the international coverage it garnered: only the satin trouser suit of guest-of-honour Sharon Stone prevented it from sinking without trace. The expectation, I suppose, is that this is an airy-fairy gabfest, with no bearing on the world outside.

But the proposal made this week by Laureate Muhammad Yunus about the Bangladesh garment industry suggests otherwise. Yunus is in the line of fire. Critics in the West snipe at the microfinance he pioneered, claiming that it is discredited. (That, he said, was the fault of greedy hedge fund managers and the like, who saw it as a way to make money out of the poor for their clients. Microfinance is supposed to bring the poor out  of poverty, not to make the rich even richer.)

But Yunus remains impressively calm: like the rest of the Laureates, he has courage to spare. Lech Walesa is another such: founder of the independent trade union Solidarity, he was the single person most responsible for the dismantling of the Soviet Union’s European empire.

Walesa was the summit’s patron. Today he is a Polish institution, so stern and rigid – in contrast to the beaming, floppy-haired electrician on the Gdansk barricades – that he seems carved from granite. He rejects the idea that it was he who broke the resolve of the Polish Communist Party and thereby set in motion the collapse, a decade later, of the whole Soviet system. It was God, he said this week, acting directly through the new pope that He had caused to be elected, John Paul II. But it was Walesa’s vision, courage and charisma that mattered more than anything.

Mairead Maguire was a secretary in Guinness’s Belfast brewery when three of her sister’s children were killed by the runaway car of a Provisional IRA man who had just been shot dead by British soldiers: within weeks she and Betty Williams had created Belfast’s anti-sectarian Peace People.

Yunus was a professor of Economics in Bangladesh after its war of independence from what was then West Pakistan. Where, I asked him, did he get the idea of lending money to the poor? “It was desperation,” he replied: to be in close quarters to the poor and seeing nothing being done to help them, while the loan sharks squeezed them dry. So he put his hand in his pocket and lent money of his own, with no interest and no collateral. The money came back, and microfinance was born.

What is on his mind now is the garment industry, following the Rana Plaza collapse and other disasters that have followed. In his view the greatest disaster of all is the wages the women workers are paid. Characteristically, he is not interested in the compensation deals, and even less impressed by the threat of European boycotts, which would only hurt the workers more. Bangladesh’s garment industry is now the second biggest in the world after China’s, he said, the reason being that its wages are the lowest: while the UN sets the level of extreme poverty at an income of $1.75 per day, many garment workers earn only 11 US cents per hour – less than a dollar a day.

That, in his view, is the real scandal. Doubling the rate of pay, he said, would only put $1 on the finished products. Now we need a Mairead Maguire-like figure to launch a mass campaign in Britain to achieve that.

Who now thinks Obama should have won?

The Nobel Peace Prize is a small and highly select, but rather strange, club. Think the Dalai Lama and Henry Kissinger, President Obama and Mairead Maguire, Lech Walesa and Mikael Gorbachev. Once you are in you can never leave, like the Hotel California, whatever your opinion of those brought on board subsequently.

Several people in Warsaw told me they were glad that Malala Yousafzai did not, as widely predicted, win this year’s prize: not only because it would be doing a disfavour to someone still at school, but because it would be as much an award to her promoters as to her.

President Obama’s selection in 2009 was also politically charged – and he would have been scarcely more welcome in Warsaw than Mr Kissinger. At one session, moderator Ghida Fakhry, late of al-Jazeera, asked de Klerk and Shirin Ebadi and the rest of her panel to raise their hands if they approved of the awarding of the prize to President Obama. Not one was raised.

www.peterpopham.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

Recruitment Genius: Content Writer - Global Financial Services

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Have you called the homeless 'the people you step over when coming out of the opera'? Then you too could get a peerage from David Cameron!

Lee Williams
The blurring of traditional social class lines is bad news for Labour as it prepares to elect a left-wing class warrior in Mr Corbyn  

Labour leadership contest: Can grey beard Jeremy Corbyn win the grey vote?

Andrew Grice
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future