Interview with Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the RLA Foundation | October 2015
For the last 30 years, the Right Livelihood Award has been given to people who have demonstrated « outstanding vision and work on behalf of our planet and its people ».
Thanks to the support of the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development, the RLA Foundation is settling its office to Geneva's « Maison de la Paix ». For the first time this year, the jury of the 2015 Award deliberated here in Geneva.
The Service de la Genève internationale recently caught up with Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the RLA Foundation, to talk about its mission, its vision and expectation in Geneva. This interview was condensed and edited.
How did it all start?
It all started 35 years ago with my uncle, Jakob. A great traveler, he was struck by the fact that everywhere he would go, he would see people who would come up with very concrete solutions to solve problems. A decade earlier, in 1969, the Nobel Prize in Economics was created thanks to a large grant from the Swedish National Bank to the Nobel Foundation. So there seemed to be an opening to introduce new categories for the Nobel Prizes. My uncle then approached the Nobel Foundation with a proposal to award prizes for the environment, for poverty. He offered a one million $ seed capital earned from dealing in stamps. But his idea was rejected. So in the end, the only new Nobel Prize that has ever been created was the prize in economics, which is very much the most Western-centric prize you can think of! Our award was born from that rejection. So my uncle went ahead, started his own foundation, and, in 1980, began presenting the Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm every December. It took about five years after that, but he was finally invited to present the award in the Swedish Parliament, which was a great recognition of what he had done. Last year was the 30th presentation in parliament.
The RLA is often referred to as the alternative Nobel Prize? What does it mean for you?
It means to me, which comes back to the original idea, that what these people do is as important as the work of Nobel laureates. We believe that the scope of the Nobel prizes is too restrictive and that to find solutions to our current crisis, we need to have a more holistic approach to solving problems. But a lot of Nobel Prize winners, certainly in the field of economics, think in silos. They do not understand for instance that the economy is dependent on a healthy ecosystem.
For the first time this year, the jurors will be deliberating in Geneva. How important is it for you?
I see our new office in Geneva as an embassy for our laureates from all around the world. Many of our laureates already engage with Geneva-based institutions. We see Geneva as a connection to the real world because being in Geneva allows us to be better-connected and closer to international policy debates, to civil society. And we hope that these policy debates can be inspired by our laureates because they illustrate with their personal stories the urgency of the global challenges that sometimes gets lost in international diplomacy. The laureates encourage us to act. They show that individual action on a day-to-day basis can have an effect.
Switzerland's support is a recognition of RLA's action, how significant is it for you?
Last year, I got a call from the Swiss ambassador to Sweden. She told me that the Swiss Government was offering to locate us here, at La Maison de la Paix. It was a very exciting proposal if you think of how many people and organizations are here. So as a small organization, we feel we can now stand on the shoulders of giants.
Most of the funding for our awards comes from private donors. They come without any strings attached. But of course, we need additional funding and to now know that we have a guaranteed presence here for the next five year is extremely valuable to us. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation has excellent reporting and quality control requirements. It allows us to be extremely rigorous in our management by integrating performance indicators and make sure our actions can be measured. But they are not trying to change our priorities. They let us set our priorities. That is important because if you want to lead the debate, we have to be able also to raise some level of controversy.
For a foundation like ours, it is important to be able to be provocative. At no point did the Swiss government try to align our priorities with some of the objectives of its foreign policy. And to be honest, I do not think we have enjoyed such support from our government! One of the reasons, I believe, is that it is part of that vision that the Swiss government has for International Geneva, to attract innovative thinking by not defining from the start what it should lead to. Our foundation has a history of anti-establishment positions. For us, to have the recognition from a government and that they are interested in promoting our work for what it is and not for their own agenda is, of course, a great recognition. It gives a stronger voice to the laureates to be invited to this place.
Here we will be able to have two past laureates in residence, one of them, with the help from the Canton, the Swiss, Hans Herren. We are also hoping to bring Basil Fernando, a previous laureate from the Asian Human Rights Commission, who could benefit from having a presence here in Geneva.
What is so distinctive about the RLA?
I think it is the fact our laureates do more than just fixing some symptoms. They address the root causes of the problem. They manage this very difficult stretch from being practical and successful in their work to really changing the rules of the game. They open new pathways and possibilities for others to follow. One example of that is Hermann Scheer, a German parliamentarian who was doing the ground work in parliament for the Social – Democrats and developed coalitions with other parties in order to move towards renewable energies. He always made sure to enlist other parties' endorsement for what he was doing. By making sure every party adhered to the idea, he signaled to the market that this was what the representatives of the German people wanted. His effort led to the 1999 Renewable Energy Act in Germany, which made it possible for every German citizen to be a producer of electricity – a total revolution of the electricity market. This would not have been possible without him.
Who is the ideal candidate? And how do you select your laureates?
Someone who provides practical solutions to urgent problems. Someone who is already successful but needs the award to pursue his work. We try to maintain a balance between topics that are at the top of the agenda and those that are completely forgotten. A Chinese proverb says, "A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest." Of course we want to give awards where they are urgently needed because there is a crisis, but it is also important not to forget about the tremendous positive groundwork that is going on all around the world and that keeps societies alive, with regard for instance to environment and social questions.
Do you sometimes take risks in selecting your laureates?
I think it is sometimes important to take risks in philanthropy. But, we do not take risks with the RLA because the visibility of our laureates is enormous. It would endanger the reputation of our laureates and all the previous ones. So what we do may be bold choices, but without takings risks: we vet our applicants very carefully. We have enough potential laureates not to have to gamble. Every submission gets a rating system. There is a criterion for the « confidence level », that is how sure we are about knowing everything about the potential laureate. We are not afraid of controversy, but we want to know about the controversy, as in the case of Edward Snowden last year.
Speaking of Edward Snowden, should we expect a repeat this year?
I ask, what was so controversial about Edward Snowden last year? I mean, why are some that are on our list this year not controversial although they are as critical of their government as Snowden is about his? And although they work just as much for civil liberties than Snowden does. That is simply because the United States is such a powerful country. So, the reaction in Sweden, for instance, was that the Foreign Office banned us from having our press conference held in their office, as we had done for the previous 20 years. We understand of course that the Swedish government has different interests to protect. We will see this year what the reaction will be from some of the countries. Some of the candidates this year are extremely controversial in their countries. But we know that those countries are much smaller than the United States and do not have the same level of influence. And the Swedish government will probably think it is wonderful and much in line with its interests in promoting civil liberties in the world.
Your brochure quotes Albert Einstein who once said, "that one day a great idea might be recognized by the fact that it appears impossible." What do you think of it?
I think we live in a world of amazing opportunities and human potential. But at the same time, we seem to be limited in our imagination, mostly I think because we all subscribe to this idea that the free market economy drives everything and that therefore we should live in a constant state of competition. Our Laureates show that this narrative is just wrong, that there are amazing opportunities to do things differently, by cooperating more and competing less. But we are not naive and think that anything is possible. We give awards to people who do really successful work and have proven that these alternatives do work in the real world, in the market, in the social context where they find themselves. This is the political impact of our award because politicians always tell us that there is no alternative. That is simply nonsense: there is always an alternative. So we are working to strengthen our laureate's network to demonstrate that we can solve most of our global challenges with very practical solutions.This is RLA's contribution in shaping the future.