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The Right Livelihood Award: A Look at Sweden’s “Alternative Nobel”

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Democracy Now! broadcasts from Stockholm, Sweden, where Amy Goodman is joining three remarkable women from around the world to receive the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. The three women are Asha Hagi Elmi, co-founder of Save Somali Women and Children; Krishnammal Jagannathan, an 82-year-old activist from southern India; and Monika Hauser, a gynecologist and founder of “medica mondiale.” We speak with the founder of the Right Livelihood Award, Jakob von Uexkull. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from Stockholm, Sweden. This evening in the Swedish Parliament, I am honored to join three remarkable women from around the world to receive the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel.

Democracy Now!

was selected for the prize for “developing an innovative model of truly independent political journalism that brings to millions of people the alternative voices that are often excluded by mainstream media.”

The Right Livelihood Award was established in 1980 to honor and support those “offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today.” There are now 133 Alternative Nobel laureates from fifty-seven countries across the world. Unlike the Nobel Prize, which is awarded for Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Literature, Peace, and since 1969, Economics, the Right Livelihood Award has no categories.

The three women have traveled here from Somalia, from India and from Germany to receive this award.

Asha Hagi is the co-founder of Save Somali Women and Children. In 2000, she led the first group of women to be represented in the Somali peace process. Since the US-backed Ethiopian invasion in late 2006, which she opposed, Hagi has been based in Nairobi, Kenya. She received the Right Livelihood Award for “continuing to lead at great personal risk the female participation in the peace and reconciliation process in her war-ravaged country.”

Krishnammal Jagannathan is eighty-two years old, an activist from southern India. Born to a landless Dalit family, she was active in the Gandhian struggle for Indian independence and the movement to restore land to the landless. With her husband, she founded an organization called “Land for the Tillers Freedom” that has redistributed land to some 13,000 Dalit women. She and her husband received the Right Livelihood Award for “two long lifetimes of work dedicated to realizing in practice the Gandhian vision of social justice and sustainable human development, for which they have been referred to as India’s soul.”

Monika Hauser is a gynecologist and founder of “medica mondiale,” a German-based non-governmental organization that works to prevent and punish sexual violence against women and girls in wartime. They have helped over 70,000 traumatized women and girls in Bosnia and Kosovo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Afghanistan. Dr. Hauser received the Right Livelihood Award, according to the jury, for “her tireless commitment to working with women who have experienced the most horrific sexual violence in some of the most dangerous countries in the world, and campaigning for them to receive social recognition and compensation.”

In a few minutes, I’ll be joined by Dr. Monika Hauser and Krishnammal Jagannathan. Asha Hagi was unable to join us today. She’s taken ill, by we’re very much hoping she’ll be there for the ceremony tonight. So first we are joined by Jakob von Uexkull. He is the founder of the Right Livelihood Award.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, how did this begin?

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: It really is like your program, about breaking silences. You know, I was always wondering, why do we live with problems we can solve? Why are there solutions, but they’re not taken seriously? I was always interested in the question of, you know, solutions and how do you get taken seriously. Now, if you grow up in Sweden, you realize that, suddenly in October, when the Nobel Prizes are announced, then there are these people who get taken seriously, not just in their own areas. Suddenly, if you win a Nobel Prize, you can pronounce on anything, and you get taken seriously and you’re listened to.

And these awards were created in a very different age, when the belief in progress and technology were still sort of unlimited. There was no problem with a so-called third world. There was no ecological problem. And so, there was a gap. And strangely enough, only one gap was filled in these hundred years. The Nobel Committee created one new award not started by Alfred Nobel himself, namely the one for economics. And I said, well, that’s a bit strange. You know, there are very important other gaps here.

So I proposed to the Nobel Foundation an award for environmental work and for human development, and I offered to provide some money to start this from the sale of my business. Obviously I’m not as wealthy as Alfred Nobel, so it wouldn’t have funded the award in the long term. But it was to try to get them to take this seriously. And I received a polite reply back saying that they had decided not to introduce any more Nobel awards. And so, I then felt, you know, obliged to try it myself. So I went back to Sweden, where I hadn’t lived since I was a child, and I sent out an announcement. I found through my network two very good recipients.

The first year, I was told that it was debated in the Swedish media whether this was a KGB plot or a CIA plot to discredit the Nobel Prizes. You know, this was still in the Cold War. But one member of the Swedish parliament believed so much in this that in five years of work, she managed to convince enough colleagues from all the political parties to invite us to present these awards in the Swedish parliament, which has now happened, happening for over twenty years. So that, in brief, is the story.

It’s grown, the award, into other areas, because it’s a very open and democratic award. You know, Nobel Prizes, only a certain very small group of people can nominate for a Nobel Prize. And with our award, anybody can nominate anybody, except, of course, themselves or their own organization. So we get nominations from all over the world. We knew that the environment remains, you know, a very important issue. But we also realize that even in the areas where there are Nobel Prizes, like economics even, like medicine, like physics, only a certain group of people get these. You know, nobody from another medical tradition but modern Western medicine would ever get a Nobel Prize for medicine. No physics prize, no Nobel physics prize has ever gone to a solar energy physicist.

So we honored the most successful photovoltaic — solar photovoltaics researcher in the world, an Australian, Martin Green, a few years ago. And we’ve honored economists like Professor Herman Daly, who is now at University of Maryland, the pioneer of ethical ecological steady-state economics, because although he would deserve it in any objective world, he is very unlikely ever to get a Nobel Prize in economics. We have had a few other pioneers: Manfred Max-Neef from Chile, Leopold Kohr from Austria, highly recognized economics, but they were teaching the wrong kind of economics.

AMY GOODMAN: And you gave an award to Wangari Maathai, what, twenty years before she won the Nobel.

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: Indeed. That was kind of interesting, that we gave the award to her in ’84, which was the first year we had an all-women panel of recipients, and then exactly twenty years later, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

AMY GOODMAN: The Kenyan environmentalist.

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: Kenyan, yeah. The initiator of the Green Belt reforestation movement in Kenya.

AMY GOODMAN: And you awarded Munir, the great Indonesian human rights activist —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- a Right Livelihood Award —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- who later died –


AMY GOODMAN: — was poisoned when he was taking a plane out of Indonesia.

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: Yes. I mean, that was one of these great tragedies, that we have had other cases where we have not been able to save people, but other cases where we have saved them. I mean, in Nigeria, Ken Saro-Wiwa was still executed, but his closest collaborator told us that he felt that if we hadn’t given the award to their organization, they would have killed him, too. In another case from Guatemala, a human rights activist whose sister had been murdered in a political assassination told us that the chief of police actually told her when she came back from the award presentation that “Now you’re untouchable,” as he put it. “Now you’re so well known internationally that they won’t dare to kill you.” And fortunately, she’s still in good health.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was Helen Mack.

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: That was Helen Mack.

AMY GOODMAN: Her sister Myrna Mack —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- who died September 11th, another September 11th, 1990 —-

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: Exactly, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —- at the hands of Guatemalan security forces, an anthropologist.

How did you come up with the title of the award, the Right Livelihood Award?

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: Well, I was looking around, and I felt that it should symbolize the whole life, in a way. You know, it’s a Buddhist term. I’m not a Buddhist, but I liked this idea of saying that, you know, it isn’t just what you do, it’s how you live your life. And interestingly enough, it also challenges people to think. You know, I’ve been told sometimes, actually in the US, that the name is too judgmental: “You’re saying that there are wrong livelihoods.” And so, of course there are wrong livelihoods. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be in the mess you’re in.

And another aspect, of course, is being that because it’s very difficult to translate “right livelihood” into many languages, the award has become known — in the German-speaking world, for example, it’s entirely known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. And I think that helps the recipients. It’s not an anti-Nobel Prize, you know, but it is certainly a prize which ties in with what Alfred Nobel wanted to do. You know, his award was very progressive in those days, to have an international award in a very nationalistic age. And he said, “I wanted to honor those who have brought the greatest benefit upon humanity.” And in a very different world today, I think that’s what we are trying to do. And that’s why it’s sort of interesting that even the family of Alfred Nobel sympathized with us. A senior member of Alfred Nobel’s family in Sweden is actually on our advisory council, because they are so outraged about the Nobel Foundation introducing the economics prize.

AMY GOODMAN: Simply because he hadn’t begun that in —

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: And because they think it was totally inappropriate, yes.


JAKOB VON UEXKULL: Well, I think, you know, if you have an economics prize, then why not have a prize for ecology, for architecture, etc.? And I think they’re also quite unhappy with the choices. But their main reason is, of course, that they object to this prize being presented as a Nobel Prize when it has nothing to do with Alfred Nobel.

AMY GOODMAN: It was established by the Bank of Sweden?

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: Exactly, by the Swedish national banks. Probably the Nobel Foundation felt that they couldn’t refuse it. But, yeah, and, you know, the official name is sort of slightly different, but if you then get the book, the publication every year called Nobel Lectures

, there are the — the economics lecture is also in there, so they’re playing a sort of double game.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, Paul Krugman, I believe, as we broadcast this show today, is giving his lecture today.

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: Indeed. And, you know, one of the best recipients they have chosen. I mean, there have been some pretty, pretty shocking ones. But as I said, why not choose somebody like Herman Daly, you know, whose name is now being voted again and again as the kind of economic order is sort of being seen as increasingly bankrupt? You know, he told us many of these things ten, twenty years ago. He wrote a book with a theologian, James Cobb, called For the Common Good, but especially his book on steady-state economics is highly up-to-date.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were a stamp collector?

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: Well, a stamp collector since I was nine, but I was a stamp dealer. So it was actually my business, which — when I sold that, which enabled me then to provide the initial funding for the award for the first five years. I funded it from the sale of my stamp business.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you start as a stamp collector? Why?

JAKOB VON UEXKULL: My father was a pacifist. And so, when I was nine years old, one day he offered me to exchange all of my toy guns, my water pistols, for a stamp collection. And I decided to accept the offer.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jakob von Uexkull, I want to thank you very much for being with us —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- founder of the Right Livelihood Award. When we come back, we will be joined by one of the Right Livelihood Award recipients, Krishnammal Jagannathan. She’s eighty-two. She comes from southern India. She was born a Dalit, and she will explain. Stay with us.

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Next story from this daily show

“India’s Soul”–Krishnammal Jagannathan Awarded Right Livelihood for Realizing “Gandhian Vision of Social Justice and Sustainable Human Development”

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