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Inducing Obama

At first glance, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama is absurdly premature. Beyond his fine words, it is hard to demonstrate conclusively that President Obama has yet added a net ounce of peace to the world, and although hopefully he will ultimately do so, the record of past US presidents, including well-intentioned fellows like Messrs Carter and Clinton, suggests that they do more for peace once they leave office.

Many critics of the Nobel peace prize will regard this award as further damaging the reputation of a philanthropic prize that has lost much of its credibility over the years by honouring such peacemakers as Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat. Even Al Gore’s win, following his climate change movie, “An Inconvenient truth”, has been cruelly lampooned as a prize for mastering the art of Powerpoint presentation.

That it was endowed by a 19th century munitions tycoon, Alfred Nobel, is also widely noted by critics of the peace prize. As we report in the book, and on this blog, prizes are increasingly back in fashion among today’s philanthropists – yet what their prizes increasingly aim to do is incentivize future behaviour that the philanthropist wants rather than honour past achievements like the Nobel.

The X Prize Foundation is perhaps the best example of this new trend, with its prizes for achievements such as commercial manned space flight, rapid cheap mapping of a human gene, and building a super-fuel-efficient car. A recent study by McKinsey found that there has been a sharp increase in what the consultancy calls “inducement prizes”. Of the philanthropic prizes introduced before 1990, with a total purse of $55m, only 3% were incentivizing behaviour, whilst the rest were “recognition” prizes celebrating past achievements. Since 1990, of the new prizes announced with a combined purse of $302m, 78% have been inducement prizes.

A more positive way of looking at Obama’s award is that the Nobel judges are trying to turn the Peace prize into an inducement prize. By honouring the President’s fine words at the start of his time as the most powerful man on earth, perhaps the judges are hoping that this will encourage him to put them into practice.

If so, here is a modest proposal, Mr President. By all means travel to Oslo to give your acceptance speech on December 10th, but when you give it, tell the audience that, though you are humbled and honoured by the award, you are not willing to accept it yet. Then pledge to return to accept it properly after you leave office, but then only if the judges take another vote and decide it is still merited. That way, the prize will really mean something – which, if it is accepted unconditionally now, it really won’t.

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