Thursday, December 17, 2009

Don't Like the Nobel Peace Pick This Year? Start Your Own

Most of the Nobel categories are necessarily open-ended; the achievement that merits the prize is not defined in advance. No one can predict what will be useful in chemistry ten years from now, or medicine, or economics.

This isn't true in the peace category. I think we can all point to specific parts of the world where people are suffering, and exactly what's going on there to make this so. That being the case, why aren't we setting concrete, measurable goals in advance, with prizes to motivate people. Why wait for future Matt Peters and Greg Mortensons to have an epiphany; why not an epiphany catalyst fund?

A new Nobel - call it the X Prize of progress in human welfare - might work like this.

- Specific prizes would be set in advance, after lengthy consideration of rough cost, possibility, and time frame.

- Prize terms would be incrementally measurable solutions to local, measurable, concrete effects. There will be no debate over whether a winner or winners deserve(s) it, because the result will be concrete. No "help the children of Africa"; more like "80% literacy in Zambia by 2020", with staggered decreases for
every percent lower than that. (Or, "twenty million for a five percent increase in literacy in Zambia by 2020, and five million more for every percent increase above that")

- There will be standing conditions for all the prizes. You can't finance your operation leading up to the prize by stripping a place of natural resources; activities will be audited prior to avoiding the prize to root out corruption. The prize committee will establish how it will measure the achievement and include it along with each new prize announcement.

- On the other hand, the award can be distributed however the winners wanted - including to stakeholders. If you can think of a way to get Somalian warlords to establish a lasting government by paying them off in installments, fine.

- The prize committee would be happy to offer help to contenders who don't have the capital to begin the work (that's all of them) by linking them to whatever NGOs or multinational resources are already out there.

- The prize money would be private, and of course, bigger than the Nobel (I'm looking at you, Buffett and Gates and Soros). Start the endowment and announce a bunch of long-term (but still concrete) goals to allow it to compound.


- Lots of people with money want to make the world a better place but don't want to go to Sudan to make it happen. This outsources the work.

- Target governments might complain to the traditional interfering villains (the US, NATO, EU) - let them. They'll have to come into the light of day in an international forum like the UN to complain that evil imperialists are forcing their people to have clean water, literacy and open elections, and the governments
hosting the teams competing can always say "we can't do anything; they're private citizens". (Note Iran's efforts against Twitter; embarrassing when you're reduced to fighting your adversaries' companies, as opposed to actually confronting your adversaries.)

Pie in the sky? There are lots of people who want to make the world better, and a lot of money. The pie is getting the endowment set up. Writing the goals and getting applications would be a piece of cake. Encourage grad students. Start small and not overambitious; farm output in a single 10 km by 5 km valley? In a single village? Fine. Look at what has worked before and go do it.

Suggested prize targets to start out:
- Internet Censorship in China Ended by Year X

- Open Elections in China by Year X

- Literacy in [Developing Country] 80% by Year X

- Free Movement of People Between the Koreas by Year X

- Everybody in [fill in fourth-world country] Has Non-Cost-Limiting Access to Clean Water by X

- New Mexico Energy Entirely Green by X As Flagship to Rest of U.S.

- Iran Makes Official Announcement Abandoning Nuclear Weapons Ambitions by date X

- First weapons destroyed in Pakistan and India Nuclear Disarmament by X (note: new study shows that global nuclear winter could occur from Pakistan-India nuclear exchange alone)

- Israel and Palestine: No Troop-Driven Violence for Time Period X

- Iraq or Afghanistan (or Even just Anbar Province or Herat) Self-Governing with Minimal US Troop Presence (I daresay a private group outside the US government would be able to plan for this more effectively than has been done)

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