Behind the scenes: How does the Foundation vet nominees?
It is the beginning of August, the height of the European vacation season, however, not everyone is on holiday at the Right Livelihood Foundation. Based at the Geneva office, the Research team is working hard compiling the information of this year’s nominees to make a report ready for the upcoming Jury meeting. At the beginning of September, the 2020 Laureates will be chosen out of 182 nominations that the Research team is vetting on right now. Let’s find out more about the process!
Nayla Azzinnari: The Right Livelihood Award gets a lot of media visibility in the second part of the year with the Announcement of new Laureates towards the end of September and the Award Presentation around December. However, a great amount of work is done behind the scenes throughout the year. Tell us about that!
Adam McBeth: Yes, you’re completely right, the announcement of new Laureates and the Award presentation are the culmination of a long process for the research team at the Foundation. For a period of roughly seven to eight months, the research team is kept busy with handling new incoming nominations for the Award, and then conducting extensive research on our candidates before presenting their files to our Jury.
NA: What does your work entail? What does a normal day at the office look like, and where else could you be doing research work?
AM: Part of our work involves more administrative tasks when handling incoming nominations, making sure we have all the correct information and finalising candidates’ files. It is quite a lengthy process but it ensures that we have a good basis to understand the candidates’ work and proceed with our core research.
The bulk of our work concentrates on researching these candidates, either through desk research or field visits. Desk research is conducted by reaching out to external experts who may know the candidates’ work, or are prominent in the same field of work, and seeking their opinions. All comments we receive remain completely confidential, although these opinions are tremendously helpful in building our understanding of a candidate’s work and its impact.
Field visits are carried out only in cases where it is more needed for us to get a clear picture of their work on the ground. These visits are not done in every case but offer us valuable insights that we would not be able to obtain just from our normal desk research.
Unfortunately given the ongoing restrictions in place due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, we have been unable to conduct any such visits this year.
NA: What is the importance of field visits? Is there a memorable anecdote that you can share about a candidate that then became a Laureate?
AM: The field visits are extremely important to the process. Quite often the information and insights we have from a field visit are only possible to achieve by visiting the candidate in person. This is usually the case when we need to speak with local stakeholders and beneficiaries of programmes conducted by the candidate, to see if their work is truly benefitting the communities which they claim.
It also gives us the chance to observe first-hand the environment in which the candidate works and lives, for example in an area of severe environmental degradation or a politicised and highly restrictive and dangerous space for civil society actors.
One particularly memorable moment with a future Laureate was sitting at a small airfield in Boa Vista, Brazil, with Davi Kopenawa and colleagues, waiting for almost an entire day to see if we would be able to take a small plane to visit his Yanomami community deep in the Amazon rainforest. Unfortunately, the weather conditions made it too dangerous to make the journey, but in the end, we spent a lot of time together and were able to visit a local indigenous medical health centre to see the impact of his work. For me this experience really demonstrates the value of these visits and just how unpredictable they can be.
NA: As the Right Livelihood Foundation looks for people doing outstanding work, you hear a lot of good things about nominees from those who support their activities. However, do you consider negative opinions, as well?
AM: Yes, of course! In some cases, the opinions of critical voices are almost more important than supporters of a candidate, as they help us to hear and understand the full spectrum of opinions on their work.
However, this typically applies only in instances where the criticism is credible and will be constructive to the research process. If a critic’s main arguments are unsubstantiated and more akin to a smear campaign, then their view is often predictable and of little use in uncovering genuine critiques of a candidate’s work.
NA: During your research, you do a thorough investigation of each nominee asking all sorts of questions from them and those who are familiar with their work. Is it true that everyone has a “skeleton in the closet”?
AM: We are always looking for the “skeleton on the closet” so to speak. I would say that this is one of the most important aspects of the process, as a candidate who might appear on face value to be outstanding, may have some severe critics among their peers, community members or even their own colleagues. In this situation, the reputation of the Award, Foundation, and our Laureates could be severely tarnished if such a serious allegation were to be missed in the process. After 40 years of giving the Right Livelihood Award, we have fortunately not experienced this outcome before but we nonetheless need to always be on the lookout for any serious criticisms.
I would not say everyone has a major scandal or criticism against them, we research many candidates who are widely respected and have had a tremendous impact and have little to no criticism levelled against them. However, it can only take one serious and credible allegation against a candidate, who otherwise appeared strong and deserving, which could result in them ultimately not receiving the Award.
NA: Can we say that the research process behind the selection of new recipients is among the unique features of the Right Livelihood Award?
AM: I think the process certainly adds credibility, in the sense that we can be sure that a Laureate has been thoroughly vetted before our Jury makes their decision, and that we have highly deserving, courageous, and impactful individuals and organisations receiving the Award.
What I would say adds uniqueness to the Award is that we do not have any fixed categories and that anyone is able to submit a nomination for the Award. This ensures we have a wide variety of candidates to research, and for our Jury to consider, which allows us to get a real sense of which issues people are concerned about across the world. Particularly, it often brings to our attention issues which are often under-reported and which are in need of being brought to the forefront of public and political discourse.
This openness of course poses its own challenges when having to investigate a diverse range of topics, but it’s a task we are always keen to tackle and develop our own knowledge and understanding of these issues.
NA: How important is it that people take the time to present a nomination? Is it true that anyone´s nomination could result in a new Laureate?
AM: From our point of view, it is incredibly important that people continue to submit nominations. The overwhelming majority of our nominations come from the public, and this is obviously crucial for us to ensure a broad range of nominees being considered for the Award. It is through the nominations that we are really able to gain an insight into the challenges and issues which people care most deeply about, and which they see as the most pressing issues in the world today. This knowledge can help to guide and prioritise our work to best address and meet these needs.
Having people submit a nomination for the Award is also important for us in terms of engagement. Anyone is able to submit a nomination, with the process being completely open to the public, we therefore always try to encourage people to nominate regardless of whether they know a potential nominee closely or have even only read about their work in passing.
It is certainly true that any nomination could result in a new Laureate, however, this does ultimately depend on the quality and suitability of the nominee. Much more weight is placed on the nominees, their work and their qualifications for the Award, rather than who they have been nominated by.