The Nobel Prize bias

Ndileka Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter, offers an analysis into what she calls the “severe representation problem” in the awarding of Nobel Prizes. With most of the winners being from the Western world, there is a dire need for greater minority representation, including women, she believes. Mandela calls for an enhanced “Nobel diversity”, which, she claims, will advance the Global South and efforts to solve the most pressing world crises. – Carmen Mileder


The Nobel Prizes need to solve their bias problem

By Ndileka Mandela*

Each Dec. 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, the Nobel Prize award ceremony takes place in Stockholm. In 1993, my grandfather, Nelson Mandela, was awarded the Peace Prize for his battle to end Apartheid in South Africa. 

For my grandfather, a man long labelled as a terrorist by Western nations, this day signified that his decades-long battle for freedom and equality was recognized on the world stage. 

It pains me to say that almost three decades later, my grandfather’s win remains an exception to the rule. The Nobel Prizes have a severe representation problem.  

The first Nobel Prize was given in 1901. In well over a century, surely the winners would have become more diverse? Not even close: The vast majority of Nobel Prize winners in all categories come from Western nations, and only a small proportion of them represent minorities — or women for that matter. 

Nearly 1,000 people have been awarded a Nobel Prize. Only 60 of them have been women. While the first Black recipient won in 1950, since then there have been mere 17 Black winners — and no Black person ever has won a Nobel Prize in medicine, physics or chemistry. 

There are of course underlying issues. Systemic racism and sexism have long discouraged minorities and women — and especially women of color — from pursuing careers in these fields due to lack of role models. Following the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, the Nobel committee members must take a hard look in the mirror and question their own biases. 

It makes me wonder whether my grandfather was awarded the Peace Prize simply to brush up the image of the Nobel Committee. After all, Western leaders were painfully slow to condemn Apartheid.

I wholeheartedly believe my grandfather deserved his Nobel Prize. Yet, I also believe that after almost three decades, the Nobel Committee can — and must — do better. His win cannot justify what the Nobel currently represents, a Western-centric award largely given to White men. 

While Nobel Prizes are a part of a much wider societal issue, they hold a huge symbolic value. Not only are the recipients given over $900,000, winning the prize grants them invaluable prestige. They are given opportunities to speak at the most important global events and gain support for their causes — ultimately shaping the futures of their fields. 

For too long, this prestige has largely elevated Western causes, deepening the widening gap between the global north and global south. International crises like climate change are disproportionately affecting poorer nations. But their leaders are sidelined on the world stage. One study found that a mere 1% of the most-cited climate research papers were authored by people from Africa, the continent most vulnerable to climate change. 

The global south doesn’t lack talent. What we lack is funding and opportunities. The examples speak for themselves. Abdul Sattar Edhi, a humanitarian from Pakistan and head of a nationwide welfare organization, was nominated for the Nobel several times, yet never won before his death in 2016.

Nor has Edna Adan Ismail, Somaliland’s first trained nurse-midwife, and a lifelong campaigner against female genital mutilation in a region with one of the world’s highest maternal and infant mortality rates. And there is Mohammad Al-Issa from Saudi Arabia, who for years has advocated against antisemitism and Holocaust denial, and led the most prominent Islamic delegation to Auschwitz. The list goes on. 

In recent years, the Nobel Committee has taken some steps in the right direction, such as calling on nominators to consider diversity in gender and geography, after being urged to acknowledge their selection biases. However, proposals to tackle the representation problem, including possible quotas, have been repeatedly criticized as not progressive enough.

Ultimately, Nobel diversity is crucial if leaders from long-overlooked nations are to be included at decision-making tables and connected with influential elites in the Western world. Without the involvement of the global south, efforts to solve most pressing world crises are doomed from the start. 

Ndileka Mandela is a writer and head of the Thembekile Mandela Foundation, which focuses on education, health, youth and women’s development in rural villages.

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