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  • Controversial UNESCO science prize finally awarded

The UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, controversially endowed by Equatorial Guinea, was finally awarded in Paris yesterday (17 July), after years of wrangling and postponements.

The three prize winners — from Egypt, Mexico and South Africa — each received US$100,000 from Equatorial Guinea's vice president, Ignacio Milam Tang, amid speculation about whether the country's dictatorial president, and the prize's original funder, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, would attend in person (he did not).

The award has deeply divided UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) member states since it was first proposed in 2008.

Many African and Arab countries have supported the prize, saying it would benefit the region, while western countries have been strongly critical because of Obiang's poor human rights record. Years of wrangling led to the prize's repeated suspension until March this year.

Originally named after Obiang himself, the prize "rewards individuals, institutions, or organizations for scientific research in the life sciences that improve the quality of human life", according to UNESCO.

Equatorial Guinea has furnished the prize with US$3 million for the period of five years, of which half goes to recipients and half towards administration and selection costs.  

The winners are selected by UNESCO's director-general, Irina Bokova, based on the recommendations of an international jury.

However, Bokova — who has opposed the award, according to a UNESCO source — did not attend the ceremony.

The former Mexican ambassador to UNESCO, Homero Aridjis — who last year was a signatory to a strongly worded letter to UNESCO, objecting to the prize — wrote in a statement on Monday that it was "shameful" for UNESCO to be "party to a prize given by Africa's longest-reigning dictator, who has pillaged his country's wealth, keeping the majority of the population in dire poverty, and who has a long record of human rights abuses, repression of freedom of the press, and corruption".

In a letter to Bokova last week, diplomats from Europe and the United States continued to raise questions concerning the legality of awarding the prize, and said it was detrimental to UNESCO's reputation, "particularly with regard to the source of the funds" — an issue which they maintained had not been addressed by UNESCO's executive board.

A coalition of human rights groups, intellectuals and scientists campaigned vigorously to prevent the ceremony, saying the award is an attempt by Obiang to buy credibility for his controversial regime.

Speaking at the ceremony, UNESCO deputy director general Getachew Engida of Ethiopia said the spirit of the prize is to foster collaboration between academic, scientific and technological communities.

The winners were: Rossana Arroyo, a Mexican professor, for her work on parasitic diseases; Felix Dapare Dakora, a plant scientist from South Africa, for his work on food scarcity; and Maged El-Sherbiny, a vaccines and diagnostics specialist from Egypt, for his work on endemic diseases.