Future of UNESCO science prize still in doubt

The controversy stems from concerns about the human rights record of Obiang's regime Copyright: Flickr/Jaume d'Urgell

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A controversial US$3 million research prize, seen by many African countries as the first science award ‘given by Africans for Africans’, has been formally adopted by UNESCO after years of wrangling — but it remains uncertain whether the prize will be awarded any time soon.  

The UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences was established in principle in 2008 by member states, to recognise "scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life". It was named after Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who agreed to finance it.

But in response to concerns over the president’s human rights record from African intellectuals and European Union states, the prize was suspended in January 2010 just weeks before it was due to be awarded for the first time, and was put on hold by UNESCO in October 2010, and again a year later.

Now, UNESCO’s executive board has voted 33 to 18 in favour of keeping the prize following a proposal by Equatorial Guinea to change the name of the award to the "UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences" accompanied by assurances that it would be funded by the country’s state treasury rather than Obiang’s personal foundation.

The vote took place last week (9 March), with the support of all 14 African countries on the UNESCO board voting in favour.

There was support from Arab states, as well as Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, India, Russia and Venezuela. European Union and the United States were among those voting against.

One African delegate told SciDev.Net that the prize would be "a source of pride" for Africa and said that African countries had unanimously agreed a resolution in support of the prize at an AU summit in June last year.

Several African delegates said privately that they did not want to be "told what to do" by western countries, and insisted that UNESCO now move forward to implement the prize.

But the saga is not over yet. Sources inside UNESCO said there had been disagreements over the weekend what the Friday vote really meant.  

"We have only consented to change the name of the prize, we have not agreed on any particular name," one source told SciDev.Net on condition of anonymity.

It is also unclear whether the name change means the prize will have to be reconstituted with a new jury. And legal advice prepared for the UNESCO director-general in advance of the meeting suggested that the source of the funds for the award has yet to be fully resolved.

"The problem is with the origin of the money," the source said.

UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova told the executive board meeting last week (8 March) that even with a changed name, the prize still risked harming UNESCO’s reputation.

And although UNESCO is bound by executive board decisions, a diplomatic source told SciDev.Net that the director-general was now seeking the advice of the UNESCO legal affairs department on the name change.

Tito Alicante, executive director of the non-governmental organisation EG Justice, said: "It does not matter what name you give it, this prize is funded by tainted money".

But Brazil and several African countries disputed what they called "UNESCO’s attempts to stall for time and sow doubt" on the naming of the prize, while Arab country delegates said such intense scrutiny of prizes was unwarranted.