Remembering Anita Roddick, a year after her hasty departure

September 10 marked a year since Anita Roddick left us in hurry, with so much unfinished business.

At the end of our last encounter in the summer of 2003, she autographed for me a copy of her latest book with these words: “Remember me!”.

She remains one of the most remarkable people I have met. Especially in the past year, which has been eventful and tumultuous for me, I have often thought of Anita’s long and colourful journey from working class mom to one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time….and onward to become an outspoken and passionate activist for social justice, human rights and the environment.

As she has written, it was not an easy ride to do well in the male-dominated world of business, nor was it any easier to do good in the greed-dominated world at large. But she not only did it, but had great fun doing so.

What would Anita do? I find myself asking this question every now and then when I seem to be struggling against enormous odds (which is increasingly often). I don’t always find the answers I’m looking for, but it’s always a useful reflection.

I now find that others have been asking this question. Visiting Anita Roddick’s official website this week, I read a moving post by Brooke Shelby Biggs, who worked with Anita for 8 years. She writes:
“I’ve lived most of this past year having conversations with Anita in my mind. What would she say when I told her about considering a move back to magazine journalism? How should I handle my role in the Free the Angola 3 movement? How would she get on with my new romantic interest? Should I move back to my parents’ home town to help care for my ailing mother? I’ve tried to spend this time living according to the philosophy of What Would Anita Do (WWAD?). It was a lot easier when I could ask her myself. But some part of me knows she gave me a lot of tools to figure the hard stuff out on my own. Sometimes I just wish I had her courage.”

website inspired by Anita Roddick

I am an activist: website inspired by Anita Roddick

Brooke links to a website called I am an Activist that draws information and inspiration from Anita’s many and varied struggles in support of various local and global causes. Prominently displayed on the home page are Anita’s now famous words: “This is no dress rehearsal. You’ve got one life, so just lead it and try and be remarkable.”

Well, we can honestly say that she’s one person who practised what she preached.

‘I am an Activist’ is also the sub-title of a DVD that celebrates the life of Dame Anita Roddick, which is available for sale and/or download from Anita Roddick.com. It compiles footage gathered on 23 October 2007, when thousands of thinkers, artists, activists, and other heroic saboteurs of the status quo gathered to celebrate the remarkable life and legacy of Anita Roddick. According to the blurb, it features key people from groups like Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Reprieve, The Body Shop, as well as family and close friends, as they laugh and cry and ultimately take to the streets to launch.

Anita’s daughter Sam is quoted as saying in her tribute: “My mother treated life like each day was her last, and this gave her the permission for incredible bravery. … Tonight I am personally pledging that I Am An Activist, and within that, I also will have a lot of fun, and I also will be silly. I will not be polite and I will never, ever, ask for permission.”

In the weeks and months since Anita’s death, more video material featuring her public talks and interviews have been shared on YouTube by individuals and organisations. I have this week watched several of them, and felt there still isn’t sufficiently good moving images about her. In her time she must have done hundreds or thousands of interviews for broadcast television, corporate audiences as well as community groups. At least some of these must have been recorded and archived. But we still don’t see enough out there, at least in easily accessible public video platforms like YouTube.

Here are two that I did find which are interesting:

Anita speaks on the lessons she learnt from running her own home business, which she started in 1976 to augment her family income. She talks about how she had absolutely no business training, faced many odds and put up with male sarcasm:

From University of California Television comes this video of Anita delivering the Nuclear Peace Age’s third annual Frank K. Kelly Lecture on Humanity’s Future in Feb 2004.

Nobel Peace Prize: A ‘Loud speaker’ for quiet peace-makers of our troubled world…

Can five unknown Norwegians achieve the worthy goal that has eluded so many leaders and activists – peace within and among nations of our world?

Well, if the individuals happen to be selectors of the world’s most prestigious prize – the Nobel Peace Prize – they stand a better chance than most people. The Norwegian Nobel Committee, appointed by the country’s parliament for six-year terms, may not be very well known beyond their country but their annual selection reverberates around the world and has changed the course of history in the past century.

But Professor Geir Lundestad, Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, says the Nobel Peace Prize cannot claim to have achieved peace on its own.

“It’s the laureates who work tirelessly and sometimes at great personal risk to pursue peace and harmony in their societies or throughout the world,” he told the international advisory council meeting of Fredskorpset, the Norwegian peace corp, held in Oslo on 4 – 5 September 2008. “With the Nobel Peace Prize, we try to recognise, honour and support the most deserving among them.”

Where high profile laureates are concerned, the prize becomes an additional accolade in their already well known credentials. But for those who are less known in the international media or outside their home countries, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is akin to being handed over a ‘loud speaker’ — it helps to amplify their causes, struggles and voices, he said.

In today’s media-saturated information society, the value of such an amplifier cannot be overestimated, says Lundestad, who also serves as Secretary to the Nobel Peace Prize selection committee. It allows laureates to rise above the cacophony and babble of the Global Village.

Geir Lundestad, Director, Norwegian Nobel Institute (photo from NRK)

Geir Lundestad, Director, Norwegian Nobel Institute (photo from NRK)

Every year in October, Lundestad makes one of the most eagerly awaited announcements to the world media: the winner of that year’s Nobel Peace Prize. He would typically give a 45 minute advance warning to the laureate – this is the famous ‘call from Oslo’ (and ‘call from Stockholm’ for laureates of other Nobel prizes).

Lundestad, who has held his position since 1990, has had interesting experiences in making this call. For example, the 1995 prize was equally divided between the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and Englishman Joseph Rotblat, its founding secretary general, for their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics. But when he received the call, Rotblat had insisted that it was some sort of mistake; the media had hyped the prospect of then British prime minister John Major winning the prize for his work on Northern Ireland peace process. He went for a long walk and wasn’t home when the world’s media beat a path to his door a short while later.

Such early warning to the laureate does not always happen, especially if the media keeps a vigil at the favourite contender’s home or office. When Al Gore and the UN-IPCC were jointly awarded the 2007 prize, Lundestad rang the New Delhi office of IPCC chairman Dr Rajendra Pachauri shortly before the decision was announced in Oslo. Pretending to be a Norwegian journalist, he asked Pachauri’s secretary whether any media representatives were present. Being told yes, he just hung up.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 95 individuals and 20 organizations since it was established in 1901. During this time, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has tried to honour the will of Swedish engineer, chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel. Where the peace prize was concerned, he wrote that it should go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.

To decide who has done the most to promote peace is a highly political matter, and scarcely a matter of cool scholarly judgement, said Prof Lundestad, who is also one of Norway’s best known historians. He described the thorough selection process and the various checks and balances in place so that the prize does not become, even indirectly, an instrument of Norwegian foreign policy.

Notwithstanding these, the peace prize does not have a perfect record in whom it has selected as well as those it has failed to honour. The most glaring omission of all, he said, was Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi was nominated five times – in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, a few days before he was assassinated in January 1948. The rules of the prize at the time allowed posthumous presentation, but the then committee decided not to (although UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld did receive the 1961 prize posthumously after he died in a plane crash). Gandhi’s omission has been publicly regretted by later members of the Nobel Committee; when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi”.
Read Nobel website’s essay: Mahatma Gandhi: The Missing Laureate

Norwegian Parliament that appoints Nobel Peace Prize Committee

Norwegian Parliament that appoints Nobel Peace Prize Committee

The prize does not have a very good track record in gender balance either. Only 12 of the 95 individual winners are women. Heroines of Peace: profiles of women winners (up to 1997)

And a few laureates may not have deserved to be so honoured – but Lundestad won’t name any for now (he likes his job and wants to keep it). Perhaps one day, after retirement, he might write a book where this particular insight could be shared.

Controversy has been a regular feature of the prize – both over its selections and exclusions. This is only to be expected when thousands of nominations are received every year, and given the high level political message the selection sends out to the world.

Despite its flaws, there is little argument that the Nobel Peace Prize is the most prestigious of all awards and prizes in the world. At Swedish Krona 10 million, or a little over 1.5 million US Dollars, it isn’t the most lavish prize – but much richer prizes lack the brand recognition this one has achieved over the decades. And it is the best known among over 100 peace prizes in the world.

In recent years, the committee has steadily expanded the scope of the prize to recognise the nexus between peace, human security and environmental degradation (Wangaari Mathaai in 2004; Al Gore and IPCC in 2007) and the link between poverty and peace (Mohammud Yunus, 2006).

The most important question, to many historians and scholars of peace, is the political and social impact of the Nobel Peace Prize. Lundestad is being too modest when he says that it’s the laureates, not the prize itself, that has achieved progress in various spheres ranging from nuclear disarmament and humanitarian intervention to safeguarding human rights and poverty reduction.

“We may have contributed — and that is quite enough,” he says. “We don’t claim to have ended the Cold War, or apartheid in South Africa.”

But the prize’s influence and catalytic effect are indisputable. When the 1983 prize was given to Polish trade union leader Lech Walesa, it triggered a whole series of events that eventually led to the crumbling of the Iron Curtain, collapse of the Berlin Wall and the eventual disintegration of the once mighty Soviet Union. The process culminated when Mikhail Gorbachev became the 1990 laureate.
Read Nobel Peace Prize: Revelations from the Soviet Past

In another example, over the years there have been four South African laureates – Albert Lutuli (1960), Bishop Desmond Tutu (1984), Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk (sharing 1993 prize). Lundestad says: “But we would never claim that the prize was a major factor in ending apartheid in South Africa. The prize was part of the wider international support that built up and sustained pressure on the white minority government. In some respects, the 1960 prize to Lutuli may have been the most significant – for it triggered a process that culminated in the early 1990s.”

He acknowledges, however, that in hot spots like Burma, East Timor and South Africa, the Nobel Peace Prize has enhanced the profile of key political activists and helped maintain the international community’s and media’s interest in these long drawn struggles.

And as Lundestad and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee of five unknown Norwegians know all too well, there is much unfinished business in our troubled and quarrelsome world seeking an elusive peace.

Read Geir Lundestad’s 2001 essay on the first century of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Read his 1999 essay ‘Reflections on the Nobel Peace Prize’

Watch a 2005 interview by University of California television, where host Harry Kreisler talks with Geir Lundestad. They discuss the Nobel Peace Prize, its history, impact and the controversy surrounding some of the awardees (December 2005):

Banishing poverty to a museum: The grand vision of Muhammad Yunus

Muhammad Yunus speaking at Oslo City Hall on 4 Sep 2008

Muhammad Yunus speaking at Oslo City Hall on 4 Sep 2008

The celebrated Bangladeshi economist and anti-poverty activist Muhammad Yunus returned to Oslo’s City Hall today, more than one and a half years after he accepted the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize there. In a passionate, insightful talk to a full house of over 900 people, he revisited his favourite topic: how to banish poverty from our planet.

The occasion was 2008 North-South Forum, convened and hosted by Fredskorpset, the Norwegian peace corp, together with the city council of Oslo. I was among the 350 international participants who have come from 50 countries to participate in this event.

In his talk, the founder of the Grameen Bank reiterated the central message in his recent book, Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism.

“We can and must chip away at poverty, and get rid of it – just like what they did to the Berlin Wall,” he said. “I’m dreaming of the day when there is no more poverty on this planet…the day when our future generations would have to visit a museum to see what it was like to live in poverty.”

Wistfully, he added: “I would then want to offer a million dollar prize to anyone who can find a poor person.”

He tempered this idealistic vision with the economist’s strong realism: to overcome poverty, we first need to understand and come to terms with factors that cause and sustain it.

“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with poor people,” Yunus said. “They are ordinary people like you and me – many of them talented and capable. But they have never had the opportunity to do well in life. Poverty is not created by poor people, but by the (social and economic) system we have created around us.”

Banishing poverty is not just a matter of social justice – it is also an ‘insurance’ against social disintegration and other major problems of our times like crime and terrorism.

Prof Yunus made the same points in this interview with the Nobel Prize website:

See full interview on Nobel website

For several years, Yunus has been voicing concerns about the so-called war on terror diverting much needed attention and resources away from the war on poverty. In his Nobel Prize lecture delivered in the same hall on 10 December 2006, he said: “I believe terrorism cannot be won over by military action. Terrorism must be condemned in the strongest language. We must stand solidly against it, and find all the means to end it. We must address the root causes of terrorism to end it for all time to come. I believe that putting resources into improving the lives of the poor people is a better strategy than spending it on guns.”

When Yunus speaks, he sounds far more like an amiable story teller than the professor of economics that he once was. He appeals to the heart and mind of his listeners, in that order. He did not dazzle his audience with endless facts and figures. There were no fancy Power Points or endless charts – the essential tools of poverty researchers. And, mercifully, he never once referred to the dubious millennium development goals or MDGs, the favourite mantra of assorted UN types. (They started off as a well-intended set of targets, but have become self-limiting, self-serving distractions for the development community.)

Instead, he drew from the practical, real life experiences of the Grameen Bank that he founded in 1976, when working as a professor at the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh. Grameen’s three decades of work providing small loans to the poorest of the poor is ample evidence, he said, that the vicious cycles of poverty, debt and misery can be broken by ‘tiny interventions, sustained over time’. Grameen started with 27 poor people in a single village. Today, it has over 7 million participating in its micro credit programes, 97 per cent of them women.

Read Shahidul Alam’s account of Grameen and its founder

Yunus offers a grand vision without grandiose claims or pomposity. He is fond of the word ‘tiny’ – using it to describe the various initiatives he and his team have been taking to attack poverty from many different fronts. The results are anything but tiny.

In his new book, Professor Yunus describes the role of business in promoting social reform and his vision for an innovative business model that would combine the power of free markets with a quest for a more humane, egalitarian world that could help alleviate world poverty, inequality, and other social problems. He calls it ‘social business’ – a hybrid of the profit-maximising corporate sector and charitable non-profit sector.

Listen to Muhammad Yunus speak at Google New York City campus on 10 January 2008 about ideas captured in his new book:

In 2006, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. In doing so, the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted: “Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.” Read full statement

Watch an indepth interview with Yunus by the US journalist and doyen of TV interviewers, Charlie Rose: