(ONE) The UNESCO-Obiang Prize and misplaced priorities

(ONE) The UNESCO-Obiang Prize and misplaced priorities

Joseph Kraus September 27, 2011
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The UNESCO-Obiang Prize, with the stated goal of recognizing “scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life,” is back on the agenda. The record of President Obiang’s regime, however, stands in sharp contrast to the lofty aims of the proposed prize, and UNESCO should reject it again.

Sometimes it seems as if history never happened. Last October, UNESCO indefinitely suspended a prize named for and funded by Equatoguinean president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who with the fall of Muammar Qaddafi has become Africa’s longest-ruling leader. The organization’s decision to halt the prize came after an unprecedented global outcry by Equatoguineans, human rights defenders, press freedom organizations, anti-corruption groups and prominent public figures, including Chinua Achebe, Graça Machel, and Nobel laureates John Polanyi, Wole Soyinka, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Now, less than one year later, the prize is back on UNESCO’s agenda, and its executive board could consider it as early as September 29. The stated goal of the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences is to recognize “scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life.”

The record of President Obiang’s regime, however, stands in sharp contrast to the lofty aims of the proposed prize. In a country of 650,000 thousand people, overflowing with oil, 1 in 10 children under the age of 5 dies from a preventable disease because of lack of access to basic health care. The United Nations and other sources have documented a long list of human rights abuses and violations against civil liberties, including torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, the abrogation of freedom of assembly and the harassment of journalists and civil society groups. Despite being one of sub-Saharan Africa’s top producers of oil and possessing a per-capita income on par with that of Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom, many of the country’s citizens still live in slums without reliable access to electricity and running water.

Unfortunately for the citizens of Equatorial Guinea, the UNESCO-Obiang prize represents yet another example of misguided spending priorities and revenue management that deprives them of the kind of development that they deserve: one that prioritizes lifting people out of grinding poverty. The Equatoguinean government spent more than $800 million to build the Sipopo luxury resort that hosted the 17th African Union Summit in June. Sipopo features a private mile-long artificial beach, 52 beach-front villas, an 18-hole golf course, the country’s first spa, a heliport and a new conference center. The government hopes that Sipopo will attract foreign tourists and help it diversify its economy away from oil. It is unclear, however, how many foreign tourists will be willing to travel to a country where electrification and potable water are not readily available and foreigners are harassed, detained or even expelled for taking photos that depict poverty.

The International Monetary Fund has repeatedly voiced concerns over the sizable imbalance between government spending on infrastructure and social needs. In 2010, it emphasized that “priority should be given to public investment projects aimed at improving living standards and productivity.” The government’s development plan, however, continues to prioritize high-cost,highly visible infrastructure showpieces over development spending that would benefit all Equatoguineans. Government spending on education in 2008, the most recent year for which an accurate figure can be calculated since the government does not publish its budgets, was roughly $200 million, less than one-fourth the cost of Sipopo. The country can now boast two of the most technologically advanced hospitals on the African continent, yet the smaller hospitals and clinics relied on by most citizens remain underfunded and poorly equipped.

Meanwhile, widespread corruption acts to drain government resources and pollute the local business environment. Transparency International ranks Equatorial Guinea as one of the world’s ten most corrupt countries. Ongoing judiciary investigations in several countries are looking into credible allegations of corruption by President Obiang and his eldest son, Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang. A February 2010 report by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that Teodorin used shell companies to launder more than $100 million into the US to finance several large-ticket purchases, including a $35 million beachside mansion in Malibu, California and a $38 million Gulfstream jet. Teodorin earns an official salary of approximately $70,000 a year in his capacity as the country’s Minister of Forestry and Agriculture. Out of 183 countries, the World Bank ranks Equatorial Guinea as the world’s fifth most difficult place to start a business.

Given the very real need for social investment in Equatorial Guinea, UNESCO should reject the request to reinstate the Obiang prize and urge President Obiang to invest the prize money where it is needed most:

Inside his own country.


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