The Standards are Too Damn High

An African leadership prize that frequently has no winners has sparked a debate over whether standards of excellence can turn self-defeating.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Later this year, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation will choose the winner of this year’s Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Or rather, in keeping with recent tradition, it’s more likely they’ll settle on this year’s lack of a winner. The prize is one of the world’s biggest financial awards attached to a foundation or public honor: Recipients are granted an initial $5 million and then $200,000 a year for the rest of their lives. Not counting two honorary awards to Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the internationally heralded marker of personal service and integrity has only been awarded three times (in 2007, 2008, and 2011) in the seven years since its inception, ostensibly because the committee has been unable to find worthy recipients among eligible African leaders. Now coming up on the prize’s eighth year, many argue that this failure either reflects poor choices and criteria on the part of the prize committee or paints a brutally dim picture of African governance and rulers. But rather than being a terrible thing, the foundation’s reluctance to award a prize may provide room for meaningful dialogue on why no one’s been selected, make the prize really mean something when it’s awarded, and serve as a model for other honors-granting committees all over the world.

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