Tuesday, 8 June 2010


If you sat down one morning and read your own obituary in a newspaper, would it change the way you went about living the rest of your life? For one famous Swede, just such a scenario took place, an event he later viewed as a sort of blessing. His actions, as a result of this curious incident, turned out to be a gift to the world too.

Alfred Bernhart Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1833. He became a successful chemist, engineer, and innovator, with 355 different patents to his name. The trouble was, his most well-known invention happened to be dynamite, which, although useful, caused mayhem on a massive scale....certainly not a blessing to humanity.

It was in 1888 that Alfred’s brother Ludwig died, and a newspaper made the mistake of thinking Ludwig, rather than Alfred, had been the one who had made his fortune from dynamite. The headline read ‘The Merchant of Death is Dead’ and condemned him for his deadly invention.

Nobel was horrified, and became determined to alter the legacy he was leaving behind. He left most of his vast fortune to the setting up of the various prizes that are now awarded by the Nobel Committee in Sweden....physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and economics. But it is perhaps the most famous, the Nobel Peace Prize, that is awarded annually in Oslo on the anniversary of Nobel’s death, 10th December 1898.

In 1895 when Alfred Nobel drew up his will stipulating the rules of the prize, he insisted that the responsibility for the Peace Prize should be delegated to the Norwegian Storting (Parliament). Ever since the first Peace Prize was given to Jean Henri Dunant in 1901, the Swiss founder of the Red Cross, it has been awarded in Oslo.

Nowadays, when someone like Barack Obama comes to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, the world watches. Over the years, it has been awarded to Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Lech Walensa, the 14th Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela to name just a few. The Prize Committee has a serious job on its hands in making a selection each year, and I wonder if such a responsibility has any kind of effect on Norway as a nation. Having survived five years of Occupation within living memory, ‘Peace’ is highly cherished. Norway is a wealthy nation, but it is also a small one...it plays a valuable role within international relations and takes a keen interest in how to solve problems in the world’s trouble spots. Norwegians were involved in peace processes in Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Sudan, Nicaragua and the former Yugoslavia. In 1993 the Norwegian contribution to the peace process in the Middle East led to what has become known as the Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO.

You might think that a small country has no real political weight within international politics, and that for any one individual to try to work towards peace is naive and ridiculously optimistic. But I’ve been reading a book that proves every individual effort is not only worthwhile but necessary. A friend pointed me towards ‘A Billion Lives’ by Jan Egeland. Despite growing up in a comfortable home in Stavanger, Egeland was well-aware of the difficulties other people faced across the world. As a teenager he became involved in campaigning for human rights, and before long had established a career for himself. Described nowadays as a ‘veteran peacemaker’, he became the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and worked in Darfur, Eastern-Congo, Lebanon, Gaza, Northern Israel, Northern Uganda and Colombia. He is now the Director General of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, and was indeed the initiator of the Norwegian channel between Israel and the PLO that lead to the Oslo Accord.

Egeland quotes Henrik Ibsen at the start of his book : ‘A community is like a ship. Everyone ought to be able to take the helm.’ But it is a remark Egeland makes himself that fills the reader with hope, despite everything.

‘For the vast majority of people, the world is getting better, there is more peace, more people fed and educated, and fewer forced to become refugees than a generation ago. So there is reason for optimism.’ Egeland’s story is a testament to the fact that one person, despite their privileged background, can do a great deal of good. Go read.


  1. Once again you astound me with your writing. It is truly excellent.

    This is one of very few webpages I now tend to check daily for updates. Keep up the good work.

    A Norwegian

  2. Dear Norwegian,
    You are too kind. I cannot tell you how important it is to me that my scribblings should mean something to Norwegians themselves...after all, it was coming to live here that started all this.
    Tusen takk, RS