Teodoro Nguema Obiang, son of the President of Equatorial Guinea, recently entered into a $55,000 per month contract with the Washington lobbying and public relations firm Qorvis, the same company that does its best to keep the Equatoguinean government’s reputation afloat. But the Obiangs don’t stop at traditional public relations firms to do their reputational laundry.
Just ask the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
In September 2008, Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo—infamous for overthrowing his uncle 30 years ago and blatantly ignoring the needs of the country’s citizens ever since—offered to fund a UNESCO prize recognizing achievement in the life sciences, which the organization now seems poised to bestow.
The hypocrisy of an award recognizing scientists whose work has improved the “quality of life” being named after the leader of one of the worst-governed nations on earth (according to UNDP indicators) is galling. Obiang’s regime is notorious for widespread human rights abuses. The establishment of the prize also begs the question: where did the $3 million in funding really come from, given ongoing money laundering investigations into the president, his family, and close associates, on top of well-documented U.S. Senate investigations relating to the same concerns.
Just this week, scientists and public health professionals from around the world—including Nobel laureates and past UNESCO prize winners—joined the fray, criticizing the prize and calling on UNESCO to cancel it.
And yet, UNESCO still seems willing to play the role we’d expect from Qorvis.
A 2005 report by the previous UNESCO director-general on the review of prizes stated that, “as a matter of principle, the potential contribution to UNESCO’s profile and target audiences should be assessed for each prize.”
Given the outcry from scientific and health communities this week, it’s hard to imagine that the potential contribution of the Obiang Prize will be positive. Note to UNESCO: get out of the reputation-laundering business while you still have a reputation of your own to salvage.