Let’s not be impressed by meaningless awards
Genuine awards are based on merit, not payment
I was quite amused when on Friday I read a story in The New Times under the headline Rwandan company wins prestigious award. Its first paragraph went as follows: “A Rwandan environment engineering firm [Air Water Earth, Rwanda (AWE)] has scooped an International Star for Leadership in Quality award, one of the most prestigious international awards given to companies worldwide for outstanding work.”
What is so amusing about that, you will ask, here’s a Rwandan company winning a major international award – we should cheer, not laugh. That’s what The New Times journalist rightfully thought, and what would probably have been exactly my reaction, were it not that I had a bit of background information. Indeed, just the previous day we had received a letter from that same organization, Business Initiative Directions, announcing that, guess what, Focus Media, publisher of The Rwanda Focus, is also set to receive the International Star for Leadership in Quality. Reading that letter, and the attached documents, I also had a good laugh.
Now I am very happy to be working with The Rwanda Focus, and honored to be in a senior position where my work has a significant impact on the company and the newspaper. And if you look at the evolution of the paper since its creation some four years ago, it cannot be denied that great progress has been made. Yet I am sure that my boss will readily agree that we have a long way to go yet – in all aspects of the management of a media house, we still fall a little short of the companies running The New York Times, Le Monde, The Economist, Nation Media Group or CNN, to name but a few.
So if we would have been informed that we had won an award for “decently-run company that is still striving to do better,” then I think that would be justified. To call us an “international leader in quality” is preposterous.
On what basis did Business Initiative Directions decide to give us (and AWE) this award? Your guess is as good as mine. Nowhere in the letter they sent us do they give a single example of something particular to Focus Media that should earn us the title “international leader in quality.” Nobody involved in, or linked to, Business Initiative Directions has ever contacted us, or had a close look at what we do, how we work and what impact we have. Why, they would probably even have a hard time pinpointing Rwanda on a world map.
Which brings us to the question: what exactly is Business Initiative Directions? The New Times calls their prize “one of the most prestigious international awards given to companies worldwide for outstanding work.” That is indeed how they describe it themselves, but is it true? The dictionary I have at hand defines prestigious as “admired and respected by people.” That, in my opinion, does not apply to Business Initiative Directions, because I am quite sure that hardly anybody knows it. I for one had never heard of the organization before seeing their letter. Neither had my boss. Looking at their website, it’s even less clear who they are or what they do. Apart, that is, from handing out awards with impressive names.
Another thing they seem to be doing is making money. Indeed, with genuine awards the organization in question will invite you to a ceremony, and it will bear all the costs. Not so in the case of Business Initiative Directions. With them, you are not only expected to cover your travel expenses to Paris, but you are also kindly requested to pay €3700 just to attend the glitzy award ceremony (accommodation is provided, though). In return, you get your award, the right to print the award’s logo on your stationary and – they seem to be particularly proud of this – two pins you can wear to show what a leader you are. If you don’t pay up, you don’t receive your prize. Or the pins.
And that is the long and short of it: Business Initiative Directions does not give awards based on merit, it sells them at random. And it expects you to be honored to be chosen to buy one. There are other organizations running similar scams, and Rwandan companies have fallen for them, not realizing that the awards have no value whatsoever.
Not all awards are a scam, of course. Recently, in The Rwanda Focus nº 112, we ran a headline similar to the one in The New Times: Bringing light to Rwanda: Nuru Energy wins prestigious environmental award. In that case, however, we were talking about the UNEP Sasakawa prize, worth US$ 200,000, which is awarded to “individuals or institutions that have made a substantial contribution to the protection and management of the environment.” UNEP being the United Nations Environmental Program, they are well placed to hand out prizes in that field (and awards are only a very small part of what they do). And Nuru, having devised a system to replace harmful kerosene lamps with lights powered by batteries that are recharged using a kind of bicycle, has indeed done something that meets the prize’s main criterion.
So it’s an award based on merit, and Nuru was deliberately selected among various projects aimed at environmental protection, after their project was scrutinized by UNEP officials. If there is an award ceremony, Nuru executives will not have to pay to get in – on the contrary, they’re receiving money to come up with more ingenious solutions. I’m not sure they will get pins, though.
In the case of Business Initiative Directions, companies from around the world are randomly selected by people who have no inkling what these companies are doing, and invited to pay for a completely meaningless award since it does not aim to reward a particular achievement of the recipient. It’s a bargain, but only for Business Initiative Directions.
We at The Rwanda Focus will proudly not wear their pins, while striving to become an “international leader in quality.” So that one day, we might win a real prestigious award.