An interview with three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr Scilla Elworthy


‘To discover your mission and put it into action – instead of worrying on the sidelines – is to find peace of mind and a heart full of love.’
Dr Scilla Elworthy may be softly spoken, but her words resonate with strength and authority whenever she addresses an audience.
This April, she headlined at the Creating the Future conference in London, organised by Weatherbys Private Bank. The conference addresses the key issues of our time, such as medicine and health, work and society, education and learning and the future of the planet.
A three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and founder of multiple humanitarian organisations, Dr Elworthy is one of the most respected authorities on building a better world. She has worked alongside human rights activists such as Nelson Mandela, Peter Gabriel and Richard Branson – her mentor Desmond Tutu is a constant source of joy.
During the 1980s she founded the non-governmental Oxford Research Group (ORG), a body that researched security decision making in five nuclear nations during and after the Cold War. Her tireless work brought together policymakers, military leaders and academics, to engage face-to face with their harshest critics.
Later she established Peace Direct, a charity supporting local peace builders in conflict areas. It was named ‘Best New Charity’ in 2005 and she remains an ambassador for its work even in her 75th year.
‘It’s true that I was quite strident in my younger days, when I was driven by anger and fear,’ she says. ‘I used to be out there with the shouting crowd, but I quickly realised that is totally ineffective if you’re trying to engage in a dialogue with people who disagree with you.’
‘You can’t hector or shout – you need them to listen. Listening is the most valuable process you can adopt in any kind of mediation or negotiation. Talking softly helps to get the message across. Senior policymakers won’t even meet you if they think they will face a noisy lecture.’
Sitting in her modest, one-bedroom flat in the Cotswolds, Dr Elworthy says changing her attitude when faced with criminals and terrorists wasn’t always easy. ‘I quickly learnt how to cope with my own anger and fear, so I became a better negotiator. I had to park my anger outside the room and treat the men inside as normal people rather than killers.’
Among the many people who helped was Desmond Tutu. The anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner has spoken out on conflicts around the world and remains a constant source of encouragement. ‘He is quite extraordinary and the most outstanding person I’ve met. When Desmond walks into a room he can tell at a glance what every person needs and he tries to give it to them.
‘He also gave me the most memorable piece of advice that I still carry around with me today. If you want peace, don’t talk to your friends – talk to your enemies. That should be the mantra for all peace movements and every conflict. It applies to everything, a quarrel in the workplace or a family row.’
Dr Elworthy believes the life-changing moment that set her on a path towards peace came in 1956. She was a 13-year-old girl with a scholarship to Berkhamsted School for Girls when the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest. Watching on a grainy black-and-white television at home, she saw children crushed as they lay on the street in protest.
‘There were children my age throwing themselves at the tanks. I rushed upstairs to pack a suitcase and my mother came up. I didn’t really know where Budapest was, but I knew I had to go. Mum obviously wouldn’t let me, but she saw how upset I was and then guided me in the right direction. It meant I was being trained to make a difference in the future.’
After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, Dr Elworthy moved to South Africa in 1966 and helped launch the Mary Quant range. ‘I was the advertising manager, but didn’t have a clue! That was my divergence moment – I went into luxury, drove a sports car and lived on the beach. I kept my eyes shut to the bad things that were happening around me in South Africa.’
She married in 1970 and could finally afford to give up her job, return to university and study Zulu. For six years she was chairman of Kupugani, a nutrition education organisation that instituted the sale of nourishing Christmas hampers to low-paid industrial employees. It cleverly provided annual self-financing for the charity of 6 million rand.
‘I had already worked with refugees in war-torn places like Angola, but being in South Africa at that time changed me. I was suddenly up to my neck understanding nutrition and starvation.’
Dr Elworthy established the Oxford Research Group in 1982 and for 23 years built up an international reputation for research into global security issues. Central to this was weapons of mass destruction. ‘I was speaking to people who made the weapons, who wrote the cheques for them and the politicians who eventually distributed them.’
Her work led to her first nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize eight years later, then again in 1989 and 1991. In 2001 she established Peace Direct, supporting those working to prevent or resolve conflict in areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq – she was later awarded the Niwano Peace Prize, which honours those devoting themselves to the cause of peace.
Her humanitarian efforts have continued apace ever since. In 2008 she helped launch The Elders in Johannesburg on Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday. The band of peace activists, public figures and celebrities included Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, former US president Jimmy Carter, and Mandela himself.
Among the inspiring people Dr Elworthy has worked with, she cites former Genesis star Peter Gabriel as a major influence. ‘He is amazing – one of the most modest people I know. He listens to what people say and is very thoughtful towards them. Brian Eno is another musician who has done a lot quietly.’
Dr Elworthy is still active in many peace organisations and spends much of the year travelling to lectures around the world, writing articles, or tending to her beloved Gloucestershire garden. But even there she has a cause. ‘The garden is good for my soul – it’s where I go to relax and try to get away from it all.’  
‘I’m currently very passionate about teaching young children how to grow their own food. They need to be literate in the classroom and the garden because who knows what might happen in the future.’
At the Creating the Future conference, she spoke about her plan for a peaceful world. ‘I want people to understand what it would cost to prevent war, not make it. Every year, the world spends about $2 trillion fighting. In contrast, $10 billion would cover the cost of bringing clean water and sanitation to everyone on the planet. Incredibly, we currently spend $9 billion on ice cream.’
‘I explain proven systems that can prevent armed conflicts through dialogue, prevention and early intervention, such as preventing the recruitment of suicide bombers in Pakistan. Key to this is self-knowledge and inner development. Both are essential if people are to be effective in their efforts.’
‘Many people feel they can’t make a difference when they watch all that is happening in the world on television. However, there is a huge rise in people power in recent years, as humanity evolves towards a more awakened, empathetic society. There are actions each of us can take in our own community, nationally and internationally to make a difference.’
Throughout her life, Dr Elworthy says that despite the many difficult situations and confrontations she has faced, keeping a sense of humour has been important. In her 2017 book The Business Plan for Peace: Building a World Without War, she suggests Star Wars’ Darth Vader might benefit from reading a copy. ‘He’s just the kind of bad guy who would.’


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