Researchers keep eyes on a prize: Reading the tea leaves of National Priorities Project's Nobel nomination

Last modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — There are many numbers related to the federal budget that make Jo Comerford sit up and take notice, but this one tops her list: the United States accounts for 43 percent of total global military spending, more than the next 16 nations combined.

She suspects it was that statistic that prompted the Switzerland-based International Peace Bureau last month to nominate the National Priorities Project, which Comerford leads, for a Nobel Peace Prize.

“They’re trying to raise up the need for the United States to look at its priorities. It is really up to us to go first, to take stock of our spending priorities and to ask the hard questions,” said Comerford. “It’s why IPB is trying to raise up this tiny little organization in the United States.”

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Comerford met with Ingeborg Breines, co-president of the International Peace Bureau, at the United Nations Feb. 7 to explain the work of that “tiny little organization,” but mostly she expects the nomination won’t take up much staff time as it wends its way through the Nobel vetting process.

It couldn’t, Comerford said: “We have too much work to do.”

Interviewed last week in the NPP’s small, open floor-plan suite of offices, Comerford called the staff — about eight full-timers assisted by about 10 interns — “intrepid.”

The NPP headquarters is housed in the back of the Potpourri Mall on King Street with a view of a chain pharmacy and a railroad track. The nondescript office building looks like it’s filled with insurance agents and therapists, not a nationally known agitator for upending federal spending priorities. Inside the NPP office, the walls are plastered with posters and colorful pie charts and other graphics that shout out the group’s mission, “Turning data into action since 1983,” but it’s quiet when a visitor arrives, with everyone logged onto their computers.

Comerford said the staff is excited about the work on its plate this year — especially a state-by-state analysis of how federal dollars are spent locally.

“It sounds dry but it’s basically one of the most intimate road maps to the federal budget that I think ever has been in existence,” she said.

Between March and April, the group plans to post on its website information that will show “to the penny,” Comerford said, an individual’s tax bill and where the money was spent.

“Then, they can use this to take action if they liked or didn’t like where their tax dollars went,” she said.

Because the organization aims to engage young people, staff are looking to create a mobile app for the NPP information that will appeal to a decidedly tech-savvy generation.

The team will also scour the president’s budget plan to offer an analysis that will demystify it for the public — to, as Comerford puts it, “really unearth the intricacies of it.”

“We’ll go as deep as we possibly can with our intrepid researchers to really give the American public their budget,” Comerford said. “We are bound and determined to be the people’s guide to the federal budget.”

‘Christmas in January’

News last month that the 30-year-old organization had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize spread quickly among the hundreds of organizations and peace activists that work with NPP.

Comerford said one email she received joked that the nomination was like an Academy Award nod for peace activists.

She first learned the organization was being considered for nomination by an International Peace Bureau board member, Joseph Gerson, a longtime staff member of the American Friends Service Committee, in December. Gerson, a member of the IPP board, emailed Comerford to inform her that the NPP’s name came up on a list of potential nominees.

“That in and of itself made my knees weak a little bit,” she said.

Gerson, AFSC’s director of programs in the Northeast and director of its peace and economic security program, said he raised the National Priorities Project as a peace prize candidate at a meeting in Geneva in November.

He said he made the nomination not as an official with the AFSC, but as a veteran peace activist who has long used NPP research to agitate for change. And while the IPB considered several other potential nominees, it didn’t take long before the group settled on the Northampton nonprofit.

“Clearly, the United States has very, very serious problems with the loss of essential services,” Gerson said. “Our infrastructure is falling apart and a ridiculous amount of money is spent maintaining the military.

“In order to meet the essential needs of the U.S., we need to cut the military budget,” he said. “It’s in that context that the NPP does extraordinary work to create a more sane national budget that better serves the people and contributes to world peace.”

By January, Comerford learned the IPB had narrowed its list and was asked to supply information about the NPP. She learned of the actual nomination when Gerson sent an email under the heading, “Christmas comes in January, Nobel nomination.”

In thinking about what propelled NPP to the top of the list for the International Peace Bureau, Comerford said she believes it may be the peace bureau’s desire to support the United Nations goal of securing a 10 percent reduction in global military spending.

She believes the nomination is the International Peace Bureau’s way of saying, “the federal budget is a huge force within the United States and globally. U.S. citizens and taxpayers: look at your federal budget, and we’ll all be better off if you do.”

Possibly nobody was more happy about the nomination than Betsy Speeter of Hatfield, whose husband, the late Greg Speeter, founded NPP in 1983. She said she learned of the nomination around the second anniversary of her husband’s death, which she felt was a fitting tribute to the work he started.

“Greg, of course, was always the eternal optimist and I don’t think you can do this work without being optimistic about the future of mankind, and you can’t do that alone,” she said. “The credit really goes to so many people spread across this country, other countries, the world.”

For NPP Board Chairman Dennis Bidwell, the nomination is a validation that the organization is on the right track in its work.

“It’s really significant to be recommended by this quite noteworthy international group that the priorities we set in our federal budget — especially regarding the military — have ripple effects throughout the world,” Bidwell said. “The way this nation makes choices between domestic and military spending affects the rest of the world in an arms race kind of way, and that’s sobering.”

NPP history

The National Priorities Project was founded in 1983 by Speeter, when he and three colleagues set about studying the federal budget in order to understand why social programs in Springfield were shutting down. This became NPP’s first report, “In Defense of the First District.”

Since then, the organization has committed itself to a mission of translating the federal budget for everyday Americans, in an effort to help them feel invested in where their tax dollars are spent.

“We make it accessible and actionable, that’s our mandate,” Comerford said. “It’s not enough to crunch a good number, it has to be understood — and used.”

Recently, for example, a museum in Baltimore used NPP-generated numbers to create an exhibit with silk scarves representing portions of the budget to illustrate where the money goes.

Comerford said the organization is not a think tank in the academic sense, because its goal is for the information it produces to be understood by “novice consumers” of the federal budget.

“If our work appears wonky, then we’ve failed,” she said. “It’s visceral. People have to feel the budget. This is our budget. That’s our internal goal, to reclaim the federal budget for the people. They’re the main bill payers and they should be the deciders.”

Comerford said some people think it odd that an organization so focused on the federal budget — created and argued about and modified and approved in Washington — is located in the Pioneer Valley.

She does not.

“It was the great genius of Greg to locate it outside the Beltway and to become the people’s budget,” she said. The fact that NPP staff live and work in smaller communities only strengthens their commitment, she said.

“We’re able to feel life in a local community and therefore our allegiance remains squarely in the grass roots,” Comerford said.

Reading the tea leaves

Comerford believes part of the push behind the nomination is that the IPB, which has a seat at the United Nations, is leading the work internationally to fulfill a United Nations “millennium goal” to achieve 10 percent global reduction in military spending and channel that money into development.

Among the other individuals and organizations nominated for the peace prize are the whistle-blowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, and Malalai Joya, a political activist from Afghanistan.

“It’s fairly heady, esteemed company,” Comerford said.

Gerson said he believes other groups may follow the IPB’s lead in nominating the NPP, but in the end, the selection of a Nobel Prize winner is a somewhat mysterious business.

What is known, is this: According to the website nobelprize.org, nominations for the peace prize are submitted before Feb. 1, after which the selection committee meets five or six times with experts to vet the candidates.

The decision is announced in early October and the award made on Dec. 10.

Whatever happens from here on, for Betsy Speeter, the nomination itself is honor enough, one she said her late husband would have been amazed by.

“It would probably have never occurred to him, he was never one to look for such accolades,” she said. “He would be humbled by it, he would be ecstatic, and proud and overwhelmed. It’s a strong affirmation of his work and life.”

Laurie Loisel, the Gazette’s daytime managing editor, can be reached at lloisel@gazettenet.com.