by Larry Smith
MONTREAL, Canada - This week I attended one of the world's greatest gatherings of downright decent, mostly middle-aged, and thoroughly middle class folks.
It was a tough call for an old cynic like me. To borrow a quote, I usually lump organized religion, organized labour, and service clubs together. But Rotarians do get points for having the most entertaining meetings.
More than 18,000 of them from around the world clogged the streets of Montreal for their annual international conference this week. Everywhere you turned there were earnest Africans, Asians, Latinos, North Americans and Europeans flashing their logo shirts, badges, pins, flags and business cards.
This was a major event by any standard, and is reckoned to have pumped some $28 million into Montreal's economy. It was so big they had to have a mini-convention for first-time convention goers. And after that, you were eligible to join the International Fellowship of Convention-goers, one of scores of networking groups for like-minded Rotarians.
There are fellowships for bird watchers, pilots, yachtsmen, golfers, environmentalists, internet users, skiers, gourmets, quilters, singles and even Esperanto speakers (in case you were wondering, there are only about 100 in that particular fellowship). Esperanto was a 19th century attempt to create a politically neutral world language.
Many of these groups enable Rotarians to use their hobbies or skills to help others. For example, the Fellowship of Canoeing Rotarians has organized cleanups of polluted rivers. In fact, that tells you a lot about this huge service organisation. Just puree business, pleasure and philanthropy together in a blender - and out pops a Rotarian working on a project somewhere.
There are some 500 Bahamian Rotarians in 13 clubs on New Providence, Grand Bahama, Abaco, Eleuthera and Cat Island. And a few of them were at the Montreal conference - including Lindsey Cancino of Bahamas Realty, Felix Stubbs of IBM and Barry Rassin of Doctors Hospital. All three are big Rotary cheeses.
Members of the fellowship groups stood guard at booths in the Great Hall of Friendship, a huge meeting space in Montreal's Palais des Congres, where many of the smaller conference events took place. Here you could order suits custom-tailored in Hong Kong, buy foot massagers and books about Rotary, and talk to some of the folks involved in dozens of humanitarian projects around the world.
Like Prince Abraham Appiah-Fei of the Kumasi-East Rotary Club in Ghana, for example. He was on hand with his Canadian partners from the Rotary Cub of Cornwall Sunrise to promote the Sustainable Villages Programme. Appiah-Fei grew up on a cocoa farm and studied electrical engineering in Canada before becoming administrator of this rural communities project near his hometown.
"We are bringing basic sanitation to these villages," he told me enthusiastically. "They don't even have running water and it helps to stop them from moving to overcrowded cities like Kumasi, which has 2.5 million people. We also focus on reducing infant mortality as well as providing school supplies."
Building wells, giving scholarships, or supporting local charities at cookouts and fairs is the more mundane face of Rotary. But at the other end of the scale are such global programmes as the multi-billion-dollar campaign to eradicate polio. This might seem like a ho-hum goal to us, who have only distant memories of what that incurable disease was like. But it still cripples children in developing countries.
In 1980 smallpox was eradicated after a 10-year global effort, and polio was next on the list. There were 350,000 cases a year when the programme was launched, with the last holdouts today in Central Asia and Africa. According to Dr Bruce Aylward, who is in charge of the World Health Organisation effort, "If we do not end polio now, another 20 million children will be permanently paralysed by Rotary's next centenary in 2105."
Over the past 25 years the 1.2 million Rotarians around the world have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to polio eradication, as well as tens of thousands of volunteer-hours. Lindsey Cancino says the 13 Bahamian clubs have raised more than $25,000 for the effort. That means a lot, because in 1985 one child was being crippled by polio every two minutes.
Despite setbacks, the incidence of the disease has fallen by more than 90 per cent and Aylward is convinced it will be wiped out early in this decade. "You have fundamentally changed the game," he told thousands of cheering Rotarians at Montreal's Bell Centre hockey stadium on Tuesday. "Rotary is now reaching more children than ever before for less than 25 cents each. And eradicating polio will deliver tens of millions of net dollars to the poorest countries. Rotarians have inspired the world as the heart and soul of the largest global health effort in history."
So with the war on polio about to be won, what could be next on the list for Rotary?
Well, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greg Mortenson was a keynote speaker at the convention on Monday. Mortenson is co-founder of the nonprofit Central Asia Institute, founder of Pennies For Peace, and author of two bestselling books - Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools - on promoting peace through education.
For the past 15 years he has been working in Pakistan and Afghanistan to educate the illiterate, especially women and girls. Only a few years ago, less than 800,000 children went to school in Afghanistan, and hardly any were girls. Today, there are 9 million schoolchildren, and 2.8 million are girls.
"We could use the polio campaign as a model to eradicate illiteracy in a decade just by raising pennies," Mortenson urged Rotarians. "While a penny is virtually worthless to you and me, in poor countries it buys a pencil and opens the door to literacy."
In fact, Rotary already supports a variety of literacy projects in local communities. For example, the Bahamian clubs established Project Read, which teaches adults how to read. But it's estimated that a quarter of the world's population is functionally illiterate, and in many developing countries women are unable to learn to read and write.
Calling young women the single biggest potential agents of change in the developing world, Mortenson said the bad news was that the Taliban shut thousands of schools, to stop girls getting an education. "Their greatest fear is the pen, not the bullet. They realise that if you educate a girl, you educate a community. The good news is that lately Afghanistan has seen the greatest increase in school enrollment for girls in modern history."
The prospect for peace and security in the 21st century was the theme of a keynote speech on Tuesday by Queen Noor of Jordan. The Arab-American widow of King Hussein, Queen Noor co-founded the Global Zero movement, a coalition of political, business, military, faith and civic leaders working for the elimination of nuclear weapons. She called on Rotarians to support what she considered to be the world's two greatest challenges - environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation.
"We are already feeling the effects of climate change in the Middle East," she said. "Migration caused by desertification has fueled the conflict in Sudan, for example. Environmental issues need to be on a par with other global macro issues because what could be more of a priority than human survival on our planet? We need to transition to a green economy and we need a coalition to act as a foundation for urgent international action."
She said some 40 countries now had the ability to produce nuclear weapons and it was critical to prevent such weapons from getting into the hands of terrorists, urging American Rotarians to support Congressional ratification of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. "There is no challenge that coalitions of concerned global citizens cannot surmount, and Rotary has pioneered such alliances."
Frankly, it's a little hard to believe that Rotary began in 1905 with four lonely guys getting together to make new friends in the big windy city of Chicago. One of the first names proposed for the new organisation was "Food, Friends, and Fun", and it was expected that members would "let their hair down, engage in horseplay, call one another by first names and in general have a grand time."
And that's just what they do at their weekly luncheons around the world. But the organisation has also taken on a more purposeful air, by leveraging the not insignificant skills, resources and energy of elite professionals and businesspeople to advance worthwhile causes. Yes, they may be boy scouts in long pants, as Sinclair Lewis once disparagingly wrote, but what boy scout ever gets the chance to eradicate a killer disease?