Rotary Nepal: Promoting Peace and Development through Sports

Keynote Address by Rotarian Kul Chandra Gautam·
at 4th Annual Conference of Rotary International District 3292
Biratnagar, Nepal, 7 January 2012

Thank you for the opportunity to share some views and suggestions on how we as Rotarians can promote peace and development in Nepal, in our region of South Asia, and in the world.

I am a relatively new Rotarian, less than three years as a full-fledged member. But I believe I have a fairly objective perspective on Rotary’s contribution to peace and development, as I have worked in close partnership with Rotary International for over 3 decades in my earlier incarnation as a UN and, in particular, UNICEF official.

At the United Nations, we always considered Rotary as a valuable partner. Long before the UN or even the League of Nations existed, Rotary was established in 1905 with the objectives of fostering the advancement of international understanding, goodwill and peace through a world fellowship of business and professional persons united in the ideal of service.

Rotary’s visionary founder, Paul Harris, and other leaders had a vision which was similar to that of the founders of the UN half a century later. Promotion of peace and development are two concepts that best summarize the shared ideals of these two international organizations.

There are many ways to build peace and promote development. Today I want to talk about the unique way that Rotary International has pioneered the art of working together, serving humanity, and thereby helping to promote peace and development.

As someone who has devoted his entire professional career in the service of humanity through the United Nations, I can testify, based on first-hand experience of working closely with Rotary International in many countries, in many projects, that among non-governmental service organizations in the world, Rotary International truly exemplifies the humanitarian spirit of “service above self”.

It is sometimes said that “Rotary is a rich man’s club”. But the activities and achievements of Rotary in Nepal and around the world clearly indicate that Rotary is actually a club of highly motivated and successful people in different walks of life who are not just talkers, but doers dedicated to many worthy causes.

To its great credit, with its 1.2 million members, in 34,000 clubs, in 200 countries, Rotary International does a commendable job in bringing together business and professional leaders to provide humanitarian service, promote development, and help build peace in the world.

Like the Red Cross, UNICEF, and other organizations, Rotary took part in providing emergency relief to the victims of conflict during and after World War II. It did so with great courage.

The Nazis in Germany suppressed Rotary clubs and persecuted many Rotarians forcing many clubs to disband or to go underground. Other authoritarian regimes have also tried to suppress Rotary. Under Communist regimes, Rotary Clubs were disbanded from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War period.

Notwithstanding such difficulties, Rotary persisted to be guided by its noble founding principles.

Many Rotarians were involved in the founding of the United Nations, and many leaders of the UN have been Rotarians. Rotary International is accredited to the UN Economic and Social Council and is considered a very special partner in the UN’s work for peace and development.

Like the United Nations, but without its big bureaucracy and diplomatic formalities, Rotary is committed to building peace and international understanding through its network of 34,000 Rotary clubs in 200 countries – all involved in various humanitarian projects to address the underlying causes of conflict, including illiteracy, disease, hunger, poverty, lack of clean water, and environmental concerns.

That is why the UN and many governments consider Rotary as a valued partner in their pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals.

Specifically, on peace-building, Rotary partners with eight leading universities around the world which have set up Rotary Centers for International Studies in peace and conflict resolution.

Each year, Rotary awards up to 60 fellowships for a master’s degree and up to 50 fellowships for a professional development certificate through a program aimed at equipping the next generation of global and community leaders with skills needed to reduce the threat of war and violence in the world.

Rotary also sponsors the world’s largest privately-funded international scholarship programme, investing some $26 million for 1200 scholarships every year. Indeed, cumulatively, nearly 40,000 men and women from 100-plus nations have already studied abroad under Rotary’s Ambassadorial Scholarships.

Rotary’s contribution to peace and development through such international, as well as local community-based efforts, have been widely recognized, praised and honoured in the world.

The most well-known and successful of Rotary’s partnership with the UN is undoubtedly the global campaign to eradicate polio in which I was directly involved when I was a senior official at UNICEF.

When Rotary International launched PolioPlus in 1985, it was the most ambitious project undertaken by any non-governmental service organization in human history.

The original goal of PolioPlus was to immunize all the world’s children against this dreaded disease and to eradicate it from the face of the earth as part of Rotary’s centennial celebrations in 2005.

Rotary’s commitment inspired the World Health Organization to officially declare polio eradication as a global goal. It also led to the establishment of a strong global polio eradication partnership with Rotary International, WHO, UNICEF, and the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) as the key partners, supported by many others.

Although the complete eradication of polio has not been achieved yet, the success so far is impressive.

As we heard at the most informative “End Polio Now” briefing on the eve of this conference on Wednesday, Rotary Clubs around the world have raised nearly $1 billion US dollars, mobilized thousands of Rotarians, and helped immunize over 2 billion children.

Five million children who would have been crippled, and thousands who would have died because of polio, are walking, playing and enjoying a better life today because of the global immunization programme.

When this campaign started in the late 1980s, nearly 1000 children were infected with polio everyday; there were over 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries.

Today polio cases have been reduced by 99.9 percent. Last year we had less than a 1000 cases in the whole world, confined to only 4 endemic countries.

Inspired by Rotary’s contribution, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made a very generous award of $350 million, and now Rotary has embarked on a matching fund-raising drive to raise another $200 million by the middle of 2012.

You might ask what does this disease eradication campaign have to do with peace and development? Well, I would say, plenty.

For example, with support of influential Rotarians, UNICEF, WHO and the UN Secretary-General have negotiated cease-fires in many countries at war to allow children to be immunized.

We declared “days of tranquility” and “corridors of peace” as confidence building measures to allow nationwide vaccination in countries in conflict such as Afghanistan, Angola, El Salvador, Sudan, and elsewhere, with considerable success.

We are hopeful that polio will be eradicated from the face of the earth in the next 2 to 3 years. And when that happens, it will be a great triumph for humanity, just as when we eradicated smallpox which used to kill 5 million people every year.

It is not just the polio endemic countries and communities that will benefit from the eradication of this disease, but the whole world will benefit.

At present, although they have no cases of polio, industrialized countries spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to vaccinate their children, because until polio is eradicated everywhere, children are not safe anywhere.

But when polio is eradicated from the world, the United States alone will save $300 million a year; Europe and other industrialized countries will save $500 million; and the rest of the world will save $700 million a year.

This saving of $1.5 billion every year will keep accruing for many years to come. And the funds thus saved can be used for other urgent health and development purposes.

Remember, in this rapidly globalizing world, diseases, environmental degradation, and poverty do not need any passport or visa to travel. If we do not tackle them in the poorest countries, no rich country is safe.

On the other hand, investment in programmes like polio eradication, and other health, education and environmental measures can liberate and generate more resources for development.

As such investments are truly beneficial to all of humanity, these are considered global public goods. And we are all thankful to Rotary International for its wise and far-sighted investment in such global public goods to foster peace and development.

Dear friends,

Inspired by this example of Rotary’s ability to mobilize such extraordinary action at the global level in the context of polio eradication, I have often wondered if we could do something similar here in Nepal at the national level – or perhaps even at the regional level in South Asia.

I know, currently we are preparing a Strategic Plan for our Rotary District 3292 for the next 5 years. From the early draft of the Strategic Plan I have seen, we will be outlining in it our vision and mission and some strategic objectives and priorities.

Following the general guidance of Rotary International, our district too will obviously undertake activities in the broad areas of RI’s global priorities. In the draft Strategic Plan, I have noted that we want to give some focus to the Next Generation, with which I fully concur.

Already Rotary is involved in some programmes for the younger generation through our Interact and Rotaract clubs, and the Rotary Youth Leadership Award (RYLA) initiatives. Building on such initiatives, I would like to suggest that we add to our strategic objectives at least one specific action or intervention that will distinguish our district 3292 from all other districts and help enhance the public image and awareness of Rotary throughout Nepal and beyond.

Now, what can we do that will have nation-wide impact? Given our limited size and resources, obviously, we cannot aspire to reach every district or village of Nepal with any single activity that our 80 clubs support at present.

But I would like us to dream – let us dream about some low-cost, easily replicable, popular action in which we can partner with some existing institutions that already reach every community – for example, schools.

How about supporting a school-based, after-school activity for all children that they will enjoy, and that will help in their physical and mental development, such as sports?

Could we imagine each of our 80 Rotary clubs helping 5 to 10 schools each year to develop a strong sports programme that is suitable for their area?

If we did that, we would reach 400 to 800 schools each year, and 4000 to 8000 schools all over the country in 10 years time.

And how about imagining a regional Rotary Cup games being organized each year involving teams from all participating schools, and the winners of the regional games participating in a high profile National Rotary Cup games?

Thus, with some modest support from Rotary for training and equipment, hopefully matched by a few other partners, in a few years time, we could have several thousand schools providing organized sports training and necessary equipment, and their most talented students participating in local, regional and national competitions.

In just a few years time, this could lead to every school child having an opportunity to learn and participate in sports competition, and the whole country turning into a nation of sports enthusiasts.

Details of this scheme would have to be worked out, of course. But this could be one activity in which Rotary could claim to do something on a nation-wide basis – not just in a few isolated communities.

Part of our excellent on-going Rotaract and Interact activities could be dedicated to offering such constructive options for our children and youth.

Indeed, we could greatly increase the number of Interact and Rotaract clubs if we offered them a school-based, fun-filled, after-school activity such as training to play some sports, and competing in inter-scholastic games that are identified as a Rotary Cup competition.

Now, sports has the unique advantage of helping youngsters develop physically and mentally; learn about healthy competition; learn to accept defeat with grace and victory with humility; and learn to respect your competitors rather than despise them.

Sports would, therefore, be a wonderful way to redirect the energy of our children and youth from other negative and destructive temptations to healthy personality building.

I know, many of you are probably thinking right now that in Nepal’s current situation, Rotary cannot possibly mobilize the kind of campaign I am speaking about to popularize sports in every school, in every community, and turn Nepal into a nation of sports enthusiasts that could shine in the South Asia region, if not in the world.

But I would invite us all to think again, more positively and creatively, and let us plan something truly ambitious and glorious that our district 3292 can do, let us say, over the next 10 years.

I mention sports because I think it has a unique capacity to mobilize, energize and unite a nation like we have seen in countries like Brazil, Spain, many countries of Central America and the Caribbean.

But if not sports, let us think of something else that can be done on a massive scale, even with our limited resources, that will reach virtually every village, and make Rotary a truly respected household name in Nepal – which frankly, it is not today.

Let me suggest that between now and our next district conference next year, we come up with a detailed plan of action to make such a dream a reality. This could be an important part of developing our long-term strategic plan.

And if we can do something ambitious like this in Nepal, we could blaze the trail for our neighbouring countries, so that one day South Asia can aspire to be a global powerhouse for sports and development, and peace through sports, thanks to the bold and innovative initiative and leadership of our Rotary district 3292 in Nepal.

Our Governor will remember that at the South Asia Regional Rotary conference on Peace and Development in Colombo, Sri Lanka in September 2011, I floated an idea of this nature as a South Asia-wide regional project.

I said then that it was a pity that, with the exception of cricket and field hockey, countries of South Asia perform worse than many small states and banana republics in international sports competition.

Not a single country of South Asia – a region of 1.6 billion people – has ever made it to the football World Cup.

In 100 years of its participation in the Olympic Games, India has won only 9 gold medals, and it ranks as the country in the world with the lowest number of total Olympic medals per capita.

Pakistan has won only 3 gold medals in 60 years of its participation in the Olympics. Sri Lanka has won 2 silver medals, and Afghanistan 1 bronze.

Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal have not won a single medal in the Olympics.

So far, our governments are not giving much priority to sports, but I would like to suggest that we Rotarians take the lead to popularize sports, and encourage South Asian youngsters to become world-class sports persons.

Many of our youth are unemployed, and are attracted to drugs and unhealthy life-styles, and lured by criminal gangs. It saddens me deeply that so many of our youth readily join sister organizations of political parties, and militant youth groups, partly because they have nothing else to aspire to.

If opportunities to participate in sports, music and arts were available, and excelling in them were valued by our society, many youth would choose these to divert their bodies and minds in positive and creative direction.

Would not it be marvelous if we could transform our YCL, Youth Force, Tarun Dal and other militant youth groups from their often violent vandalism into peaceful competition in the fields of sports and nation-building?

And would not it be even better, if our children and youth were weaned away from premature and partisan political activism to constructive competition in sports and social service that helps their physical and mental development, and in building of their character and personality, as is the case in more developed and less hyper-politicized societies?

As we know, politics tend to divide us, and premature political activism tends to poison our youngsters’ minds. Most of our political parties specialize in indoctrinating our youth into unhealthy partisanship from an early age, rather than enlightening them to be creative and constructive citizens.

Pursuit of healthy, non-partisan but competitive sports can actually unite us and inspire our youth, locally, nationally and regionally.

I would, therefore, urge all fellow Rotarians and our Rotary clubs and district leadership to consider this proposal seriously.

Currently, our Rotary clubs are already doing many good things which have a good impact in our society. We must continue them. But let us remember these activities, while very worthwhile, cover only a handful of schools, health centers and communities.

Except for polio eradication, there is no activity that Rotary helps in Nepal at present which reaches all children in all communities in the country.

Now, normally it is not Rotary’s job to reach every community. Providing basic services to all communities is the job of the government, with some support from the private sector and NGOs.

But once in a while, an important service organization like Rotary can be ambitious, as we did in the global Polio Plus programme. In that programme, we aimed to help reach all – not millions, but billions of- children of the world to eradicate a terrible disease from the face of the earth; and we are now on the cusp of a great global victory.

We could have easily said then that immunizing all children of the world or eradicating a disease is not Rotary’s job. The governments should do it, and we will help only in a few countries or few communities.

But thank God, we did not say that. And we surprised the world, and ourselves, with extra-ordinary results.

Not even the most ambitious Rotarian, I bet not even Paul Harris, would have imagined in his wildest dreams, that Rotary would be able to mobilize $1 billion dollars, and tens of thousands of Rotarians, to eradicate polio. But we did it.

And I really feel that we can do something similar in Nepal – with at least one activity that reaches virtually all communities of this country.

Dear friends,

An organization like Rotary can certainly play a useful role in promoting peace and development in many small and big ways. And I just cited some examples, and proposed one ambitious proposal for our consideration.

How well can Rotary really further impact on the peace and development agenda of Nepal, depends, of course, on the overall political and economic situation of the country.

The people of Nepal are now busy drafting a new national Constitution through our popularly elected Constituent Assembly.

We are all hopeful that after decades of violence and suffering, peace, political stability, genuine democracy and economic prosperity with social justice will begin to dawn in Nepal soon.

But as enlightened citizens, we must continue to be vigilant. Let us all – as citizens and voters – ask our leaders exactly the kind of questions that Rotarians are supposed to ask.

* Are they really telling us the truth?

* Are their proposals fair to all concerned?

* Will their recommended actions build goodwill and harmony in the country?

* And, will these actions be really beneficial to all concerned?

Let us not accept superficial answers and ideological clichés to these profound questions. Let us not be satisfied with empty slogans and grandiose promises.

Let us demand that our political parties and candidates outline for us the specifics of their plans and programmes, especially on matters of national reconstruction and development. And let us offer them our constructive advice.

Let this be the occasion when in this land of Lord Buddha, Nepalis repudiate forever the culture of violence and intolerance that our “revolutionary” demagogues and ideologues have introduced into Nepal’s body politic in recent years.

That would be very reassuring to all of us Rotarians who are entrepreneurs and professionals, and who can contribute much for the development of this country, if there were peace and an atmosphere of non-violence.

Let us remember that two wrongs do not make a right. As we end one form of authoritarianism, let us guard against some other brand of authoritarianism creeping in.

Let this also be the occasion when we embark on a peaceful and democratic path to ending centuries of injustice and inequality, so that these evils are not invoked again to justify violence and undermine democracy and universally agreed human rights.

I believe I can speak for all of us in saying that Rotary International as an organization, and all of us as individual Rotarians can be strong partners, as Nepal enters an era of peace and development – with justice and equity – that our people so desperately need and richly deserve.

Thank you.