Rotary’s Way of Promoting Peace and Development

By Kul Chandra Gautam

Rotary International Conference on Peace and development

Kathmandu, 29 March 2008

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.

The Constitution of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, says most memorably, “that since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed”.

The expression “men”, rather than the gender-neutral people or human beings, may sound a bit quaint and sexist these days, but let us recall that indeed throughout human history it has been mainly the macho men that have been the perpetrators of wars, although lasting peace in our world today requires the pacific commitment of both men and women.

The UNESCO constitution also says that “a peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world, and that the peace must therefore be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind”.

Building such solidarity is precisely what Rotary International has been doing for the last hundred years.

When Rotary was established in 1905, its visionary founder, Paul Harris and other leaders outlined its objectives as fostering the advancement of international understanding, goodwill and peace through a world fellowship of business and professional persons united in the ideal of service.

To ensure that they really live up to such ideals, Rotarians are expected to subject themselves to 4 key tests in judging the appropriateness of their actions:

  • – Is it the truth?
  • – Is it fair to all concerned?
  • – Will it build goodwill and better friendship?
  • – Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Imagine what a peaceful and equitable world it would be if all of us – especially if our political and business leaders, and bureaucrats – subjected their actions to such test everyday!

Rotary’s own record is not perfect. For example, it took 84 years before Rotary allowed women to join as full members in 1989. Even today, only 15 % of Rotary’s international membership is women. But this is now changing rapidly, in keeping with the ethics of our times.

{Parenthetically, let me say that I feel very uncomfortable being part of this line-up of only men speakers in this panel. When I agreed to join the panel, we expected a distinguished female panelist to join us. Regrettably, I understand she is not able to join us because of unavoidable circumstances.

But I wanted to raise this issue, because at this time when Nepal is moving towards a more inclusive democracy, we must make every effort to ensure that we practice what we preach, and that in all such public events we must make every effort to be inclusive. I would, therefore, urge the newly established Rotary district of Nepal to set an example for the world that it will strive to be an inclusive club from the very beginning}.

To its great credit, with its 1.2 million members, in 32,000 clubs, in 200 countries, Rotary International has done a commendable job in bringing together business and professional leaders to provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build peace in the world.

As someone who has devoted all of my professional career in the service of 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 exemplifies the humanitarian spirit of “service above self”.

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.

Perhaps the most well-known of Rotary’s partnership with the UN involves the global campaign to eradicate polio.

In 1985 Rotary International launched PolioPlus, perhaps the most ambitious project undertaken by any 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 international 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 stunning. Rotary Clubs have raised over half a billion US dollars, mobilized thousands of Rotarians, and helped immunize over 2 billion children.

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

Today polio cases have been reduced by 99 percent. Last year we had less than a 1000 cases in the whole world, largely confined to 4 endemic countries.

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

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 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.

Over many years, in my work at UNICEF, I have had the personal privilege to collaborate closely with leaders of Rotary International in the polio eradication campaigns. And I agree with my former boss, Kofi Annan, who said, “Rotary’s PolioPlus program is a shining example of the achievements made possible by cooperation between the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations.”

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 released 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 their wise and far-sighted investment in such global public goods aimed at fostering peace and development.

In the field of education, the Rotary Foundation partners with 8 universities around the world and has created Rotary centres for international studies in peace and conflict resolution.

Rotary also sponsors the world’s largest privately-funded international scholarship programme, investing some $26 million for 1200 scholarships in 64 countries every year. Indeed, cumulatively, over 37,000 men and women from 100 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.

I hope that as Rotary establishes an independent district chapter in Nepal, we Nepalis will learn from Rotary’s unique approach and experience in peace-building and development.

As the people of Nepal are getting ready to go to historic elections for a Constituent Assembly, that is supposed to finally bring lasting peace and development to this country, let us all – as citizens and voters – ask exactly the kind of questions that Rotarians are supposed to ask.

Do the actions and approaches being proposed to solve this nation’s problems by our political parties and candidates pass the following tests:

  • – 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 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 has been introduced into Nepal’s body politic in recent years.

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.

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.

I am confident that this will not happen, because we Nepalis have shown through our inspiring Jana-andolans, an incredible genius to throw out peacefully institutions and ideologies that have failed to transform themselves to respond to the changing times and aspirations of our peoples.

We count on Rotary International, with its glorious history and noble principles, to be a strong partner, as Nepal enters an era of peace and development – with justice and equity – that our people so desperately need and richly deserve.

Thank you.

(Mr. Gautam, a citizen of Nepal, is former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF)