Last month, following the Rotary International Convention that brought 25,000 Rotarians to Toronto, about 100 of us met together to attempt to answer some audacious questions. What can ordinary citizens from many different countries do to help bring about the end of extreme poverty in our world? If global networks like Rotary joined forces with nonprofit organizations and policy advocates, could we accelerate progress to reaching the goal of the UN and the World Bank of ending extreme poverty by 2030?
It sounds crazy, right? What can a theater critic from Virginia, a researcher from Nepal, an engineer from California, a health worker from India, a pastor from Alberta, and a youth activist from Ontario do to take on a challenge as large as global poverty?
It seems ridiculous, until you start looking at what Rotary has done to bring an end to polio. Polio paralyzed or killed 400,000 children each year in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1979, Rotary began its first Health, Hunger and Humanity project by providing polio vaccinations in the Philippines. The project had the support of Rotary International and a strong network of local Rotary clubs in the Philippines. Rotary partnered with the Philippines Ministry of Health to vaccinate 6 million children over five years.
The success of this project led to Rotary adopting the elimination of polio as a global goal. Rotary clubs around the world began raising money and organizing vaccination drives in response. Rotary brought in high level partners, including UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Over the almost 40 years since the project began, Rotary has raised over a billion dollars and supported vaccination drives in 122 countries.
The combined work of these organizations and hundreds of thousands of health workers around the world has eliminated polio from all but three countries. Last year these countries reported 31 cases of polio, which means that the number of cases of polio worldwide has fallen by 99.99%. What remains to be done is what they call “mopping up exercises,” vaccinating every child in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Applying the Polio Lessons
As we looked at the challenge of ending extreme poverty, we took three lessons from Rotary’s work with polio.
Ultra-Poverty as the Last Mile
We looked more closely at the challenges of ultra-poverty to determine what our role could be in its elimination. Right now, about 400 million people live with a combination of deprivations that put them in ultra-poverty (one way to understand ultra-poverty: A family that spends 80% of its income on food, but still receives less than 80% of the calories needed each day). Of these 400 million, 80% of them live in 14 countries of South Asia and Africa.
We took some time trying to imagine what our lives would be like if we lived in the same conditions: no house but a lean-to, no education, no internet or TV, no access to health care, only one set of old clothes, only day-labor jobs that paid 50 cents a day for strenuous work, only able to buy starchy foods that would make us feel full for a while even if they had few nutrients. If we lived in these conditions, what would we need to help move our families out of poverty?
We heard from experts working for international nonprofit organizations (BRAC, CARE, Finca, Grameen, Opportunity International, World Vision) and others with decades of experience in the field. They taught us about different approaches for working with those in ultra-poverty, including the graduation approach, savings groups, agricultural value chains, and government cash transfers.
We also heard from experts that helped us recognize various excluded groups within the ultra-poverty category. The homeless, refugees, people with disabilities, and people with contagious diseases will need specialized approaches that address their unique needs. Then we learned about organizations that would be interested in being partners in this work, including those working in the areas of agriculture, education, sanitation, renewable energy and conflict transformation.
The Local Starting Point
The next day we looked at five pilot projects brought by Rotarians and leaders from nonprofit organizations.
We reviewed each of these projects and developed strategies for how they could reach more people living in ultra-poverty. Then we linked projects to local Rotary clubs and clubs in Canada and the US, developing funding plans for each.
We concluded with five projects, each with a strategy for reaching people in ultra-poverty, and a funding stream planned to get them started. We also discussed a pipeline for including additional projects. Not a plan to end ultra-poverty, but a plan to get started on our own role in helping bring about that end.
Rotary and the End of Ultra-Poverty
Will these five projects lead to a massive effort from Rotary to end ultra-poverty like it did for polio? We don’t know. These are five test cases. Success in these projects could lead to other Rotary clubs and districts initiating similar projects, which could motivate Rotary International to establish a global goal around ending ultra-poverty.
Our hope is that in 2031, as the world celebrates the end of extreme poverty, Rotary members around the globe can find joy in knowing that they took on the hardest cases as they helped the world reach its goal.