Can Rotary Help End Poverty
the Same Way it Has Helped to End Polio?

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July 5, 2018
Voices 4 RESULTS
July 18, 2018


 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?


Former Rotary International President James Bornar vaccinates chile in the Philippines (photo credit RIPP)

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.

(photo credit Rotary International Polio Pulse)


Applying the Polio Lessons

As we looked at the challenge of ending extreme poverty, we took three lessons from Rotary’s work with polio.

  1. Plan for the Last Mile First – Rotary learned that polio could not be eliminated in a country unless every child was vaccinated. It is costing a lot more to eliminate poverty in the last three countries that it has cost in previous countries.  The lesson is that if you seek to eliminate something, you need to plan for the hardest cases from the beginning so that the delivery system reaches everyone.  For our work we have chosen to work first on the challenge of ultra-poverty, those living in the deepest levels of poverty, facing deprivations in housing, education, health care, nutrition and income.
  2. Aim High but Start Local – Just like Rotary’s first polio project started in the Philippines with enthusiastic support from local and international clubs, we will need to start our work on extreme poverty with demonstration projects supported by their local Rotary clubs partnering with clubs in the US and Canada. Success with these projects can help lead other Rotary clubs to follow our example.
  3. Build Strong Partnerships – Rotary did not take on polio by itself. It needed the expertise of global organizations, local health organizations and the volunteers in its clubs working together.  We will need to build similar partnerships with global bodies like the World Bank and the Untied Nations as well as with local governments, nonprofits, and advocates.

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


Planning to end ultra-poverty (photo credit Kathryn Deckert)

The next day we looked at five pilot projects brought by Rotarians and leaders from nonprofit organizations.

  1. Honduras – Adopt-a-Village. A project that brings together health, agriculture, financial services an education for remote villages.
  2. India – Healing Fields. Health education, health products and community health workers developed through microfinance clients.
  3. Uganda – Bright Life. Solar power provided to remote villages with financing provided by Finca.
  4. Uganda – Handicapped Youth Graduation. Helping handicapped youth develop income generating livelihoods.
  5. Ethiopia – Water, Sanitation and Health. Training for people with microfinance loans how to prevent infectious diseases.

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.

Planning group for the Rotary Ending Ultra-Poverty Summit (photo credit Kathryn Deckert)

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