Ximena De La Barra scheduled the customary question-and-answer session after her speech. As an advisor for the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), she fielded a number of tough questions on the role of children in reducing poverty throughout the Americas. Little did she know her toughest question would not be about the organization that she did belong to, but rather the one that she didn't.
“Are you a Rotarian?” Former director of Rotary International Frank Devlyn asked in a tone that wondered why anyone wouldn't want to be. “Well, you ought to join,” he said. Devlyn wasn't adamant at first, but when De La Barra appeared a little flustered, he pursued the idea.
“Now raise your right hand. No, I'm serious...” He did not relent until De La Barra had sworn to join her local club.
This evangelistic scene set the tone at the Rotary Conference for Poverty in the Americas held this weekend in Mission Valley. An army of representatives from Rotary clubs around the United States and Mexico gathered to learn more about poverty in the Western Hemisphere. While many Rotary clubs already have programs that promote recovery and growth in Latin America and the Caribbean, the conference provided an opportunity to expand their efforts. The conference serves as testimony that few can match Rotary's fervor for humanitarian work.
Rotary is a collection of clubs in locales spanning the globe. Each club meets regularly to plan charitable projects. While each club's primary focus is on the local community, ambitious ones-as most Rotary clubs apparently are-plan projects for locations halfway around the globe. This is typically accomplished with the assistance of a sister club in the area and, at times, other charitable organizations. That assistance can be gained at conferences like this one.
The list of speakers at the conference included representatives from UNICEF, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank. And, as USAID representative Karen A. Harbert put it, the speakers were essentially “preaching to the converted.” In trying to improve the health of Latin America, governmental organizations like these typically welcome the efforts of groups like Rotary. As long as a non-governmental organization (NGO) is engaged in projects that concur with U.S. and U.N. policy in the region, collaboration is an exciting prospect for both. Funds can be pooled and efforts combined to reap the greatest benefit for the poor people of the region.
One of the more intriguing relationships Rotary was cultivating at the conference involved the World Bank, whose controversial lending practices have drawn fire from activists for years.
Many Central and South American countries have histories of political unrest and economic instability. They may already be deep in debt to other banking institutions. Often, there is no other recourse than to borrow from the World Bank.
As evidenced by Argentina's recent default, a borrowing country's credit history should not be trivialized. To try to ensure that the country makes good, the World Bank loans conditionally, meaning that they have a great deal of control over how their loan is distributed. They allocate and organize down to a minute level. Accusations have flown that, in the allocation of funds, the World Bank has neglected social needs-health care, education, workers' rights-in favor of macroeconomic growth and the repayment of the debt.
Norman Hicks, an analyst for the Bank and their speaker at the conference, denied the charge, saying, “In the early days... admittedly, we did not pay a lot of attention to social spending and social issues. Now we are aware of these problems.”
Social needs did account for a significant portion of Hicks' speech. Hicks-who incidentally escaped the initiation into Rotary at the hands of Devlyn-indicated that these are areas that would benefit most from Rotary's attention.
And collaboration does take place. At the conference's project fair, C. Ray Carlson, who represented a Pasadena Rotary club, showed off the Junior Achievement programs that they had contributed to in countries throughout the globe. The programs get local teenagers to draw up plans for an entrepreneurial endeavor. Carlson believes that self-employment not only empowers those who start the business, but also creates jobs for others. And the program has received funds from the World Bank. Said Carlson: “The World Bank agency has more than matched the Rotary contribution” in some countries.
Appropriately enough, Carlson's club works closest with a Junior Achievement program in Tijuana. CETYS Universidad used the grant from Carlson's club “to teach 1,800 at-risk middle school students during 2000-01, at a cost of only $5.55 per student.”
The initial success of Junior Achievement programs has been phenomenal. A study of one area found that, by age 30, about 20 percent of graduates of the program had started their own businesses compared to 5 percent of the general population.
Still, what is most reassuring is learning that cooperation is not undertaken lightly. After his speech, Hicks said privately that the World Bank's priority is regulating the distribution of the money that it loans, to make sure it isn't wasted. Non-governmental organizations can't always be depended upon to follow through on programs. Hicks says that NGOs tell the World Bank, “‘just trust us.' We don't do that. We don't trust people.”
If the World Bank is not your economic policeman of choice, then it may be more assuring to know that NGOs are policing themselves. Rotarians prefer to volunteer in their own projects, as opposed to donating money to another organization. And many Rotarians this weekend identified “accountability” as the key to successful humanitarian efforts.
Perhaps this is the greatest collaboration to come out of the conference: organizations combining to hold each other accountable.