This year only three of the 28 applicants from India were selected for admission to Rotary’s Peace Centres, located in six universities across the world. If India could manage only this abysmally low figure of successful candidates — after all 100 scholarships are given every year under Rotary’s peace programme — it was not for want of suitable candidates. “We had applications from some outstanding candidates in terms of qualifications. But unfortunately their applications, including the essay, were not ‘strong’ or well written,” says PDG Gulam Vahanvaty, the only Indian on the Rotary Peace Centres Committee.
To get more successful candidates from India, we need our district governors to get proactive and promote the programme.
Every year Rotary sponsors 100 scholars for its peace programmes at the six Rotary Peace Centres located across the world; the Duke University and University of North Carolina, US; International Christian University, Japan; University of Bradford, England; University of Queensland, Australia; Uppsala University, Sweden and a certificate programme at the Chulalongkorn University, Thailand.
Vahanvaty, a former RRFC, is himself a beneficiary of Rotary scholarship and exchange programme. In 1978, he was selected as a member of TRF’s Group Study Exchange (GSE) Team from the then District 314 and went to Indiana, USA. “It was a life enhancing experience, one which made me want to join Rotary,” he says.
The mandate of the Rotary Peace Centres Committee is to select candidates and serve as liaison between Rotary and the universities that host the Peace Centres in order to monitor and evaluate the programme’s outcome. As the world faces increasing conflict in more and more countries, Rotary’s peace programme has never been as relevant as now. This programme was started in 2002; “the Ambassadorial scholarships were there earlier but it was difficult to gauge what long-term impact they would make on the world and the same was true of the GSE. So the Trustees said why not have a dedicated programme for promoting the concept of peace in the world,” says Vahanvaty.
He explains that the peace programme falls into two slots — short and long term. While the latter can vary from 15–24 months, the former are of just three-four months duration. Both the programmes need work experience.
The certificate programme at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok is dedicated to the 3–4 month course meant for students with greater work experience. While the average age of a long-term fellow is around 30, that of a short-term person is around 40, but the latter would need more than a decade of experience.
The Peace Fellows study subjects related to the root causes of conflict and explore innovative solutions to address real-world needs. Candidates come from police or armed forces, Governments, voluntary sector or lawyers dedicated to human rights, and so on. “The idea behind this programme is how do you hone your skills theoretically to apply the benefits of that knowledge on your day-to-day work. For example, two years ago we had an Additional Police Commissioner from Mumbai who went for the short-term course.” Maharashtra’s DGP Praveen Dixit, who retired earlier this year, was the first batch scholar from the American centre to graduate in 2004. He later moved up the ranks to become DGP.
Maharashtra’s DGP Praveen Dixit, who retired earlier this year, was the first batch scholar in 2002–04 from the American centre.
On whether the Rotary Peace Fellows keep in touch with Rotary, Vahanvaty says, “We have a tremendously strong connect with the alumni.” Thanks to his earlier appointment as Chairman of TRF’s Alumni Advisory Committee for two terms, he has interacted closely with TRF alumni, including the Peace Fellows.
As for qualifications, the candidate can be from any stream, “but the work experience is very important, and how he or she is related to the field of peace. This year we’ve got a candidate from Syria who has actually worked in a refugee camp. We’ve had several peace scholars who’ve worked in Palestinian refugee camps. Interestingly, this year a visually challenged candidate from Afghanistan had applied. “His story brings tears in your eyes. Both the committee members and the universities said he should be selected but they were not sure if the course content was equipped for a visually challenged person. But one of the centres is confident of taking him next year; they are very keen that such people get into these courses,” says Vahanvaty.
On how much the Rotary Peace programme costs TRF, he says the 100 scholars sponsored by Rotary at these Peace Centres cost about $4.7 million a year; add to this the funding to the Peace Centres and the annual cost goes up to $5.3 million. When the project was started in 2002, it was thought a corpus of $100 million should be raised. But soon it was realised this money would be inadequate and “the target has been revised to $150 million, which we hope to achieve by June 2017,” he says. In the corpus, Harshad Mehta, a diamond merchant from Mumbai/Dubai alone has given $400,000 for this programme. For the long-term courses each candidate costs the TRF $75,000, and the short-term students $12,000.
We have some outstanding, gutsy women who have faced and fought childhood battles, have seen refuges been ill treated and have worked in refugee camps.
There were a record number of 541 applications this year. Apart from the final selection of the peace scholars, the Committee, which is chaired by PDG Peter Kyle, has senior Rotarians such as RID Jerry Meigs, Vice Chair of Trustees Ken Schuppert, Anne Mathews (Vice Chairman), John Blount, Mark Maloney and Jackson Hsieh as its members and is also involved in the planning of where this programme is going to be in the future. A special high powered committee liases with the Rotary Peace Centres Committee “to ensure that we are going in the right direction, do we need another centre, etc. I’ve been very strongly advocating that we need a new Peace Centre in a country with a significant Muslim population as that part of the world is seeing a lot of conflict and violence,” says Vahanvaty. He is also concerned that there are hardly any candidates coming from strife torn regions such as the Middle East and North Africa.
Districts should be proactive
But along with poor representation from the Middle East and North Africa, Vahanvaty was sorry to find only three candidates from India making it to the final selection. And not for want of qualifications; many applicants were very strong on that count. But where they lost out was in the way the application and the essay were written. “If you had read the applications from those who were selected, you’d say wow, and give them 10 on 10! But it was evident that they had been coached.”
Vahanvaty says unfortunately there is poor awareness in India that Rotary gives such peace scholarships. “The application has to be signed by the District Committee and then the DG. Unfortunately, I got calls from candidates this year saying they were finding it difficult to reach the DGs. To get more successful candidates from India, we need our district governors to get proactive and promote the programme. I am prepared to come to any forum and speak about it because I think it is important, and we are missing out on an excellent opportunity,” he says.
The importance of a well-written application is paramount because the candidates are not interviewed. “We simply can’t afford to call them, as they are from across the world. There also needs to be a mentoring system.” D 3141 has a good mentor for aspiring peace scholars in Rajendra Ruia, who knows this programme well; “he can be a role model for other districts.”
On the gender mix, Vahanvaty says they get an equal number of applications from men and women; while 60 percent of women are selected for the long-term course, in the shorter course the ratio is 50:50. “We find some amazing women applicants and scholars… outstanding, gutsy women who have faced and fought childhood battles, have seen refugees being ill treated. In the past D 3240 (Assam) always had candidates selected for peace scholarships and for the long-term courses. Some of those scholars have started their own centres for peace and conflict resolution and have done some tremendous work.”
The peace scholars are one of Rotary’s big success stories. Today there are around 1,000-odd Rotary peace scholars across the world and “they are making a difference in the UN, the World Bank, several NGOs, governments, etc.”
So is Rotary trying to get them to Atlanta where a peace seminar will be held?
“Of course, we’d like to have as many of our scholars there as possible but the difficulty is that the Fellows themselves cannot fund their travel and accommodation which is expensive.” But the Trustees are examining ways to set aside a budget. “They always make a huge impact; when they speak, people’s pocketbooks open up and we are now able to say anecdotally… we don’t have exact figures… that the money came because they spoke. But the problem is getting them there.”