Rotary International President-elect K R Ravindran pledged at the International Assembly in San Diego, California, that Rotary will continue its fight against polio, particularly in Pakistan, where the Taliban are shooting polio immunisers.
In his opening remarks to the 538 Governors-elect, he urged the incoming Governors to treat each day of their one year as a gift and an opportunity given to them to serve people of the world. “Our first and greatest challenge is of course the eradication of polio. When we made the promise to eradicate polio, a quarter of a century ago, we had 125 endemic countries. More than 1,000 children were being paralysed every single day.”
Thanks to the relentless work done by Rotarians, today there are only three polio endemic countries and the whole of last year only 350-odd cases of polio were reported, “almost all of them in Pakistan where our fight is not only against the polio-virus, but also against the forces of ignorance, brutality and oppression,” said Ravindran.
The government and people of Pakistan were striving along with Rotary to create a polio-free Pakistan but, “the Taliban on motorcycles shoot the women who administer vaccines, and have now even resorted to killing children in their classrooms.” No one could have envisioned 25 years ago that things could come to such a state. “But the work of 25 years and the faith, dedication and trust of millions will not be brought low by so lowly an opponent. We will battle on and prevail because a future without polio is a gift we have promised to the children of the world. And indeed it is a gift that we will give,” he said.
In a speech which turned emotional at moments and was heard with rapt attention by the incoming Governors and their spouses, Ravindran said that, when along with him, they take on “the leadership of our great organisation,” the Governors should consider this a pivotal and transformative moment in their lives. This would prove to be a milestone by which their subsequent experiences would be measured.
Complexity of Rotary
“Outside, the world carries on, our homes, businesses, families, clubs will go on. But right now here in San Diego our vision is sharpening … expanding. During this week you and I will begin to understand the breadth and width of this organisation. And the complexities and complications that surround it.”
He said all of them in the “past, might have spoken about things that we thought are wrong with Rotary. We have both the privilege and the awesome responsibility to make these things right.” But, he warned them, “As our horizons stretch out before us we know that they are not without limits. For, we have, but one year to lead.”
When one knows that one’s time is limited, it becomes so much more precious. “The drive to achieve, to create, and leave behind something which says that I was here, mattered. And that is why so many see their year in Rotary as a chance of a lifetime to make their mark. But if you really want to make a difference, then use your year to take the work of Rotary forward to make its mark on the world.”
Quoting Rabindranath Tagore that even though we know our time is finite, Ravindran said, “yet we spend our days, as the poet wrote, in stringing and unstringing our guitars while the song we came to sing remains unsung.”
The other three people Ravindran invoked in his speech were Abraham Lincoln, who gave the gift of “human dignity to man, Mother Teresa who gave the gift of compassion to the forgotten and Mahatma Gandhi who gave the gift of peaceful change to the oppressed.”
He said from the time we are born, we are blessed with gifts; “the first is of life itself, and then we receive gifts of love, and the nurture of our families, education, health and every talent and skill, wealth … are all gifts.” Sometimes these gifts are so precious that they overwhelm you, as he felt a few months ago, “when we were blessed with our first grandchild.”
Use your year to take the work of Rotary forward to make its mark on the world.
He said that as the incoming Governors were wondering how many gifts they had to be grateful for, they should realise that as all human beings had a limited period to live, so did they have only one year — 2015–16 — and so much to do.
Bring back the fundamentals
Expressing concern that even though Rotary has a great history and potential, Ravindran said, “We also know that in so many blocks and districts the reality of Rotary is not what it ought to be. We have to find a way to bring back the fundamentals that built this organisation: the emphasis on high ethical standards in all aspects of our lives, and the encouragement of diversity of expertise. But these days, too often, these ideas are viewed as inconvenient obstacles in increasing our membership goals. But they have been essential to Rotary’s success. We ignore them at our own peril.”
But, he added, the Rotary dialogue needs to be cast in the “reality” of today. “The focus on branding is indeed necessary. We need to reposition our image which we recognise has failed in many parts of the world.” Often there is a disconnect between how the leaders and the club members saw certain issues. Money had to be raised for The Rotary Foundation “but if we ask for too much we will drive away members. We want to attract young members but not alienate the older members who now form our backbone. Or lose sight of the recently retired, who still have so much to give us.”
Another challenge was that though the leaders wanted the clubs to participate in activities beyond their districts, too much of demand would make membership a “burden” demanding too much time and resources.
There were no easy answers to these questions but answers would have to be found, “and we are the ones who must find them. You know what your clubs need and have to offer, you can help us chart a course together. I will ask you to give your faith, I will ask you to give your dedication, commitment and compassion. I will ask you for all these gifts and even more than that … to be a gift yourself, a gift to the world.”
We have to find a way to bring back the fundamentals that built this organisation.
Invoking his “Hindu faith,” Ravindran then related the story of Krishna and Sudama: Sudama took his gift —
beaten rice in a piece of cloth — to Krishna, who consumed it with joy. “It is not the material value of the gift we give but how much of ourselves we give with it that will matter to the receiver. And we all have a choice, whether to keep our gifts to ourselves or use them to be a gift to the world,” he added, expanding on his theme for next year.
Addressing the Governors-elect, RI General Secretary John Hewko said that they would have to ensure that “our membership stays strong; our projects have greater impact and are more sustainable. We need to work with various partners to bring more partnership resources on the table for more sustainable projects.” Also their priorities were to ensure that, “we remain a trusted and unique old friend, our clubs continue to thrive and grow and provide service to communities around the world.”
Be a gift yourself, a gift to the world.
TRF Trustee Chair-elect Ray Klinginsmith said he had been attending these meetings since 1975 and was amazed at how “impressive and productive these sessions were.” He, Ravindran and Hewko were “committed to an outstanding year for Rotary and to you as governors. During this week you will realise that when you serve as the district governor you will be part of a team capable of thinking bigger and both locally and globally.” To do that, they would need the help of friends. “The effectiveness of our large scale service projects depends on our connection with our friends. During this week you will be motivated, empowered and energised to maintain the momentum and energy to eradicate polio. Above all, you will learn that we are an organisation of outstanding service with incredible potential. The sky is the limit if all of us do our jobs well,” Klinginsmith concluded.
Earlier RI President Gary C K Huang declared the Assembly open and in a vibrant and colourful ceremony, the flags of the Rotary World were presented. Three national anthems — that of USA, Taiwan and Sri Lanka were sung.