July/August 2011 The Lions of Lagos, the Rotarians of Rawalpindi

How the civic groups that once defined America are thriving abroad, and what it means for us.

By John Gravois

One remarkable fact about the global spread of old-line American civic groups is that they’ve often been allowed to thrive in authoritarian countries that systematically repress other kinds of membership organizations. Rotary International managed to grow by 18 percent over the past decade in Mubarak’s Egypt, for instance. And the tiny, troubled nation of Bahrain may have more Toastmasters per capita than any other country in the world, with fifty-eight chapters for its total population of 1.2 million. That’s not to say that these groups had anything to do with the Arab spring uprisings in those countries. Indeed, it is likely their very apolitical inoffensiveness that has allowed them to survive. (“It’s all charity work,” Hisham Fahmy, CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, told me with a shrug when I asked him about Rotary. “It’s good networking.”) But when democracies do in fact emerge, it’s not outlandish to think that groups like Rotary and the Toastmasters may offer them strength going forward.

Of course, it’s hard to say how significant that role might be. But there is a clearer lesson to be gleaned here. In recent years, American-style capitalism has undeniably—and for good reason—lost much of its luster on the world stage, beginning with the failure of the “Washington Consensus” in Latin America and Russia and accelerating with the collapse of the global financial markets brought on by Wall Street. And yet despite all that, strivers across the globe still apparently want to associate themselves with these quintessentially American, Babbit-like business groups. We shouldn’t be surprised. These groups do not represent the culture of Davos—of an Olympian elite that sits at the helm of a few overweening multinational corporations. They represent a capitalism of opportunity and dignity for the average man or woman. And as much havoc as we’ve wreaked, that’s still a club much of world thinks worth joining.

John Gravois is an editor of the Washington Monthly.


  • Stephen Baker, MD on July 06, 2011 4:07 PM:

    I get the point about the growth of service clubs around the world but you should check population data if you want to highlight it. Inasmuch as you claim increased penetration of such organizations by reference to their already achieved distribution in developing countries, then the ratios you cite must make the point well. Your Kansas and Kerala comparison does not. There are 3,998,000 people in Kansas whereas the population of Kerala is 33,388,677. So if there are twice as many Rotary Clubs in Kerala than in Kansas, Kansas still has more than four times as many Rotary clubs per capita than Kerala. Put this way your assertion is not convincing

  • Rich on July 10, 2011 11:57 AM:

    Kerala is ruled by Communists (not Faux News Communists, but the actual party in India). It has a very small middle class relative to booming areas like Channai. The "twice as many clubs and growing" is very significant.

  • Rick on July 13, 2011 5:35 PM:

    Rich- what are "Faux News Communists???" Please clarify. Thanks.

  • amyk on July 14, 2011 5:12 PM:

    So it's your contention that (1) Indonesia had this many Boy Scout groups decades ago, when Obama lived there, and that (2) Obama was an active member? Citations, please!

  • TedS on July 16, 2011 4:51 PM:

    Anyone interested in Kerala (as of perhaps 15+ years ago) could do worse than check out chapter three of Bill McKibben's "Hope, Human and Wild".

    From there, we learn that despite an income of $330 per person per year, the male life expectancy in Kerala is only two years less than in the U.S.; Kerala has been certified by the U.N. as 100% literate (including women); and their birth rate, while 10% higher than ours (18 vs 16 per thousand), is falling faster.

    In countries (and other states of India) of comparable income, the male life expectancy is 12 years less, the literacy rate is about half (only 1/3 of the women), and the birth rate is around 40.

    All this on roughly 1/70th of our income. An amazing place (again, 15+ years ago).

  • robert de rycke on July 21, 2011 10:11 AM:

    Could it be that Toastmasters is about learning to comnnicate more eeffectively? Maybe that is no longer
    so important here? Ands if so, could that lack of interest in effective communication be a contributing factor to our much deplored polarization?

    A possible answer may be any replies to this comment. It may be a refutation or an inquiry. Which is more likely to improve our connection?

  • Barry Bainton on August 18, 2011 1:58 PM:

    Very interesting article pointing to the universality of the changing nature of social organization in a global society. The phenomenon you are describing is the formation of "voluntary associations." Voluntary associations are a hallmark of the break with, or addition to, the kinship, caste and class basis for social groups and group formation. To the degree that individuals are freed from the ascribe status of kinship, caste and/or class, the voluntary association enables the formation of social networks based on shared individual needs and interests. They also allow for social mobility which can be to society's benefit.

  • rjwalker on August 18, 2011 2:10 PM:

    John Gravois mentions Mike Huckabee's claim in March 2011 that "He [Obama] has a different worldview and I think it is, in part, molded out of a very different experience. Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings."

    I did some digging when he made that claim and found that roughly, only about 13% of boys and girls in the US join the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.

    So, In the real real America, most of us didn't "grow going to Boy Scout or Girl Scout meetings."


  • Arun Goyal on August 19, 2011 7:00 AM:

    BTW, Kerala was ruled by communists. They lost in the elections held for the state assembly about four months ago, The Centrist Congress party now rules there but it too is left oriented.
    Regarding the good human development indices in Kerala inspite of relatively low per capital income, one of the reasons is the strong influence of christianity in the area. The spirit of sacrifice and service in the culture makes the insitutions for welfare strong and result oriented there. This conclusions holds for other areas of strong christian influence, Sri Lanka, the North East of India, Puducherry, etc etc. (I write all this even though I am not a christian by birth or adoption.)
    Arun Goyal, New Delhi

  • David C Benfield, MBA on August 22, 2011 2:00 PM:

    Community organizations such Lions, Rotary, YMCA, YWCA, Exchange, Elks, American Legion, and Toastmasters consist of members, staff, and volunteers who devote some of their time to building a stronger community. Each of these groups bring people together, many of whom contribute their time, talent, and treasure. Many people in the USA believe they are too busy to volunteer and participate in civic/nonprofit organizations and their communities are weaker as a result. Maybe we could text a little less and volunteer a little more. Imagine what could happen!

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