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