How the civic groups that once defined America are thriving abroad, and what it means for us.
Bowling far from home: The Rotary club of Kalisizo, Uganda (Photo: Alyce Henson)
One sweltering day last spring, out of curiosity and a long-standing interest in the old-fashioned American institutions of civic engagement, I stepped out of my apartment building in the nation’s capital and walked over to attend a nearby conference of the Toastmasters. Founded in a Southern California YMCA basement for the betterment of tongue-tied young men, the Toastmasters have been offering “practice and training in the art of public speaking” along with “sociability and good fellowship” since the mid-1920s. In my mind, the group harked back to a half-imagined America of bowling leagues, church barbecues, and Rotary signs on the edge of town. What was funny was that my apartment resided in a sandy, congested neighborhood of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Under the Arabian midday glare, I scurried across one of the city’s sprawling six-lane boulevards—past a billboard that months earlier had advertised the local Krispy Kreme’s “Ramadan Dozen” special—to reach the campus of a local women’s college that was hosting the event. When I arrived at the main auditorium, I found it humming with a 300-horsepower murmur. The place was packed with men and women in off-the-rack power suits, plus a few starched white robes and black abayas. The room was decked end-to-end with gold silk banners, each, to my amazement, representing a different local chapter of the Toastmasters. By itself, Abu Dhabi—a young boomtown of global migrants roughly the size of Milwaukee—harbors seventeen active chapters of the group, I learned. The UAE as a whole, with a population of about eight million people, has seventy-one chapters.
When I first heard that the Toastmasters had a presence in Abu Dhabi, I pictured a small roomful of ill-adjusted American expatriates draining their water glasses, trading a few speeches, and then adjourning to a bar. Suffice it to say, my imagination had failed me. At the conference, I found only one fellow American in the crowd. In fact, I found only one other native speaker of English in the crowd. Instead, the group drew from a pretty representative sample of Abu Dhabi’s usually rather fragmented society: there was a strong majority from the Indian subcontinent, small contingents of Filipinos and Arabs from abroad,and a few actual citizens of the UAE—all guffawing warmly at speeches delivered in broken English about following dreams, learning lessons from failure, seeing through appearances, and other themes of uplift worthy of a motivational poster.
Curious, I called up the Toastmasters headquarters in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, to find out whether the United Arab Emirates was some kind of anomaly. It isn’t. The organization reports hotspots of growth throughout Asia and the Middle East. “Within India and Sri Lanka,” said Daniel Rex, the Toastmasters’ executive director, “we’re organizing about a chapter a week.”
Then, on a hunch, I began poking around to see how similar organizations were faring overseas—groups like Rotary, the Boy Scouts, the Lions, and the Kiwanis, which all came into existence during the same early-twentieth-century period that gave rise to the Toastmasters. Most of these groups have been bleeding members in the United States for decades. And yet, as I discovered, many have been growing nonetheless.
“We have 11,000 Kiwanians in Taiwan,” said a chipper spokeswoman for the Indiana-based group, which has seen a 59 percent rise across Asia in the new millennium. Rotary International, after a decade of 60 percent growth in South Korea, counts 60,000 members there. And a number of different groups have found particularly fertile soil in India. In addition to the Toastmasters’ strong showing there, the Lions have grown by 36 percent over the past decade, with a total membership of more than 200,000 in the land of Gandhi. Rotary has grown by 55 percent there over the same period. (Fun fact: There are twice as many Rotary clubs in Kerala as there are in Kansas.) As of July 1, the new president of Rotary International is Kalyan Banerjee, a chemical executive from the medium-size industrial city of Vapi, Gujarat. And between 1980 and today, the Indian equivalent of the Boy Scouts—called the Bharat Scouts—has grown by about a third.
In a radio interview earlier this year, the former Arkansas governor and Fox News personality Mike Huckabee sniffed at President Obama’s childhood years in Indonesia. “Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings,” he said, “and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary clubs, not madrassas.” Huckabee’s innuendo was unmistakable, but he got one thing precisely backward. Indonesia has more than twice as many scouts as we do. In fact, with around 17.1 million badge-seeking, uniform-sporting, oath-swearing youth, Indonesia has the largest scouting association in the world. The United States, whose scout numbers are steadily dwindling, is not even a close second. And for the record, Rotary has around eighty-nine clubs in the country as well.
As Robert D. Putnam famously chronicled a decade ago in his book Bowling Alone, Americans in the latter third of the twentieth century precipitously abandoned the clubs and associations that once defined us. Many of the trends Putnam outlined have continued. Over the last ten years alone, American membership in the Lions has fallen by about 20 percent, in Rotary by about 8 percent, and the Kiwanis by about 22 percent. Since the mid-twentieth century, everything from card games to church attendance, from Sunday picnics to membership in unions has plummeted. Screen time has crowded out much else. Today, we might follow scores of people on Twitter, join a dozen Facebook groups, and sign up for a few mailing lists, but it’s considerably more rare for us to actually show up for anything.
This is, of course, a familiar story—one that has by now been subject to about as many interpretations as Moby-Dick. And there is disagreement as to how much we should mourn. Technophiles say we have simply moved beyond an old-line civic order into an online one, where powerful social networks offer infinite connection in a frictionless world. Others view these innovations as at best pale substitutes for the Grange Halls and other groups that helped drive progressive reforms in the twentieth century, or the once-thriving fraternal orders that sponsored Little Leagues and helped knit different classes of Americans together as recently as the 1960s. “We’ve reached a point where our most important elites do not join anything with anybody else,” says Theda Skocpol, a professor of government at Harvard who wrote elegiacally about the history of membership groups and fraternal organizations in her book Diminished Democracy.
And yet it’s worth pausing to consider that this familiar story of the decline of the old-fashioned American civic association may not, in fact, be quite accurate. Like the Fortune 500 companies that are expanding operations in emerging markets while trimming their U.S. payrolls, many of America’s major fraternal organizations are thriving globally even as they wither here at home. And while the decline of these groups domestically is certainly not a good thing for America, their growth abroad is hardly unwelcome. Indeed, it may represent a strength—a sort of commercial-civic soft power—that we barely know we have.
“Religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited,
immensely large and very minute”—American associations, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s view, were the defining feature of the nation he anatomized in 1835. His visit to America happened to coincide with a period that the historian Mary P. Ryan has called the “era of association,” when the expansion of male suffrage and the rise of mass political parties spawned a proliferation of cross-class fraternal societies and clubs. Putnam’s historical account in Bowling Alone focuses on a more recent boom in voluntary associations, one that arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.
This time, the catalysts were industrialization, massive urban migration, the rise of corporations, and breakneck economic growth. Jeffersonian bumpkins streamed into Hamiltonian industrial cities; a good portion of the Old World’s tired, poor, and huddled masses were freshly arrived too. The social networks that had once served these new arrivals back at home were either dashed to pieces, left behind, or else ill-suited to helping them advance and associate in this new world. The reaction against these economically charged but civically impoverished conditions was a geyser of new clubs, associations, unions, lodges, and fraternal orders—“a crescendo,” Putnam writes, “unmatched in American history.” It doesn’t seem like too much an abuse of history, I think, to note that much the same basic conditions apply in developing countries today.
When I wrote to Putnam, he said he knew nothing about the overseas expansion of the groups he’d written about in Bowling Alone (though he said he was very interested to hear of it). Just about all of the academics I contacted said much the same thing, expressing mild wonderment when I told them about the growth rates that groups like Rotary are posting in the developing world. Theda Skocpol pointed out that it’s hardly novel for American associations to spread vigorously abroad. (The temperance movement apparently had serious legs.) But this more recent phenomenon—of American civic groups’ expansion overseas during a period of contraction at home—seems to have largely escaped scholarly notice.
Michael Woolcock, a leading scholar of social capital at the World Bank, wasn’t very familiar with the trend I described to him. But he did offer a possible theory to explain it. Historically, he said, the growth of civic groups is often tied to rapid urbanization. And there may be no greater hallmark of our moment in history than the breakneck growth of cities in the developing world. “The world is now, as of last year, more urban than rural,” he said. “That could suggest flush times ahead for groups like Rotary.”
Like Russian immigrants newly arrived in Brooklyn from the shtetl, or Okies plopped down in San Francisco after the Dust Bowl, youth with narrow social networks are streaming into cities from the countryside in vast waves in nations like India. “It’s the proverbial yokel going to town,” said Anirudh Krishna, a professor at Duke University’s School of Public Policy who studies social capital in India. “His sleeves are too short, he knows his table manners are atrocious, his breath smells like garlic.” For educated newcomers with professional aspirations, groups like the Toastmasters or the Lions or Rotary might stand to offer “a school in which villagers can learn to conduct themselves with dignity in a city setting,” Krishna said.
For their part, the leaders of these voluntary associations themselves see their overseas expansion fairly straightforwardly as a phenomenon tied to rapidly expanding global markets. “Rotary thrives in areas that are becoming much more active economically,” said Donna McDonald, the manager of membership development at Rotary International. Explaining his organization’s rapid growth on the subcontinent, Daniel Rex, the executive director of the Toastmasters, said, “It has to do with the rise of India and the buying potential there, and the rise of middle and high-level management.”
At the same time, the Americanness of these groups seems essential to their appeal. (No expert I contacted could think of much in the way of analogous indigenous groups in, say, India or Egypt.) Embedded in the DNA of organizations like Rotary and the Toastmasters are the memes of American business culture, with all its odd tribal rituals, upbeat nostrums, manners, and codes. The Toastmasters not only provide a safe harbor in which to practice one’s English in front of a crowd, the group has also perennially stressed the training it offers in the somewhat baroque skill of running a formal meeting. (The founder of the Toastmasters, Ralph C. Smedley, was also the chief biographer of Henry M. Robert, of Robert’s Rules of Order fame.) “It’s a lot of cultural information,” said Rex.
And in places where America still stands for aspiration, many of these clubs offer a simple marker of status. A Scottish friend of mine who works for the World Bank recently described checking into a hotel in Bhubaneswar, the ramshackle capital of Orissa, which was until recently India’s poorest state. The concierge promptly assured her of the hotel’s quality by informing her that the local Rotary club met there. And at a Toastmasters meeting I attended in a little upstairs room at an Indian restaurant in Abu Dhabi, I watched a very solemn induction ceremony for a few new members, during which an officer of the club offered this somewhat garbled testament to the organization’s prestige: “If at all you are going to be the president of the United States, he has to be a Toastmaster.”
At the end of his travels, Tocqueville came away thinking of the democratic structures of American politics as “great free schools to which all citizens come to be taught the general theory of association.” In his view, it was the peculiar institution of American democracy that gave rise to the thicket of clubs and societies he found in the hinterland. But more recent observers have wondered whether Tocqueville got it backward. What if democracy was the general theory, and fraternal orders, commercial associations, and religious committees were the schools? “This was the civic garden in which people learned all these skills of negotiation and dialogue and speaking in the public square,” says Michael Woolcock. In Robert Putnam’s 1993 book Making Democracy Work, a study of regional governments in Italy, he found that even the presence of completely nonpolitical groups, like choral societies, correlated with more responsive governance. If associations grow thick on the ground, Woolcock says, “it can’t help but have osmosis-like effects in political life.”
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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