Real change and a Rotary challenge

Former Scholar and Youth Exchange student Hunter Tanous at a Rotary club in Zahle, Lebanon.

Former Ambassadorial Scholar and Youth Exchange student Hunter Tanous recently visited a Rotary club in Zahle, Lebanon.

By Hunter Tanous, alumni of the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and Youth Exchange programs

It’s 6:30 a.m. on a work week in Nairobi, Kenya. East Africa is facing possibly the worst drought in 60 years, and I work for the leading social enterprise [Backpack Farm] working with small farmers in the region. I put those together in the same sentence because they are sadly contradictory statements.
Why is it that East Africa, a largely agriculture-based society with the land and labor to feed nearly all of Africa, still falls into famine year after year after year? Even as I speak about the drought in East Africa, little ol’ Zimbabwe is quietly falling into starvation. Zimbabwe, a country that used to be the bread basket of the South, is now facing famine. Why is all this happening?
The list of reasons goes on and on — water, HIV/AIDS, corruption, politics, war. But another reason is a lack of long-term investment and commitment to small-scale growth.
African farmers are some of the most efficient with the meager resources they have, resulting in them also being some of the world’s least productive farmers. Africa went from being a net exporter of food in the 1970s to now having over a quarter of the food imported being Food Aid, from growing to starving in a few decades. Yes, charity and food aid is necessary to alleviate the mass starvation that occurs in situations like we are seeing now in East Africa, and will see soon in Zimbabwe and Uganda. It is true that when drought makes it impossible to grow crops, people will need to be provided with aid. But we have failed, over and over again, in creating a long-term solution. If famine keeps happening, year after year for decades, then there is something deeply flawed in how we are going about creating change. And while the current famine is one example, what I’m about to discuss is applicable to situations and places all over the world, from inner cities in California, to rural farmers in Pakistan, to a large portion of the population in sub-Saharan Africa.

Development and aid have become about isolated projects, and while you see rhetoric against this, their results are very isolated as well. While I am a firm believer that a little bit can go a long way, especially in Africa where if everyone has a little, that really equals a whole lot. But we are not investing enough in people’s ability to grow. We are not thinking about solutions that ease the strains of financially improving the life of whole communities. What I’m talking about is the need for the private sector to create real, lasting change — the same way it did in America, Europe, Asia, and South America, to name a few. Yes, we have to be careful: Chinese investment in Africa has shown that a no-strings-attached policy can improve communities but stifle good politics, and American investment has shown that strings-attached can delay improvement but highlight the need for good politics. Well, that’s not what I’m talking about and that’s not quite where I see the change.

I believe that social enterprise is the solution, that it has great potential to pull people out of poverty around the world. Social enterprise is a market-based approach to a social issue that takes the skills of management, finance, and entrepreneurship developed in the business sector, adds the heart and compassion of the nonprofit sector, and applies those skills to a business or enterprise that’s ultimate mission serves for good. While there are many blends and combinations of social enterprises and social entrepreneurship, I believe the ones that do not rely completely on donor funding become the most desirable, the most needed for a given area, and thus have the most potential to enact change.

I want to highlight one organization that embodies social enterprise without being fully aware of it, and that has great potential to enact visible long-term change. That organization is Rotary. I am talking about all the clubs and members and grants given around the world. Rotary is (I believe) the largest network of business professionals in the world, who have a core set of ethics and beliefs that focus on making the world a better place. Rotary has exchange programs for high school and college-age students, for groups of professionals, and academic centers that focus on peace and conflict resolution. Rotarians embody what it means to do good in the world.

Yet, I challenge Rotarians to do more, to really leverage the immense amount of business and professional knowledge that sits around that table once a week amid friends, both laughing and speaking seriously about how to make the world a better place. I believe they can do more. The reason Rotary projects are so successful and well run is because they have some of the best in the community doing the management and planning. It would be as if each project from an NGO had CEOs and CFOs running it. Wow, wouldn’t that be great?

But it is usually that which we have right in front of us that is most difficult for us to see. The potential of Rotarians to infuse a sustainable business mindset into each and every project they do is large, but the still greater challenge is for them to focus on private sector and business solutions. There is no better group to see and plan for sustainable change or understand the markets or professional aspects of development than Rotary.

Rotarians are successful women and men because they understand the role that the private sector plays in creating wealth, and they have seen the role that ethics plays in having a successful life. Don’t get me wrong, even as I advocate for private-sector change, I do understand the dangers of business — the exploitation, especially in developing countries, the corporations destroying mom and pop stores and small farmers, the horrible things that have come out of our own private-sector rise. But that is why Rotary is different: they are women and men who understand the ethics of business, the need for a set of positive standards and beliefs across a community. For crying out loud, they have the Four Way Test!

Rotarians are the business partners that can create change without the corruption, exploitation and purging of resources so common in Africa and many other places around the world. (I’m highlighting Africa only because I live here at the moment, this need is present around the world.) Rotarians have done wonderful things, but by embracing social enterprise and becoming a leader in that sector, they can create the change that the world so desperately needs.

I write this as a person who has been a recipient of so many of Rotary’s good deeds. I participated in Rotary’s leadership camps, the Youth Exchange program, the Ambassadorial Scholar program, and many small projects around the world. I have seen and continue to see the impact Rotary has.

But I am also a firm believer in the need to always challenge ourselves to do better, to embrace ideas and solutions that we have somehow overlooked, and to reach out to the community that can make a difference, rather than to simply stand by and wait.

Originally published at Hunter Tanous: My Life and Travels, as I Remember Them.  

3 thoughts on “Real change and a Rotary challenge

  1. Hi, I also found that an interesting read. I am currently applying for the Rotary Peace Fellowship and am very interested in the role of social entrepreneurship as a solution to many global and local problems. I’d be interested to know if you have seen or heard of any other positive examples of social enteprises apart from the Rotary?


  2. What a read! I am a rotarian myself of1050 district based in Moss Side . I joined in the last three years and just finding a proper base to work with from a community perspective. Your article has shed some light into project development and how they could be sustained locally and internationally. I would like to follow this up as much as possible to be able to learn from it all. I will take extracts from it for discussion at our next meeting.


    • Great to hear! It’s all about sharing ideas and experiences, that’s how we’ll all move forward! If you have any questions feel free to let me know.


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