Ask almost anyone at the United Nations and they will know that Rotary, having helped to spearhead the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, has contributed to the 99 percent worldwide reduction in polio cases since the initiative began.
That recognition is no accident. For the last three decades, a network of Rotary representatives has been strengthening ties with the United Nations, its specialized agencies, and other international organizations like the League of Arab States and the European Union. These connections have enhanced Rotary's global visibility and resource network.
For example, some Rotary representatives met three years ago with staff from the Organization of American States (OAS) to review recommended literacy requirements. That meeting led to representatives briefing the ministers of education for all OAS member countries on an approach to improve reading skills. Ecuador bought into the program and agreed to work with three Rotary districts and eight clubs on a Rotary-funded effort, backed by the OAS, which has been training teachers to meet literacy goals.
"We flew to Ecuador and met with the vice president, who happens to be a Rotarian" says Richard Carson, Rotary's representative to the OAS. "It was a successful project and has been going on for three years now."
"Just by having a presence at the United Nations building and in meetings of [nongovernmental organizations], it's given Rotary much greater credibility," adds Joseph Laureni, the primary representative to the UN in New York. "We're not just a name you see on a billboard. We have the wherewithal to have people in the field who are out there and who you can meet and say hello to."
Adds Bradley Jenkins, a former Rotary representative to the UN now serving as an adviser: "It is a constant chance for us to coordinate what we are collectively doing. As far as water goes, it's known we have over 8,000 Rotary clubs involved in water projects. We talk about their work pretty frequently at the agency meetings we attend, and of course, we constantly talk about our Rotary Peace Fellows."
The roots of Rotary's representative network actually predate the formal chartering of the UN after World War II. In 1942, Rotary clubs from 21 nations organized a conference in London attended by ministers of education to develop ideas for advancing education, science, and culture across nations. This meeting was the impetus for what is known today as UNESCO -- the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
Delegations of Rotary members helped draft the UN Charter in San Francisco in 1945 and gave the organization strong support during its early years, until the Cold War turned it into an ideological battleground. Rotary's participation decreased over the following decades in keeping with its policy against political involvement.
The spark that restored Rotary's interest in the UN was the launch of the campaign to eradicate polio in 1985, and the ensuing partnership with the World Health Organization and UNICEF.
"With the advent of PolioPlus [Rotary's campaign against polio], it became very important to re-establish our presence," says Jenkins.
Sylvan Barnet Jr.
One man was instrumental in restoring the connection. Sylvan Barnet Jr., a pioneer in international public relations, joined the Rotary Club of New York in 1987. At a Rotary event in New York City that year, RI President Charles Keller met Barnet, recognized his public relations skills and interest in the UN, and tapped him to re-establish Rotary's consulting status with the UN's Economic and Social Council.
"From that time on, he became a bulwark in Rotary's close relations with the UN and various organizations," Keller wrote in a letter to the Barnet family after Barnet's death in January. "The strong support of RI for the UN through the years has been in large part a product of our representatives. Barney [Barnet] was the first, and the model for all those who have followed."
Says Laureni: "Barney basically started this all by himself and built it up to what it is today. We are all following in his footsteps. Everyone knew him, liked him, and respected him."
Over time, the influence of nongovernmental organizations at the UN has increased, as issues concerning the environment, health, education, and human rights have taken over a larger portion of the agenda. As a result, Rotary's influence has grown. Rotary's efforts in child and maternal health, water and sanitation, and education, have benefitted from these ties, and they dovetail with many of the UN's Millennium Development Goals.
Rotary's Board of Directors has gradually expanded the representative network to include UN specialized agencies headquartered in Geneva, Vienna, and Paris. Representatives are also linked to other major international groups, including the World Food Program, the Organization of African Unity, and the Commonwealth of Nations. The network today includes 30 Rotary leaders, appointed by the RI president, who communicate Rotary's priorities on a regular basis to these various bodies.
In 2013, the Board added two youth representatives to the UN, and appointed former Rotary General Secretary Ed Futa to serve as dean, in charge of setting the direction and strategy for Rotary's outreach in the international community.
The representatives in New York also organize an annual Rotary Day at the United Nations at which about 1,000 Rotary members and their guests celebrate the decades-old special relationship between the two organizations.