These are the words said loud and clear by the president of the Rotary International, Shekhar Mehta.
On a visit to London, to meet Prince Charles, Lord Mayor of London and representatives of the Commonwealth institutions, Shekhar Mehta held a Press meeting to reinstate his own endeavours, the role of the Rotary, and talk about two programs, EndPolioNow and the Mangrove Initiatives.
Serving others changes lives
Shekhar Mehta was appointed president of the Rotary in 2021. The position is held for two years, and requires the individual to live in Chicago where the charity’s headquarters are.
The Rotary Club was founded by the attorney Paul Harris in Chicago in 1905. The idea was to bring professionals of various background to share ideas and foster strong relationships. The original concept eventually embraced caritative engagements, addressing the challenges faced by communities, there and around the world. Rotary Clubs are found worldwide, and count 1,19 million members (of which 33% in Asia, 28% in North America and the Caribbean, 25% in Europe/Africa/TheMiddleEast, and 3.6% are in Great Britain and Ireland).
Having no obligations elsewhere, “My businesses take care of themselves somehow”, Shekhar Mehta and his wife relocated as soon as the conditions of the Pandemic permitted it.
Shekhar Mehta comes from Calcutta, West Bengal in India. He became a member of the Rotary in 1984, at the age of 25. “Service was the last thing on my mind at the time” confesses Mehta. “But I just had to visit a nearby village, and see by myself, to understand that there is more to living than for yourself”.
Service above self – One Profits Most Who Serves BestRotary’s motto, adapted from a speech given by Arthur Frederic Sheldon in 1910
Since, Shekhar Mehta has serviced communities, close to him and further away through numerous projects, gaining recognition for his dedication to others. An accountant by trade and a successful businessman, he has been able to use his skills to bring concrete and practical answers to emergency situations, such as encountered after the 2004 tsunami, or societal challenges like female illiteracy in India. “Words have no value if they are not followed by actions” he repeats as a leitmotiv.
Environmental action serving the communities
Over the past five years, The Rotary Foundation has committed more than $18 million toward projects that support sustainable, community-based environmental projects, including using renewable energy to combat environmental degradation, growing food sustainably, and protecting water sources.
On 10 November 2021, Shekhar Mehta and the Rotary delegation joined the COP 26 held in Glasgow, Scotland. In collaboration with Baroness Patricia Scotland, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Shekhar Mehta addressed the urgent need for Mangrove restoration to combat the consequences of Climate Change.
Mangroves are incredible ecosystems with many benefits.
As a forest and as a coastal habitats, combined together, they contribute to large amounts of carbone sequestration, in both the roots of the trees and in the soils, and lessen the effects of greenhouse gases. They also provide shelter against the rise of sea levels and storms, contributing to the reduction of coastal erosion. And they are a source of livelihood for the communities who live nearby – from fishery activities to wood exploitation or honey collection.
On 26 July 2021, the Commonwealth Secretariat pointed the alarming findings that “Between 30-50% of mangroves have been lost over the past 50 years.” and that it is becoming urgent to develop low-cost technologies as well as support the empowerment of the local communities to restore and protect mangrove forests.
Shekhar Mehta is on a world tour to assess what needs to be done, to speak with governmental and non-governmental organisations, and raise concerns, funds and actions through the local Rotary clubs. Hence the meetings in London.
Amongst the 54 countries of the Commonwealth, 33 have mangrove forests on their shores accounting for 22% of the mangroves in the world. When asked if the Rotary engagement to the restoration of such ecosystems will limit itself to the Commonwealth countries, the answer is “No. The Rotary is present in many countries outside the Commonwealth and we will pursue our engagement in all of them, but not only.”, says Shekhar Mehta.
Rotary clubs in about 10 countries – Bahrain, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Seychelles, Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania – had already committed to act in favour of mangrove restoration and protection as of March 15th, when this interview was conducted. Many more will follow assures Mehta.
Referring to Costa Rica as a country well known for its action towards environmental action and the protection of its mangrove, to our question regarding acquiring the knowledge and knowhow on how to tackle the issue, beyond fundraising and goodwill from the Rotary club members, Shekhar Mehta trusts that the Rotary has the power to create a vacuum of contributions of all kinds, including that of expertises.
And what a better example of its ability to do so than of the success of its program EndPolioNow, and its collaboration to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) [which includes Rotary, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and governments].
Judith Diment MBE, dean of Rotary representatives to the UN and coordinator of the polio eradication task force, reminds us that since the first anti-polio campaign launch by the Rotary in 1979, more than 3 billion children in 122 countries have been protected, and that polio has almost been eradicated, that it remains endemic only in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This has been possible thanks to the mobilisation of the Rotary’s members and volunteers to raise more than $2.1 billion and to administer the vaccin doses, and by the allocation of more than $10 billion by governments under the Rotary’s advocacy.
Growth and Soft Power
Shekhar Mehta has great ambition for the Rotary to be recognised as one of the greatest organisation for service to the people. The Nobel prize for its action to eradicate polio is indeed his line of sight. But the Rotary also needs to develop further, both in terms of membership and reach.
Branding is key. When asked about perception of the Rotary clubs, where they may be seen as old fashioned if not for old people – the average age is 60, Shekhar Mehta agrees… and disagrees as he insists on that the Rotary already counts about 200,000 youths in its ranks who joined the organisation through youth programs (Rotaract or Ryla). But this is clearly not enough and the Rotary needs to truly shake it to grow.
Using the appropriate tools of communication recognised by the younger generations, and answering their concerns, whether it is about career moves (for the 40’s and 50’s) or higher education paths through mentoring (for the 20’s and 30’s) or acquiring soft skills via youth development programs (for this still at school), might be the only way forward.
Add to this, and Shekhar Mehta insisted on it during the whole meeting, that the Rotary action is fundamentally driven by the principle of peace, that is not only peace vs warfare but respecting the diversity in culture and ethos between the Rotary clubs and making sure that each members, and the communities they serve, find themselves in a peaceful environment to express their differences and talents.
Acquiring new members and founding new Rotary clubs across the globe is the stepping-stone to increase the Rotary reach to other organisations and governments, and give a greater impulse to projects it is focusing on, choosing the path of soft power to achieve for the greater good.
More information about the Rotary’s actions and your local Rotary club can be found by following the links below:
Detailed information on work by the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Groups, including Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods
and on work by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)