When Rudyard Kipling visited Chicago in 1889, the black canals and soot-filled air made him wonder if he hadn’t wandered into hell on earth. The crowded slums reminded him of Calcutta; the anarchists and religious fanatics, mobsters and businessman, shouting and spitting everywhere, struck him as so many savages.
A few years after Kipling made these scathing reflections, he nevertheless exhorted Americans to assume “the white man’s burden” in a famous poem of that name, and join the imperial mission to civilize the non-Western world. It’s not known whether 28-year-old lawyer Paul Harris was inspired by the poem, but shortly after it appeared, he set out to civilize the people of Chicago.
Harris came from Vermont, where people helped each other out in a jam and friendship and business went hand in hand. He desperately wanted to introduce some small-town civility into the brutal world he encountered in Chicago. So in 1902, Harris founded the first of what would become a global network of Rotary clubs that have been providing fellowship and respite from the harsher side of modern capitalism to millions of business people and professionals ever since. They donated land for community gardens, sent shoes to European refugees and operated a Fresh Air camp for crippled children.
Then, in the 1980s, Rotary set out on its most ambitious philanthropic mission of all: eradicating polio from the face of the earth. During the 1960s and 1970s, the World Health Organization had led a campaign that permanently stamped out smallpox. Like smallpox, polio is preventable with a cheap vaccine, and the disease had been all but unknown in rich countries since the 1960s. That it still crippled thousands of children each year in the developing world seemed to Rotarians a terrible injustice.
They started with a fundraiser that attracted cataracts of donations from ordinary people; at its height, $1 million a day was pouring in from raffles, wine-tastings, golf-tournaments, chicken-plucking contests and other, mainly neighborly, activities. Most of the money went to the WHO and UNICEF, which set out to immunize every child in every country where the virus was still spreading. In India, where polio crippled or killed thousands of people each year, two million volunteers, including 350,000 Rotarians, set up immunization booths in marketplaces and went door to door in slums and villages, some accessible only by camel or elephant. By 2002, the number of polio cases worldwide had fallen from 350,000 to less than a thousand, all confined to just seven countries. Some 5 million people had been spared paralysis or death.
A thousand cases of any disease may not seem like a big problem, but Rotary was aiming to eradicate polio; otherwise, the disease, which spreads through contaminated food and water, could quickly bounce back. But the last 1,000 cases of polio have turned out to be much more stubborn than the hundreds of thousands that came before, and it’s certainly costing more money to get rid of them. The polio eradication campaign spent slightly more than $2 billion between 1988 and 2002; then Microsoft billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates joined the fight, and today, his foundation, along with the American and British governments and other donors, are pouring roughly $1 billion a year into it.