Why Partners Matter

Leaders from Rotary’s polio eradication partners discuss our critical role.

Since 1988, more than a million Rotarians have volunteered their time and resources to end polio. As community leaders, Rotarians build awareness, fundraise, and encourage national governments to donate to and otherwise support the polio eradication effort. But eradicating polio is a complex job, and Rotary can’t do it on its own. Our partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) provide technical support, investigate outbreaks, manage vaccine distribution, and more. “We know from our work in polio eradication and our areas of focus that the impact we make is greater when we leverage the expertise of our partners,” says Mark Wright, a news anchor and member of the Rotary Club of Seattle. Wright moderated a talk with leaders from several of Rotary’s GPEI partners about what they had learned over the past few months as their organizations addressed the COVID-19 pandemic, and about how Rotary can draw on its experience fighting polio and play a leading role in safeguarding communities around the world. The conversation, part of the 2020 Rotary Virtual Convention in June, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

MARK WRIGHT: How has the legacy of polio eradication word informed the global health response to COVID-19?

HENRIETTA FORE: I will highlight one example: the joint work that Rotarians, UNICEF, and all of our partners have done to train community health workers. They are the backbone of the community engagement,
which all came from our work on polio. Every Rotarian should feel proud that the infrastructure we have in place is now being used against COVID-19. 

CHRISTOPHER ELIAS: In 35 years, the global polio eradication effort has built up incredible assets: laboratory testing, surveillance, a frontline workforce of hundreds of thousands who deliver vaccines in polio campaigns around the world. In pretty much every country where the polio eradication initiative is active — over 50 countries — those assets have been dedicated to the COVID-19 response. A lot of the frontline workers doing the contact tracing, doing the surveillance, and looking for cases of COVID-19 are polio workers. I was in a discussion last week with the minister of health in Pakistan. And he thanked me, Rotary, and the rest of the polio partnership for how useful the polio team in Pakistan has been in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak there. That’s true in many countries. The world is benefiting — particularly in the poorest countries, where we’ve been chasing down the last cases of polio — from the infrastructure that the polio initiative has built over the past three decades. 

REBECCA MARTIN: Stop Transmission of Polio (STOP) teams are people that we put on the ground to help with surveillance to ensure that we have realtime data for decision making. In early May, in 32 countries where we have Stop Transmission of Polio officers, 48 percent of their time had been spent on COVID-19 activities such as contact tracing and communication planning about physical distancing, the need for quarantining, and the importance of data analysis and collection. We have seen this in Liberia, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Over 18,000 GPEI workers are helping with health worker training, infection prevention control measures, and risk communication. So we already see polio playing a large role in supporting the COVID-19 response.

WRIGHT: What lessons can Rotary apply from both our partnership and our experience working to eradicate polio that will help us to better define and measure impact in our other work?

BRUCE AYLWARD: What we have come to respect and rely on with Rotary is the tremendous grassroots organization that you are, and the confidence and presence that you have in your communities. I think one of the greatest assets is the ability to draw on that when we have challenging initiatives like the effort to eradicate polio and now to control COVID-19 — and there will be other challenges in the future. You build the trust. You build those local partnerships in peacetime with club-level work on projects and initiatives that communities want. Then when it comes to the big crises, you’ve built the bridges that partners like the World Health Organization will rely on.

WRIGHT: Can you tell us about the partnership between your organizations and Rotary International? How have we worked together, and what are some of the highlights of what we’ve accomplished?

FORE: I think our biggest lesson is that partners have different skills, and partners matter. It’s rather like being married, where you’re going to be with your husband or wife for 20, 40, 50 years. How do you adjust to each other and how do you love and respect them? We’ve grown to love and respect Rotarians in every country. Rotarians are rolling up their sleeves. In some countries, they come out and help with community workers. In others, they are surveying and supervising to check the quality of what is going on in these communities. In others, they are out talking to the legislators so that those people have a greater understanding of and commitment to ending polio in their country. As a team, we can carry out all of the things that you need for ending polio.

ELIAS: I think what’s critical about our relationship is that it’s a partnership. It’s not just a funding relationship. Together we’re funding the critical partners that are delivering polio vaccine around the world. But we’ve also worked together in the governance of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. I’ve worked with quite a few people from Rotary’s leadership over the past 10 years in helping to shape the strategy and be an advocate for keeping the focus on the progress we’ve made and on the eventuality of eliminating a scourge that has killed and paralyzed children for many years, when there are many competing demands for attention in the global health and development sphere. So we’ve jointly been funders, we’ve jointly been advocates, and many Rotarians have gone out and worked to support polio campaigns around the world. It is one of our most critical partnerships in the success of one of the most important things that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is pursuing. 

MARTIN: Rotary’s important and impactful contributions are the individual Rotarians themselves collectively working from community to national to global leadership levels, and their unmatched ability to raise resources for over three decades. With Rotary, we have been able to reach key leaders and influencers in communities to vaccinate children in India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and many other countries. Rotary has also been a strong partner to the CDC in our global fights against malaria and HIV, and in water and sanitation and hygiene efforts. We’ve worked closely in countries such as India, Nigeria, and South Africa on Rotary Family Health Days so that we can deliver immunizations, prevent HIV/AIDS, and screen for cervical cancer.

WRIGHT: Communities and other response organizations count on Rotary during challenging times. How can we become a more effective partner?

AYLWARD: As Rotary considers the lingering effects of the current pandemic, I think it will be a great time to reflect on your priorities and the priorities of The Rotary Foundation to see if you are working in the right spaces. Rotary is going to take from this a great sense of satisfaction, that, yes, you are focused on the right areas. When we look at the challenges to saving lives and preventing disease from COVID-19, some of the greatest barriers have been illiteracy, poverty, and marginalized populations. These have always been at the forefront of Rotary’s goals as a great service organization. 

• This story originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Rotary magazine.

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Rotary International | Nov. 10, 2020