The Lions of Lagos, the Rotarians of Rawalpindi

Watching TV as a kid, I remember seeing frequent references, particularly on older shows, to civic groups like the Rotary Club, Kiwanians, Lions, etc. I also remember wondering what ever happened to those organizations.

As it turns out, they’re still doing quite well — just not in the United States.

John Gravois has an interesting new piece in the print edition of the Washington Monthly, explaining a shifting social dynamic in which groups that once defined America are thriving abroad, and what that means for us. Here’s the editor’s new summary of the story:

Mike Huckabee went on the radio not long ago and harrumphed at President Obama’s childhood in Indonesia. “Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings,” he said, “and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary clubs, not madrassas.”

Huckabee’s innuendo was unmistakable, but he got things precisely backward. Indonesia has nearly a hundred Rotary clubs and more than twice as many boy scouts as we do.

Ten years ago, in the book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam charted the precipitous decline of countless old-fashioned American clubs and associations like the Lions, the Kiwanis, and the scouts. In a new feature in the July/August issue of the Washington Monthly, John Gravois uncovers how — while no one has been looking — these groups have found a robust second life abroad. Like the Fortune 500 companies that are expanding operations in emerging markets while trimming their U.S. payrolls, many of America’s major fraternal organizations are thriving globally even as they wither here at home. There are twice as many Rotary clubs in the Indian state of Kerala, for instance, than there are in Kansas. And the troubled island nation of Bahrain may have more Toastmasters per capita than any other country in the world.

Gravois argues that while the decline of these groups domestically is certainly not a good thing for America, their growth abroad is hardly unwelcome. Indeed, it may represent a strength — a sort of commercial-civic soft power — that we barely know we have.

Read “The Lions of Lagos, the Rotarians of Rawalpindi” here.