Hugh Evans keynote at the Rotary International Convention

Hugh Evans at the 2012 Rotary International Convention

Yesterday, Hugh Evans gave a keynote address at the 2012 Rotary International Convention in Bangkok. Speaking in front of 35,000 Rotarians from around the world, Evans’ urged them to mobilise and maintain pressure of world leaders to funding the fight to eradicate polio.

While video of the presentation hasn’t yet been posted, special mention needs to also be made of Alex Flowers’ animation work. His contributions brought the speech to life, augmenting Hugh’s impassioned delivery.

Below is the complete text of his speech.

It’s a great honour to be here today at the Rotary International Convention. I’ve long admired Rotary – for the work you do, and the way you do it. 1.2 million members in over 200 countries, all galvanised around the idea of ‘Service Above Self’.

What impact that motto has – a conviction that individuals, working together, can change the world.

My first encounter with Rotary was in 1997, when at the age of 14 I found myself preparing to head off to the Philippines to spend time in the slums of Manila.

The trip was organised by World Vision. I’d been able to raise significant funds through the 40 Hour Famine and was rewarded with the chance to see their work on the front line.

Unable to afford the journey on the savings from my paper-round, I turned to my local Rotary Club in North Balwyn for help. There I found not only the financial assistance I needed, but also the support and encouragement of an inspiring group of people who saw the value in a young person widening their worldview. I’m not sure I’d be standing here today if they hadn’t stepped in.

In Manila, I was taken to Smokey Mountain – a makeshift community built on and around a massive rubbish dump; where the very infrastructure of this community revolved around scavenging.The children literally ran after the garbage trucks to find pieces of food and things that they could recycle.

It was about as far from the comfort of my suburban Australian life as you could get.

That night I was placed in the care of a boy my own age, by the name of Sonney Boy. We were both 14 years old, but where I’d come from suburban Melbourne, Sonney Boy had tattoos all over his forearm as he was about to become his gang leader and that was his form of initiation. That night he took me to his house and we cooked a meal together with some food that I’d brought with me.

Coming from Australia I was so naïve. I thought we’d be going to some kind of bedroom to go to sleep. When it came time to go to sleep we simply cleared away the pots and pans on the ground and lay down on the concrete slab about the size of half of my bedroom – myself, Sonney Boy and the rest of his family, seven of us in a line.

I’ll never forget lying there that night, with the smell of rubbish, and cockroaches crawling around us. I didn’t sleep a wink that night.

If there is one moment that has the ability to change someone’s life forever, that was mine.

To those of you who’ve been exposed to abject poverty, you know – once you’ve have seen it, experienced it, endured it – you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. You’re forced to confront an uncomfortable truth: the poor – those living on less than a dollar a day – are people just like you and I who deserve the same universal rights and opportunities we take for granted.

I was no different from my friend. It wasn’t fair that by virtue of the country in which I was born, I had access to the basic necessities of life, which Sonney Boy did not.

After I returned home statistics took on meaning: twenty-one thousand children dying every day from preventable diseases. These were no longer just facts in news reports. I’d seen the human face of it and to be honest, at that age, I felt helpless and disillusioned.

That’s when I came back to Rotary’s idea of ‘Service Above Self’.

When we focus on the needs of others, our own burdens become lighter. Our perspective sharpens. The world doesn’t need to be this way.

This idea – the same one that drives you as Rotarians – guides our work at the Global Poverty Project.

We don’t have to stand idly by and lament the horrors of extreme poverty. We don’t have to just accept the statistics. Like Rotary, we believe that the mass mobilisation of individuals can affect real change in the world.

Today, I’d like to share with you some of the things we’ve been doing and what our plans are for the future.

It’s been an incredible journey to where we are now. It began back in 2006 when Dan Adams, John Connor and I put on the Make Poverty History Concert, a free event held in Melbourne to coincide with the G20 Summit.

The idea was to reach out and campaign for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations’ eight-point plan to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. We had a whole bunch of great Australian artists that no one outside our borders had ever heard of.Then one day our dream for a concert of global significance became a reality…

Bono from U2 called – and everything changed.

The event went on to become the largest ever youth run concert in the history of Australia. The following year’s Federal election led to the Zero Seven Road Trip and a campaign to increase Australia’s foreign aid to 0.7 per cent of GDP.

Simply asking the government wasn’t going to get a result, we needed to prove that this was an issue that resonated with the electorate.

Working with our partners we mobilised people all over Australia. We even lit up the Sydney Opera House to spread the message.

And we did it. Just before the election, the incoming Government announced an addition $4 billion dollars in aid for the world’s poorest countries by the year 2015. Make Poverty History showed us what was possible when people were galvanised around an issue.

Our work came to the attention of Salil Shetty at the United Nations who wanted to help us get our message around the world. With his backing we created the Global Poverty Project, an educational and campaigning organisation that activates citizens to be a part of the global movement to end extreme poverty.

We developed the 1.4 Billion Reasons presentation as our key tool for not only raising awareness, but as a way of showing how individuals – through what they learn, say, buy, give and do – can help bring an end to extreme poverty.

We are not asking for your money, we’re asking for your action.

To date, 1.4 Billion Reasons has been seen by more than 110,000 people. Taking this journey to the next level, we wanted to show our supporters what life is like for the 1.4 billion. So we developed Live Below The Line, an annual event where participants attempt to eat on less that $1.25 a day for five days. The campaign raises both understanding of extreme poverty and funds for health and educational projects across the developing world. By plugging the campaign into social media, participants and supporters share their progress with their networks, extending the message’s reach.

So far, we’ve established annual events in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand, with over 10,000 people raising over $1.6 million annually. We haven’t done this alone. All of these activities have been conducted in partnership. No single organisation can tackle these problems in isolation. We need to work together.

This is something we were aware of last year when we joined with Rotary in the fight to eradicate polio. But more on that later.

As Rotarians, you know all about the power of cooperation and working together. The incredible, sustained effort of the global fight against polio – started by Rotary – has led us to one hopeful, promising statistic.

The number of polio cases around the world has been reduced by 99 per cent.

This will be just the second time in history that we have achieved such a feat. Humanity did it with smallpox and you’ve been working for almost 25 years to do it with polio.

There’s just that last one per cent to go.

It’s worth remembering that in the 1980s, while polio was safely in the past in places like the United States, the disease was still endemic in 125 countries around the world. 350,000 new cases were being reported each year — most of these in the developing world.

Since Dr Salk created a vaccine for polio in 1954 we’ve had the tools to strike this disease from the map – and in much of the developed world, we did.

Upon introduction in the US, it didn’t take long before polio was a thing of the past. In the UK the picture is much the same. In Germany … Canada … Australia … Japan … even here in Thailand. The widespread fear and panic that once swept entire nations was now nothing more than a historical footnote.

So thorough was the campaign that many believed the disease had been completely annihilated. But the luxury of that belief did not extend to the developing world, where polio retained a deadly stranglehold on the world’s poorest citizens.

In 1985, Rotarians responded by quietly implementing a vaccination program, the first people to picture a polio-free world. Three years after the launch of PolioPlus, the international community took note and the largest public-private health campaign the world has ever seen was born: the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

The initiative brings together Rotary, the WHO, CDC, UNICEF and others.

In just two and half decades, this unprecedented immunisation effort has brought together 20 million volunteers and raised more than US$8 billion. The result: 2.5 billion children have been immunised. The number of endemic countries has been reduced to just three.

This year we had a historic success, with India going a full year without a single polio case. The country, arguably the toughest technical challenge for polio eradication has been removed from the list of endemic countries.

This huge achievement leaves no doubt that a polio-free world is now within close reach. Yet, as we saw in 2010, with resurgence in six countries, if polio exists anywhere, it is a threat everywhere.

Containment of polio is not an option.

Eradication is the only solution

It sounds easy, doesn’t it, one per cent? Such a small number. And in the light of what’s already been achieved, it shouldn’t be a big deal, right?

Wrong. I say today unequivocally, this last per cent will be the hardest of them all.

The UN reported yesterday that the global polio eradication effort faces the largest funding shortfall since its inception. To fund the fight we need governments to follow the unwavering example set by Rotarians and strengthen their commitment.

When Bill Gates addressed this convention last year, he called on us to act, to pressure our governments to contribute $400 million. Standing here today, the programs funding shortfall, for this and next year, is over one billion dollars.

The sheer scale of the resources required, in the timeframe they are needed, means that civil society and Government have to work together on this. We need to urge our governments to meet this urgent funding shortfall.

We’ve come so far; to falter now would undo decades of progress, and condemn hundreds of thousands of children to a preventable fate. At every step of the way – from the discovery of Salk’s vaccine, to the founding of the GPEI – advocacy, collaboration and the mass mobilisation of people have provided the means for progress.

In the 1930s it was the March of Dimes, which funded the scientific research that ultimately led to Salk’s vaccine. Next came Rotary, which mobilised its global membership base to begin coordinated vaccination programs in parts of the world previously ignored. And most recently, Bill Gates – both in funding contributions (now more than $300 million annually) and in advocating for governments and other donors around the world to step up their commitments.

This is an immense history and we at the Global Poverty Project are total newcomers to the eradication effort.

But why did we get involved in the first place? Because polio and poverty go hand in hand.

Polio keeps the poor, poor, and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. The costs of rehabilitation, treatment, and the loss of productivity that flows from this incurable disease have enormous economic and social impact. If we can eradicate this disease we’ll be one step closer to our goal of ending extreme poverty.

It was our Australian Country Director, Wei Soo who first joined the dots between the fight to eradicate polio and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting last year, where over 50 leaders would gather in Perth, Western Australia.

In conjunction with Rotary and other partners, we formulated our campaign.

Australia’s contributions had been sorely lacking, so we called on the government to increase its funding to $50 million, and put polio on the agenda for the upcoming meeting of Commonwealth leaders.

We knew from past experience that for this to be effective we had to demonstrate demonstrable public support. We focused our energies on The End of Polio concert, held on the eve of CHOGM.

The concert allowed us to spread the message about polio through the mainstream media, who otherwise would not have covered the story. We worked with partners across the country. Key among them was the Rotary Club of Crawley in Perth – some of whom are here today. They matched every petition with a donation of one dollar to the PolioPlus fund. At the concert they proudly handed over a cheque for $20,000.

The impact created by this campaign led to new funding commitments at CHOGM by Australia, Canada, Nigeria and the Gates Foundation totalling $118 Million.

These were great results and we were proud of the small part we played, but there is still much more that needs to be done.

We need to maintain this effort.

Over the course of this year we’re ramping up our awareness and fundraising activities in partnership with Rotary. We’re establishing local operations in Canada and other G8 nations to campaign those governments to pledge further funding and mobilise other donor countries to do the same.

All this will build to the 67th UN General Assembly in September, where we will call on Governments to commit to polio eradication.

As world leaders converge on New York we will stage a global festival, a 60,000-person concert drawing together thousands of campaigners and supporters. Polio eradication will be centre stage at this monumental event.

However, there is an immediate need for action.

In a matter of weeks the World Health Assembly will meet in Geneva to vote on the global priorities for the coming year. At this meeting they will consider a resolution to declare polio eradication a programmatic emergency.

While this sounds bureaucratically inconsequential it is actually one of the most powerful launching pads we have for mobilising governments to take action. This means that 194 health ministers and countries will have committed to polio eradication.

Now we’ve got to make sure they follow through.

We, the voting electorates of our countries, need to let our governments know how important this emergency – and the funding required to address it – truly is. We need to send world leaders a direct message that this resolution needs to be backed with ongoing funds and global commitment.

To do this we need to mobilise.

There are 35,000 of us here today. That’s a massive start.

You’ve all done so much already. You were the start of it all. You spurred the international community to action and have remained at the forefront of the effort: travelling the world to perform immunisations and raising over $1 billion dollars.

It’s no time to stop.

I call on all of you to send your Health Minister a message ahead of the Geneva meeting. Add your names to the chorus. Share this call to action with your families, friends and colleagues and encourage them to lend their voices.

For it was PolioPlus Chairman Dr Robert Scott who said:

“Polio eradication hinges on vaccine supply, community acceptance, funding and political will. The first three are in place. The last will make the difference.”

Let’s ensure we have political will.

Our voices cannot be ignored.

We have the tools at our disposal and the plans in place. We just need the will to end it.

Let’s finish the fight you started in 1985.

We’ve got to act now, and we’ve got to act together.

Thank you.

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