What do we mean by ‘district‘? I remember that question
being asked of me almost six years ago. “It’s an administrative unit”
was my feeble and banal reply. Yet, I also knew, for a surly few, it was
the bete noire within Rotary: the perceived enemy within.
The idea of the ‘district’ came about in 1915 thanks to
Brunnier of the Rotary Club of
San Francisco whose prescient idea of using a railway schedule
map to divide the original American clubs into districts attempted to
make the organization easier to manage. The first districts in Rotary
comprised of nineteen districts: fifteen in the USA; three in Canada;
and one in the United Kingdom.
As Rotary developed, firstly
in the USA and then in Canada, important international ties of
friendship were created. Under the Brunnier plan, Vancouver and Victoria
were to be placed in a West/ Prairie Canadian District known as
District 18 encompassing British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta and
Saskatchewan. Vancouver and Victoria did not wish to leave the
fellowship they had established with their American neighbors and
successfully fought to be re-united with the Pacific North West Rotary
Clubs around Seattle. Thus, the first International District was formed
- freely, with consent and from the very beginning. This is a very
It was no coincidence that the fourth part of
the object of Rotary - world peace and understanding - was penned
by a Canadian Rotarian: Donald McRae.
Consider Ireland, or,
District 1160. There has only ever been one Irish district. Even at
times of tension, violence and civil war, Rotarians stuck to
the idea of one district united in service and fellowship. It is easy to
underestimate the fact that though the UK and Ireland have more in
common with each other than any other nation on earth it was only in
2011 that Queen Elizabeth was able to visit her nation’s closest
Today we have many districts that encompass many
countries, nationalities and cultures. Some such as the two
central/southern African districts of 9200 and 9210 cover huge areas of
the continent. Other districts, in the eastern parts of Europe contain a
rich variety of nascent nations who formed after the break up of the
former Soviet Union.
Such behemoth districts offer tremendous
opportunities but also face equally great challenges. Yet, I for one am
envious of such districts. WHY? Because within Rotary we have that most
important tradition of spreading goodwill and promoting peace and world
understanding. Programs such as Rotary Friendship Exchange, Youth
Exchange and all of our Foundation programs aim to build better
understanding and peace. A multi-nation district seems a wonderful
opportunity to build greater friendships and develop sustainable
projects that transcend the nation state.
Should Districts be
made up of equal numbers of Rotarians and clubs? This was Brunnier’s aim
in 1915 but should it be Rotary’s ambition in 2012? Should we not allow
for smaller districts covering only, say, one country and language
to come into existence? Is this important or desirable? A smaller
district , for example, would have less choice when seeking out those
who can serve beyond the club level, including District Governor. A
smaller district would also have less District Designated Funds (DDF).
The answer is to think positive: finding new members will inevitably
create districts with smaller geographical areas, perhaps
within a single nation state. Look at the example of New Zealand, a
nation of 4.5 million and six Rotary districts with 9,400 members - a
nation that ‘punches above its weight.’
Today, I would describe
the ‘district’ as being ‘YOU’ -ie, the clubs and the Rotarians within.
Over five hundred districts throughout the world enables Rotary
International to properly support the member clubs and Rotarians achieve
the Object of Rotary.
I can't help thinking about the
cynics out there who see the 'district' as something akin to the old DDR
Stasi. How they would love to be truly independent and free. My thoughts
turn to Rotarians I met a few weeks ago from Beijing and Shanghai - two
clubs who have no district. Rotarian members told me they felt isolated
and were desperate to belong to a district - for support, friendship and
To paraphrase a Rotary leitmotif,
Rotarians and their clubs have their future in their own hands.