In the late 1950s we started a movement calling people to join us and give at least 10 days of labor a year to the poorest villages in Sri Lanka. Principally, it was an educational extension, because I was a teacher and I wanted students to know the reality of our village people.
Within a couple of years, we realized ours was the largest people’s participatory development movement. [From 100 villages in 1967, Sarvodaya was working in 15,000 by 2001—Eds.]
By 1969-70, we realized that the kind of development that is being thrust upon our people by the United Nations, rich governments, the World Bank, and others was not the kind of development we needed. Nothing short of total social transformation was going to improve the lives of our people. Today the Sarvodaya movement is education plus development plus nonviolent transformation of society.
From 1959, we have been working in Jaffna Peninsula [the Tamil-dominated area where the war has been most devastating—Eds.] where we built up this movement so that it is acceptable to all. The villages are divided into clusters of 10. Then these clusters are linked to a Sarvodaya Divisional Center and 12 to 15 divisional centers are linked to a district center. Now the movement has a very good network covering the whole country. In every village, we have programs for school-aged children, youth, women, farmers and others.
We have identified 10 basic human needs: a clean and beautiful environment—not only the physical environment but also a psychological environment where one can live without fear; water; clothing; food; health care; housing; energy; education; and finally, spiritual and cultural needs. We don’t list employment. People need to have certain skills developed to satisfy the basic needs. That is where employment comes in, not under needs.
After some time, when we know there is a psychological and a social infrastructure developed in a village, we get that village registered with the government as an incorporated body. Already about 5,000 villages have been incorporated as independent legal entities. Then they can hold property, employ people, start economic enterprises, and develop a savings and credit program. We have established a management training institute [where we teach] the people down below not to exploit the people at the top but not to get exploited by them. In the village, the managers are the village women. Sometimes they have had no more than four or five years of education, but they are 100 percent trusted. When savings and credit programs reach a certain level we convert them into a bank. We have 300 legally constituted banks in the country. If we put all that money together we could buy one of the commercial banks now, but we don’t want to. We want the money to remain within the villages.
In thinking of various ways of empowering our people, we think of social empowerment, economic empowerment, and technological empowerment. But we begin with spiritual empowerment. Without that, it is very difficult for a nonviolent movement to progress because in any movement, people can lose their control. When 200,000 people get together, if they don’t have 100 percent spiritual discipline, if someone throws a stone, the whole group can go astray. That’s why you need a very strong spiritual foundation, and also a very strong scientific and technological foundation to bring about, from bottom up, an awakening.
I believe that poor people in the world have to take their destiny into their own hands, not in a violent foolish manner, but in an intelligent, organized, scientific, and philosophical manner. Sarvodaya is trying to do that in a small way.