Letter From Sri Lanka :: The Sarvodaya Movement

Positive Futures board member Sharif Abdullah sent us a series of letters about his recent travels in Sri Lanka where he spent two weeks with Dr. A. T. Ariyarante, founder and president of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement.

After arriving in Sri Lanka at four in the morning, I was ushered to the headquarters of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement.

The scope of the Sarvodaya undertakings is mind-boggling. Nothing I had previously read prepared me for the scale fob this organization. As Dr. Ariyaratne was showing me around their 30-acre headquarters, he took me to Sarvodaya's orphanage for battered and abandoned children. The children there were mostly smiling and radiant, the staff seemed happy and content, the building was spotless. Dr. Ariyaratne pointed to one of the smiling staff workers who ran the orphanage, saying, “She first came to us when she was six months old. She weighed eight pounds at the time. She's been with us for 26 years. At that time, the shelter was my wife's verandah.”

I mentioned to him that he and his wife must be very proud of this shelter and its accomplishments. He waved his hand and said, “We have 26 of these around the country.”

This is what I mean by staggering scale. Water projects, solar energy, a school for the deaf. library, legal services, women's projects, self-help economic development, reconciliation movement, Greenest bank … I toured the complex all day and did not see it all.

Dr. Ariyaratne is doing what many of us in the States and other places in the world talk about: a true Gandhi an-style people's economic revolution. Gandhi wanted to mobilize the economic power of India through small scale production. In Sri Lanka, Dr. Ariyaratne and Sarvodaya are actually achieving this.

Village Revolution
I'm eating with my hands. I'm wearing a skirt. Other than that, I'm the same old Sharif. The sarong is by necessity; even my so-called warm weather clothes are no match for this heat. So Dr. Ariyaratne found me a white sarong that fits me well. I look cool, and after cultural adjustments in the bathroom, it's working out fine.

I'm in Sri Lanka to learn more about Sarvodaya and Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne. As the head of my own
organization dedicated to making the world a better place, I am here to benefit from the experiences of a man who has been doing non-violent, social/spiritual work since I was a child.

Sarvodaya began 40 years ago when Dr. Ariyaratne, then a young teacher, took some of his students to poor villages to donate their labor. Since that time, Sarvodaya has become Sri Lanka's largest—perhaps the world's largest—people's development movement. Today over 8,000 villages are actively involved in Sarvodaya projects, which include orphanages, water and solar energy projects, a school for the deaf, a library, legal services, women's projects, economic development, and more.

Two days after my arrival, we attend opening ceremonies for several Sarvodaya village banks. I am dumbstruck by the large scale and simple dignity of these banks.

But getting there is a challenge. Because I have been feeling motion sick after two hours of driving Sri Lankan style (careening from one near collision to another as fast as possible), I lie down in the back seat. After a few hours, Ari announces, “Wake up, we're here.” Still half-asleep, I stumble out of our four-wheeler as a horde of little school girls hand me a stack of leaves, then bow, palms together in greeting.
I try to hang back and get my bearings when I realize that as the second honored guest, everything that Ari does, I am supposed to do! It really helps to be awake at times like this.

Each of the welcoming ceremonies follows a similar pattern: Outside the village there is a colorful archway which says, in Sinhalese: “Welcome Gandhi Peace Prize Winner.” We are met at the arch by 6-10 little girls in white, who offer leaves and bow. Then another 6-10 little girls are lined up to sing a song made up for Ari. The songs are long. Then, another 6-10 little girls line up and lead the group in a folk dance into the village. These can be very long. Once, Ari leans over and says, “This dance is like the pace of development: two steps forward, one step back.”

The Sarvodaya banks are built by village people pooling their hard-earned rupees. All of the village banks are run by women, and women make up 70 percent of the depositors and 80 percent of the borrowers. (When asked about the breakdown, a Sarvodaya official shrugs; it just happens that way.)

If the village has reached its goal of saving 150,000 rupees (about 3,000 dollars), Ari lays a cornerstone for the creation of a physical bank. If they have reached the 1,000,000 rupee mark, he is cutting the ribbon on a completed bank building.

The first ceremony is a ribbon cutting. The “bank” building is a 10-by-10 cement structure with a corrugated metal roof and no electricity. The only interior furnishing is a counter and a small table (no chair) where the Sarvodaya bank person will record the transactions in ledger books.

A revolution in progress
Here I am, on the other side of the world, in this very cramped, dark, tiny, hot room, the oil lamp consuming all available oxygen, watching a revolution in progress. I get tears in my eyes as I watch a village woman, dressed in her best sari, hand a 100 rupee note to Ari. 100 rupees is about two dollars—a day's wages for this woman, if she's lucky. The humbleness of the structure and the audacity of Ari's plan are truly amazing.

Sarvodaya presently has 104 such banks in operation; they aim for 10,000. They now have 7,000,000 rupees collected. If they can get even 1,000 banks operating, they will be the single largest economic force in Sri Lanka.

All around the world, poor people's money and labor are used to feed the insatiable appetites of transnational banking corporations. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund make the world safe for continued western consumption. The exceptions to this rule are significant because they are so few: Grameen Bank in India, the Mondragon economic system, South Shore Bank in the US. And the Sarvodaya banking system.

The Sarvodaya village banks lie at the heart of a development plan that harnesses the strength of the village instead of saddling it with crippling debt. Micro-loans are made only to villagers and for such things as purchasing more seed for a larger rice crop, digging a well, or starting a small business. In small, incremental steps, the entire village benefits from a stronger, healthier, and independent internal economic structure. (On a later visit to the village of Hedidenekanda, I met with the Sarvodaya village president, Mr. Samaresenahewitarana, who told me that of the 7,000 loans the village has made in the past eight years, there has been only one default!)

After the deposits, we are ushered outside to a seating area, where Ari gives speeches to the villagers. He tells the villagers that they are a part of a revolution and that the money they save now will make the villages better for their children. Everyone listens with rapt attention; it doesn't seem like they are blinking. Even the young children hang on his every word.

After the speeches, we go to a table laden with food, then jump into the vehicles where we are whisked away to the next ceremony.

At the third ceremony, the district administrator for something or another leans over to me and says, “In our country, men wear their sarongs the way you are wearing yours. But generally, when they do, it is flooding.” Everyone dies laughing, and the joke has to be repeated at every stop. I am honored guest and comic relief.

At 8:30 pm, as we are driving around in the dark, everyone in the vehicle is speaking Sinhalese—except, of course, me. I think we are going to find our resting place; we are actually going to yet another meeting. Ari hands me a stack of their reports. They're in Sinhalese, but I'm so tired that they're actually starting to make sense.

The future of Sarvodaya
Sarvodaya is at a crossroads in its history. On the bleak side, with the ethnic/civil war still raging in the country, the opportunities for achieving Dr. Ariyaratne's vision of full-scale, people-centered development are limited. And, because the war is primarily ethnic, it can continue as long as Sinhalese and Tamils bear children.

On the bright side are Dr. Ariyaratne and Sarvodaya. For over 40 years, Ari has been the champion of a style of development that emphasizes spirituality, one very different from, and at times in conflict with, Western notions of development.

As more people in the West discover the limits of a society based on materialistic excesses, the simplicity that Sarvodaya offers will become increasingly appealing. As one Sarvodaya worker said to me, “Perhaps one day the West will discover that it needs our aid.”

Sharif Abdullah is director of , formerly the Three Valley Project, author of The Power of One, and board member of the Positive Future Network.
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