Sarvodaya is Sri Lanka’s largest people’s organisation. Over the last 50 years we have become a network of over 15,000 villages. Today we are engaged in relief efforts in the war-torn north as well as ongoing development projects.
Sarvodaya’s organization includes 345 divisional units, 34 district offices; 10 specialist Development Education Institutes; over 100,000 youth mobilised for peace building under Shantisena; the country’s largest micro-credit organization with a cumulative loan portfolio of over US$1million (through SEEDS, Sarvodaya Economic Enterprise Development Services); a major welfare service organisation serving over 1,000 orphaned and destitute children, underage mothers and elders (Sarvodaya Suwa Setha); and 4,335 pre-schools serving over 98,000 children.
Sarvodaya’s total budget exceeds USD 5 million with 1,500 full-time employees. When combined with numerous volunteer workers, this yields a full time equivalent of approximately 200,000, which places Sarvodaya on a par with the entire plantation sector in Sri Lanka.
Sarvodaya (formally knowns as Lanka Jatika Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya) is an organisation developed around a set of coherent philosophical tenets drawn from Buddhism and Gandhian thought; it has been operational for almost 50 years. It has been described as an international role model by international bodies. Its founder and charismatic leader, Dr A.T. Ariyaratne, whose visionary contributions have been recognised in multiple countries, continues to provide ideological and inspirational leadership to the organisation while the day-to-day operations are in the hands of a new generation, receptive to modern forms of management that are compatible with the overall vision of this volunteer-based peoples’ organisation.
The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement started 47 years ago. Sarvodaya is Sanskrit for “Awakening of All”, and Shramadana means to donate effort. Beginning in just one village and extending the movement to a total of more than 15,000 has been a fascinating adventure. Initially it involved an education program aimed at enabling students and teachers to live and work with the most remote village communities in Sri Lanka to lend a hand and develop self help initiatives. Within nine years, however, the “service learning programme” had expanded into a full-fledged development movement in hundreds of villages, with the goal of a comprehensive and nonviolent social transformation. During its first 15 years, Sarvodaya grew with hardly any foreign aid or state support, relying on volunteer labour, mostly from the beneficiaries themselves.
By the late 1970s, the Sarvodaya Movement, with support from partner organisations in more prosperous countries, became capable of reaching nearly every part of Sri Lanka. The programme of self-reliance, community participation and an holistic approach to community “awakening” appealed not only to the people in poor communities, but also to donors. Thousands of young women and men learned how to motivate and organise people in their own villages to meet the ten basic human needs, ranging from a clean and adequate drinking-water supply to simple housing and sanitation, communications facilities, an energy supply, education and ways of satisfying spiritual and cultural needs.
During its first three decades, the Sarvodaya Movement was able – initially without any assistance, and later within a framework of development cooperation with like-minded organisations – to become one of the largest participatory organisations in this region if not the world.
The momentum of the movement was such that by the early 1990s, in spite of harassment by the government and political violence, Sarvodaya had achieved an enormous outreach. The movement’s work now included peace building, conflict resolution, appropriate technology and programmes for children at risk, elders and those with disabilities all the while focusing on a holistic approach to social mobilisation through empowerment of people beyond mere economic development.
At around the same time, international priorities changed, switching to economic development strategies. Large projects and macro-interventions began to dominate the scene amongst donors, and Sarvodaya, which had originally attracted attention due to its broader based philosophy, became the victim of its own success. In 1991, when 85% of its external aid dried up, the movement was forced to go back to its roots. From then on, we relied on so-called pioneer villages to provide support for the surrounding communities still requiring development. In addition, we reduced the numbers of paid staff and counted on the commitment of Sarvodaya’s long-term supporters to keep the movement on course.
The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has now become stronger than ever before. A new administrative management at national level is supporting a motivated group of emerging leaders at the village and district levels. Although almost one-third of the districts supported by Sarvodaya is not financed by outside partners, they are nevertheless surviving in the knowledge that in the long term, progress for them will result from partnership and self-sustaining development activities rather than from charity. Our important role in peacemaking, community building, and securing a certain quality of life in Sri Lanka is undiminished, and our will to achieve innovation in the social, ethical, cultural, spiritual and economic fields is constantly nourished by partners who have the confidence that our 47 years of experience – including periods of hardship – have a certain value.