Rural Self-Help

Full Title: *Organization of Rural Communities for Group Effort and Self-Help.*

_Address delivered at the Food-Crisis Workshop, Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Manila, Philippines, February 7th – 9th, 1977_

‘Nobody needs teach rural communities ‘group effort’ and ‘self-help’. Sharing is an inherent characteristic among the rural poor, in particular. This is very necessary for their survival, even if they live below-the poverty – line level, to defend themselves against the exploitative arms of a commercial civilization making further inroads to their hum-drum way of life’.


There seems to be a general belief among development thinkers, planners and administrators that rural communities are a disorganized lot and therefore they should be organized for group effort and self-help. Without such an exercise in Organization, it is presumed that their master plans, research findings and political decisions which are designed to improve the conditions of the rural communities can never be meaningful nor effective. I cannot subscribe to this view. On the contrary, I reject totally this approach at the root of which I believe is an arrogance on the part of such thinkers, born out of a feeling of belonging to a decision-making establishment which has power over the helpless rural communities.

Nobody needs teach rural communities ‘group effort’ and ‘self-help’. Sharing is an inherent characteristic among the rural poor, in particular. This is very necessary for their survival, even if they live below the poverty-line level, to defend themselves against the exploitative arms of a commercial civilization making further inroads to their hum-drum way of life.

The real question, therefore, is to examine what are the constraints that exist inhibiting the expression of their group effort and self-help qualities designed to improve food and nutrition levels, clothing, shelter, health, sanitation, education and cultural life? The next question is how the rural communities can be helped to remove these constraints? What are the ways and means by which appropriate sciences and technologies can be integrated into the life of rural communities without disturbing their yet surviving cohesive qualities and without exposing them to further enslavement by such advanced knowledge and techniques?

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement is an ongoing experiment in Sri Lanka which is trying to find practical answers to the above question for nearly the last twenty years. The word ‘Sarvodaya’ connotes totality. ‘Total development of man and society’. ‘Well-being of all’. Harnessing the goodness of all for the well-being of all’, may be regarded as some of the meanings that can be ascribed to ‘Sarvodaya’. Shramadana, is the sharing of one’s time, thought and energy. This is one of the important means of achieving the well-being of all. How best can the intelligence, knowledge, skill and capabilities of the members of a group be pooled together for the benefit of themselves and the society?

In Sri Lanka, the old social order achieved for it and ensured the establishment of a contented, dignified and satisfied people, for centuries on end. With the advent of commercialism from the West and the subsequent conquests of our land by foreigners, the old order broke down without being replaced by a viable new one. The values, technologies and socio-economic political structures were never replaced as a coherent whole resembling the old stable society where the elements of individual, family, village or national life fitted one into the other most beautifully and fuctioned as a harmonious whole.

This then is the real crisis – man and his society his environment and knowledge running amok like a dislocated planetary system ending up in collisions and destructions. We therefore experience food crises, energy crises, pollution crises and a myriad of other crises which are merely the symptoms of a deeper basic crises – a psychological crisis in the very essence of our civilization. In this context, I believe, that the only hope lies in man’s quest to rediscover himself and his society from the point of a total human personality, a total family unit, a total rural or urban group, and a total global family. Simultaneously, there should be a process of elimination of contradictions which have given rise to inequalities.


After a serious illness, I was convalescing in my wife’s village where hardly anybody knew me by sight. I was advised complete rest by my doctors specifically, not to address public meetings. That’s why I went to this village to seek rest for two weeks, undisturbed. But on the second day, a Buddhist monk who was passing by my house recognized me and asked me how long I was going to be there and whether I had decided to do any business. He did not know I was seriously ill. The next thing that happened was that of the monk coming back after two days with a printed hand-bill announcing that I was to speak in his village on Shramadana. I responded to his request though reluctantly, and there were about sixty people gathered at the meeting. I asked them what their biggest need was. They said they needed their tank bund in the village to be completely repaired, to conserve water to irrigate their paddy fields. They said that the bound would also serve as a motorable road to the village. Then they showed me a thick file where they had corresponded with the government for fifteen years to get this job done.

I got the people to analyse their problem themselves assuring that there was nobody except themselves able to solve this problem. What do you need to construct the tank bund? Earth. How many cubes of earth? 200. From where do you get this earth? From the tank bed. What implements do you need to dig this earth and make the bund? Some mammoties, earth pans, pick axes etc. From where do you get them? Except earth pans, other equipment could be found in the village. Can you suggest a substitute for earth pans? Yes, sheaves of arecanut leaves and gunny bags. Who can find these? (One offered to find them). How many people have to work for how many days to have this job done? Two hundred people working for four days. Now tell me, each one of you, how many volunteers can you organize for this work? One, two, five, ten, fifteen …. Allright, who is going to feed these two hundred people? (A rich land owner gets up). I will feed all of them for two days. Thank you. But let me see, who can feed one man by sharing his meal with another. Several hands went up. Who can feed two? three? four? five? ….Well now we have enough food without the first offer, for all four days. But let us accept the first offer also and organize a Shramadana Camp because I am sure two hundred more will join when they hear we started the work on Shramadana. When shall we start the work? During the next week-end. So why do you need to petition the government? Allright, let us burn your file containing fifteen years of correspondence and start afresh with our own self-reliance written in.

A working committee was formed to make the preparations. I myself joined the villagers and the job was finished by tea time in the afternoon of the very first day of the camp itself. In this instance, what I did was to remove the constraint, that file which stood between the people’s problem and the solution which was well within their reach. That is a classic example of breaking down the self-made barriers of ‘Dependence’.

Rural communities have their own potential which can be evoked, provided (i) they have a thought which unites them (ii) techniques within their capacity and (iii) an organizational structure under their control.
I was invited to a meeting which was widely publicized. But there were only seven people for the meeting’ The meeting was held in a small school at the foot of a hill. I explained the virtues of self-help and Shramadana and fixed up a date to begin the construction of a 31/2 miles roadway, to the top of the hill where there were three villages. We fixed up the dates and the preliminary things that were necessary to start a camp were planned. Before I left, one man out of the seven called me to a side and said that the organizer who called me to the village was an ‘Eccentric’. I told him, our country needs more of such eccentric men and asked all of them to go to schools and other places where they could find volunteers and also explained to them about making other required preparations such as obtaining permission from the land owners for their strips of land, tools etc. The job was done in three months and the crazy man could muster for work over 1200 people a day on the average to put in over 90 days of Shramadana; today, there is a motorable road to the three villages mentioned. The popularity of this man who was disinterested in power-politics frightened the local power wielding politicians and that is why this man’s image was completely destroyed by various false accusations against him, such as calling him an eccentric; An excellent development leader of the people would have been lost to the Community if not for this timely intervention.

The political power elite, if they are seriously concerned about solving people’s basic problems, should realize that for development, an inspired and dedicated leadership is needed at all levels, from the village upwards. Generally such people are not power-seekers. They get more satisfaction from their sense of achievement and service, in the field of human development.

In a small dry zone village, there lived 27 families. They are the owners of 40 acres of paddy land which can be cultivated during the rainy season and half of which can be cultivated during the dry season, if they conserve water in their tanks. At the time we started work in the village, their tank needed repairs which we did with them through a Shramadana (‘Sharing of Labour’) Camp. Many other welfare activities also were done. But the economic condition of these people never improved. It took us two years to realize that all their lands were mortgaged to a merchant in the city. They worked in their own lands as only wage labourers of this rich merchant. They got all their basic food and other requirements on credit from this merchant who also maintained accounts for these illiterate people, regarding the credit they owed him. All the rice ration books of the village people which entitled them to a free measure of rice and other food subsidies were also pawned to this man for a pittance, when they had to tide over difficult times such as when they fell ill. Yet these ‘Grateful’ people looked upon this merchant as their ‘saviour’ because he indulged in philanthropy when there was a need for small loans at times of distress, like that of a death in the family. Redeeming the debts of these people, organizing easy credit introducing basic literacy, organizing marketing facilities, and the imposition of good discipline through the medium of the village family gathering, changed the economic situation of this village remarkably. They were thereby able to donate to the Movement over 2000 dollars to be used for other villages from one season’s harvest alone which incidentally, was a bumper harvest;
Two years later, the village was back in the old situation, because a government servant who was a boarder in that merchant’s house frightened the people on one hand calling the Sarvodaya volunteers violent communists and got the district administration to withdraw the co-operation to our volunteers calling them reactionaries and C.I.A. Agents. The government servant was a contributor to a so called progressive newspaper, espousing the cause of the downtrodden poor. How ironic!

Poverty, hunger, illiteracy disease and all other social ills are closely linked with exploitative relationship between the haves and the have-nots. Sometimes, the champions of the poor are disguised exploiters!


The workers of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka for nearly twenty years have had hundreds of experiences like the three described before. Each rural situation has a unique characteristic which has to be tackled in a way proper to that specific situation. On the other hand, every situation has elements, in varying degrees, of a political – economic, bureaucratic – ethnic – geographical and historic nature. It is the analytical capabilities of a leadership from among the community itself that can bring about a change for the better, in the long run. The community as a whole should be awakened by a leadership coming up from among the members of the community itself.

How is the Movement going to find these leaders? What is the sort of training they should be given? How should they be followed up and further assisted to bring about self-development in their villages without imposing the will of the trainers themselves on their plans? These were some of the questions that the Movement had to find answers to.

For the last twenty years, Sarvodaya has organized hundreds of Shramadana Camps in the villages. These Camps are the recruiting grounds for village leaders – generally youths between 18 to 25 years of age. Participation in Shramadana Camps is the first exposure of these leaders to a self-analysis, problem identification and search for solutions.

Opportunities are provided for groups of 10 to 20 youths, at one time, to come and live for short periods, for example for two weeks, in Sarvodaya Development Education Institutes. These Institutes are organized in such a way that the whole community of members, sometimes as many as 300 persons live a family type of life, during their residential training. Social and physical environment, customs and educational programmes at these Institutes are all reflections of the village life itself. Thereby we make sure that they are not initiated to a Western type of training. The instructors themselves are senior rural youths in the Movement, who have had a long experience in tackling village problems in their own unorthodox ways. What they are after as young people were not to test other people’s social development theories but to be inspired by the challenges they had to face and find practical ways to solve pressing problems of the communities of which they were part and parcel. Therefore, even though they lacked a university or higher education, yet they were able to inspire and guide other youths with their secondary level education which they could put into more practical use than those equipped with higher education.

There are six Development Educational Institutes of the sort described above, which have been established so far. Two of them, cater to more than 300 persons at one time, while two others have around 100 residential youths in each one of them. The fifth one is especially meant for Buddhist monks who have been traditional community leaders of Sri Lanka. The sixth one is yet in the formative stage.

Development Educational Institutes are the most development form of youth training centre that the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has evolved so far. The content of the Sarvodaya Training Programme embraces both welfare and development aspects, in social development integrated into one. Pre-School organizers, nutrition workers, health-care workers, community development workers, wood workers, metal workers, appropriate technology workers, village planners, village level cottage-craft workers, masons and builders and co-operative promoters are provided with skills in these institutes while they live, more or less a community life not different from those in their village setting. I am not going to elaborate on the work done in these centres.

A second category of centres which have come to be known as Sarvodaya Extension Centres are units we have developed as an intermediate stage between a village and a Development Education Institute. At these centres, four young people each in charge of Shramadana Camps, Nutrition, Pre-Schools and Health Care Training Programmes and Economic Programmes, function as a team. These Extension Centres play a coordinating and a supporting role to the development efforts of over 1000 villages in which the Sarvodaya Movement is at present active, in varying degrees. The Movement is striving to establish 50 Centres in all during the course of this year.

Functions of the Sarvodaya Extension Centres are:

# Co-ordination of all development plans and their implementation in all villages linked with this Centre.
# Storage, distribution and collection of tools and equipment used for Shramadana Camps.
# Maintaining of all records pertaining to the villages and various development and welfare activities carried out by the Movement.
# Storage, distribution and accounting of milk powder and other food stuffs gifted from the Centre.
# Meeting place for monthly get-together of members of the Council of Elders of the area, representatives of youth, monks, mothers, farmers or other groups or full-timers of the Movement.
# Conducting Training Programmes for Pre-School and Community Kitchen Workers, Shramadana Camp Organizers, Village Librarians and according to the needs, other specialized workers, such as those needed for agricultural, woodwork, metal work, appropriate technology cottage industries, co-operatives, or any other economic management unit.
# Conducting Educational Classes with the assistance of Government Extension Officers in the area so that the village will get the full benefit of the Government Extension Services in rural areas.
# Maintaining close relationships with the Development Education Institutes and the Sarvodaya Headquarters at Meth Medura, Moratuwa.

The fundamental Sarvodaya principle underlying the Movement’s relationship with village communities is: to help village communities to overcome the ideological, technological and structural obstacles that stand in their way to building up of a self-generating and creative way of life in which their fundamental human needs can be satisfied.
The Shramadana Camp technique is the initiation process for an integrated change in these three areas. Shramadana helps them to come together psychologically and physically to undertake common tasks. It helps them to use their own know-how and technologies. Further it stimulates them to think of new structural relationships they can adopt among themselves in their economic and political relationships, to ensure a healthier social environment.

The Shramadana Camp is a technique that can be continuously used by any village community from the most primitive to the most progressive. The infrastructural work such as access roads to the village, soil conservation, village tanks and irrigation systems, health and sanitation facilities, play-grounds and even constructional work, such as wattle and daub houses and community centres etc. could be realised by this method. In other words; an excellent foundation for the satisfaction of basic human needs, on a programmed basis, can be achieved by using this instrument of Shramadana Camps by an enlightened and dynamic village leadership.

What the Sarvodaya Extension Centres and Development Educational Institutes do is only to serve as meeting places and resource centres from where knowledge and experience could be pooled together, shared and again brought down to the village level, in proportion to the rate at which the village can absorb this knowledge and experience. Even benefits of international research can come down to the village by this type of arrangement where the artificialities between technological levels and distances between social groups are reduced to a minimum.
The Sarvodaya Movement has already evolved several techniques such as what is known as a ‘family gathering’, where people of all ages and all levels meet together as members of one human family. This type of family gatherings take place from village level to national level institutions. Similarly the songs, drama, pleasant language used in addressing one another as brothers and sisters, elders and children, in other words, being addressed in the same way as when they are with their own families help to close the gap that exists between the various social groups. All these combined together, bring about what we call a psychological infrastructure, in the village which is most essential to start a self-development process. Organization of the community into groups according to their ages and interests is another contribution of the Sarvodaya Movement to the development strategy of rural communities. These groups are pre-school children, school going children, out of school youth, farmers, mothers, craftsmen and others. For each of these groups, an ongoing programme is organized so that everybody can participate, both in contributing to the general welfare, as well as satisfying their specific group needs.

Both psychological and social infra-structural stages are pre-economic developmental stages. The real economic development begins with a sufficient number of youths in particular getting trained in the areas where resources of the village are available and are at their disposal. This is an area where economic justice by law has to come in. In Sri Lanka, we were fortunate enough to witness the enactment of a series progressive legislation, removing economic injustices, during the last two decades, but in particular during the last seven years.

Rural credit, marketing and improved techniques in agriculture and management become meaningful, only if people use their initiative and invoke co-operative principles and practise co-operation and participation, in their real context.

The Government of Sri Lanka has undertaken the massive task of transforming the plantations economy, which, until the Land Reforms Act in 1972, was in the hands of local capitalists and foreign vested interests. The change contemplated anticipated the transfer of benefits to the general masses and country at large. Co-operative forms of management and youth settlement schemes have been started in places which were formerly ‘the domains of foreign interests’, for over one and a half – centuries. Rural lands which, due to reasons of being uneconomic to be run as State ventures, are absorbed into these co-operative and youth enterprises.

In a very small way, the Sarvodaya Movement has also started co-operative settlements of youths in lands obtained from the Government. These settlements, known as ‘Samma Vasas’ are experiments in integrating spiritual and cultural values with modern scientific methods, in collective living, production, management and consumption. From the results of these experiments, the Movement hopes to start a series of farms to help youth in self-employment programmes.

We won’t say that the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has transformed all these villages totally and every process mentioned above is functioning to its highest perfection. As I mentioned before ours is only an experiment, which is taking place in a society where comparatively most foreign influences are at present reduced to a minimum, where progressive social legislation is more and more the order of the day and where democratic principles are, day by day, tearing down all semblances of colonial influences if and when it shows its ugly face.

What I have been describing is what we generally describe as ‘development from below – from the grass-root up’. This does not mean that we have to be blind to or ignore the discoveries of modern science and the availability of modern technology. The million-dollar question that the rural communities now face is ‘Who benefits from these big things? Even the most sophisticated technological device will be welcome by the rural communities provided they can control it, but not be enslaved by it, – or are not de-humanized by it, or their ecological balance is not upset by it – or their cultural and spiritual lives are not debased by it. So far, the rich countries and modernized areas in poor countries have not achieved a balanced development, in spite of large scale application of capital-intensive sophisticated technology. The areas that are yet to receive the thrust of modern technology should learn from these experiences. In Sri Lanka the policy of both the people’s Movements like Sarvodaya and the government is directed towards the achievement of balanced development, which we have named the ‘Dhanyagara’ ‘Dharmadweepa’ ideals; – This means a society where economic prosperity and righteousness are harmoniously combined.