The Sarvodaya Shramadana movement started 47 years ago. 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 assist with their self-help initiatives. Within nine years, however, the “service learning program” 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.
By the late 1970s, the Sarvodaya movement, with support from partner organizations in more prosperous countries, became capable of reaching nearly every part of Sri Lanka. The program of self-reliance, community participation, and a 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 organize 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 organizations – to become one of the largest participatory organizations in this region and in the world. Ironically, it was our philosophy of starting on a small scale that resulted in Sarvodaya’s tremendous growth. The appeal derived from our fundamental belief in the wisdom and abilities of the village population itself to decide its own fate – not global corporations, financial institutions or national political parties, but people who see each other every day and who depend on each other.
The momentum of the movement was such that by the early 1990s, in spite of harassment by the government and political violence, it had achieved enormous outreach. The movement’s work included peace building, conflict resolution, appropriate technology, and programs for children at risk, elders and those with disabilities – all the while focusing on a holistic approach to social mobilization 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 among 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 are not financed by outside partners, they are nevertheless surviving in the knowledge that in the long term, progress for them will result from partnership 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.