This trip to Sri Lanka, my first since the devastating tsunami in December of last year, was a phenomenal experience. Having lived and worked with Sarvodaya almost 20 years ago, it was a curious mix of nostalgia, excitement and sadness to see this country after such a long absence and under such dire circumstances.
My intent in making this visit was to strengthen relationships with key Sarvodaya workers throughout the country. Given the magnitude of donations contributed by American donors, I wanted and needed to see how our $1.3 million dollars was being put to work. Not only was it important to observe projects on the ground, it was also imperative to learn what Sarvodaya has done to become so highly lauded for its transparent management and financial practices. I was nothing short of amazed.
In the mid- to late 1980’s, much of the east coast and the entire northern region were off limits to foreign travelers. This made my first field visit that much more meaningful. Traveling with Dr. Ari, Dr. Vinya, Mr.Subasena De Silva (Deputy Executive Director – Field Operations), Mrs.Lalitha Peiris of Sarvodaya Peace Secretariat, and several others, we drove 14 hours in one day to visit the Batticaloa region for a laying of the stone ceremony (our equivalent of a groundbreaking). Sarvodaya, with the help of an Austrian donor providing 1.3 million Euro, is rebuilding a village of 200 families. Only 152 of these homes were destroyed by the tsunami, however, the conditions of the remaining structures were so poor that Sarvodaya could not in good conscious rebuild only part of the village.
This project in Vattavan is interesting in that it is situated in an area with a heavy LTTE presence. The project is one of three funded by the Austrian group which integrates a strong reconciliation and reintegration component. They will work in a Muslim, Singhalese and Tamil village and not only rebuild pre-schools, temples, playgrounds, multi-purpose centers, houses and perhaps a guest house, they will also provide cultural exchange and shramadana opportunities to strengthen peaceful ties among the communities.
My next field visit entailed traveling throughout the Matara District on the south coast. This area is heavily reliant on the fishing industry and tourism and thus, not only have homes been destroyed but also principle sources of livelihood. Refugee camps line the major thoroughfare of Galle Road, filled to capacity with families who have lost everything. Some families are already hard at work rebuilding homes with grants from Sarvodaya (the average costs being $5,000 for a 550 sq. ft. home) while many without access to land face long waits living in hot canvas tents and temporary wooden shelters. The sad reality is that many of these people who lived within the 100 meter boundary recently instituted by the government have no place to go. They will face waits anywhere from 12-18 months in some cases.
During this trip, I visited with people living in demolished villages, construction sites, village banks, Sarvodaya Shramadana Society community facilities and the Matara District Center. Hewa, the former District Coordinator (DC) of Matara and the rest of the district staff briefed me on Sarvodaya’s activities. With pride, he showed me a bio-diversity project adjacent to his home. It is rare to find virgin forest land in Sri Lanka and Hewa’s excitement is contagious.
In addition to helping the villagers of Matara rebuild their lives through revolving loan funds, psycho social healing programs, village construction and water and sanitation projects, Sarvodaya is also hard at work rebuilding their own district center destroyed in the tsunami. Sarvodaya’s vision, led by Hewa, is to build a regional center to bring people together from the north, east and south regions to forge lifetime bonds of reconciliation and peace. It is only through understanding and practice of the precepts of loving kindness, compassion and awakening that this country can find lasting peace. This is a cornerstone of the integrated development approach found in all Sarvodaya activities. Sarvodaya USA is proud to have helped facilitate the gifting of a $21,000 grant from Awakening Hope to help build this premier facility.
On our way back from Matara, we stopped and visited with a family in Mohottiwata whose home (which stood maybe 25 feet from the beach) was destroyed in the tsunami. I honestly don’t know how they made it out alive. The entire house was leveled from the giant waves. The father in the home lives with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and small grandchild. He operates a dance school training the extraordinary performers in the Perahera and other festivals. This family’s home will be rebuilt in an inland location with funds raised by students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. The UW-Marathon benefit drew on local artists and performers, and thus is a perfect example of Sarvodaya and Sarvodaya USA’s effort to create a meaningful match and link between donors and recipients. Having the opportunity to personally meet this family brought tears to my eyes.
The remainder of my visit was spent meeting with department heads learning about program activities in the post-tsunami period. Several things caught my attention in these meetings. First of all, while Sarvodaya’s workload has increased dramatically as a result of this calamity, activities instituted before the tsunami have continued. Village development including such activities as early childhood education, livelihood support, environmental protection, sustainable agriculture and programs to support the special needs of women and children continue to happen every day. No one is forgotten in this country.
Secondly, the patience, calm and integrity with which people go about their work are astounding. I cannot even imagine the scenes witnessed and personally experienced by so many in the Sarvodaya family immediately following the tsunami. Yet every day, people continue to work long hours under difficult conditions to bring about the “5R’s” of relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction, reconciliation and reawakening.
Thirdly, under the leadership of Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, Executive Director, Sarvodaya has become a model for good governance and transparency in the developing world. Lauded by Transparency International, they have instituted strict policies and procedures in finance, compliance and project monitoring. What this means to us as donors in the United States is that when we give money, we know it is spent as promised and documentation is available to track expenditures.
Finally, a primary purpose in meeting with so many leaders within Sarvodaya was to communicate that Sarvodaya USA is not just interested in funding projects focused on rebuilding after the tsunami, we are also keen on helping build organizational capacity. Recognizing that Sarvodaya’s ability to implement effective programs in the field rests on the competence of those managing these programs, workers must have the necessary skills. This program, which will supplement our field activities funded by over 3,500 donors throughout the states, will facilitate learning and growth through training opportunities, certificate programs in partnership with US universities, engineering site visits and early childhood education to name just a few. Sarvodaya USA’s role in these activities will be to help create the relationships and linkages necessary for Sarvodaya workers to access these opportunities.
As would be expected with any organization faced with such a devastating event, Sarvodaya’s ability to respond to current workload and donor requests in an ideal timeframe is at times outweighed by the sheer volume of work. Rest assured, it is not for lack of desire or effort. Vinya Ariyaratne has done an excellent job recruiting numerous competent and dedicated individuals. From young information technology wizards to specialists in corporate responsibility and staff members fluent in English, Tamil, Singhalese and Japanese, the talent here is deep. Similar to those who joined Ari in the beginning of the movement almost 50 years ago, Vinya has a way about him which inspires the younger leaders to marry the philosophy of the movement with the need for good governance and modern technology.
We should not take the difficulty of moving this organization into the 21st century for granted. Individuals including Mrs. Udani Mendis (Acting Executive Director/Deputy Executive Director – Technological Programmes), Mr.Saman Priyashantha (Finance Director), Mr.Subasena De Silva (Field Director), Mr.Bandula Senadheera (International Division Coordinator) and others must bridge a generational divide which calls for a new way of operating in the world. They must remain true to the roots of Sarvodaya while at the same time operate with absolute transparency and high governance standards. As we all know (especially the social scientists among us), individual behavior and organizational change is slow and difficult. I think whatever we can all do to continue to support this broad sweeping change within the appropriate cultural context is important.