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Letters from Sri Lanka – the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement and the ‘Third Way’

Part III of a series – If you haven’t already, please read Part I and Part II before continuing. This series is part of my work for the Sustainable (R)evolution book project.

Fishing boats rest on the shores of a lake in Sri Lanka
Photos © Craig Mackintosh

Shattered Dreams

Anniversary celebrations for the fall of the Berlin Wall have just recently ended. It was twenty years ago that the most symbolic, and literal, barrier between two economic ideologies was pulled down by restive, festive spirits. But, the celebrations of November 2009 were tempered with a heightened sense of objectivity – in a way perhaps never seen before in modern history, and certainly not seen in 1989.

A recent BBC poll indicates widespread discontent with the now all-pervasive capitalist system. Global economic meltdown tends to dampen party spirits, and this is especially true when what you’re celebrating is a major milestone for the very system responsible for the collapse.

Between Two Evils

A couple of years ago I watched PBS’s six-hour historical look at the last century’s ideological struggle between east and west, left and right, communism and capitalism. Commanding Heights is without doubt a fascinating watch and does provide some greater context to the massive political shifts that shaped the turbulent twentieth century and which have deposited us here in this new millennium. Although apparently trying to walk objectively, the production remains right leaning. Completed in 2002, during the boom years prior to 2008’s energy, mortgage and banking mayhem, the documentary ends giving – albeit with some hesitant reservations – the globalised, ‘free market’ the winning trophy for Best Economic Model.

I would love to see how the documentary would end had it been made today, in November 2009….

I keep meeting people who have just lost their jobs. Many are relocating in search of work, or are returning to the support of their family home. It’s ironic. There is so much work that needs to be done to transform our world into sustainable functionality, yet more and more people are unemployed. Apparently there’s nothing for them to do.

The present is bleak for many, but the future is not brighter. Most of the young people I meet are still studying themselves into redundancy. Their ‘education’ is fully based on an energy rich dream time – an era that is all but over. The system – the ‘invisible structures’ that frame our economic activities – have and are failing us in almost every way, and not least of these is making best use of our most valuable resource: people. Thoughts on the need for real, expedient, practical training for the world fast arriving have yet to reach mainstream consciousness, and this is setting us up for very difficult times.

But Where From Here?

The tug of war between communism and capitalism always ends the same – with a lot of people laying flat on their faces. Both systems end in massive centralisation, whether the totalitarianism of a socialist government run amuck or the resource- and capital-accruing power of unrestrained, capitalist captains of industry. Whilst the ivory towers of our world are inhabited by an ‘elite’ Corporatocracy (a system I call ‘corporate feudalism’), at the base of all this, dealing with the realities of existence and scrabbling for resource crumbs, are individuals – those that industry has affectionately labelled ‘consumers’. The majority inevitably become mere pawns in the game.

Yet, can we even begin to visualise a new form of society – one where mankind’s net impact on the planet is neutral, or positive? What would such a society look like?

A Sarvodaya villager sells a diverse range of organic produce roadside
– with more than 95% of it grown behind the stall, and by her own family

As we don’t live on an inflatable earth, logic dictates that we recognise resources as being finite – that they must be constantly cycled. The one sure ingredient to a ‘third way’ is that it cannot, and must not, be based on perpetual growth. Consumerism is the enemy of what we need to build, yet in the framework we’ve grown up within, this concept seems foreign and absurd. (Can you picture purchasing a lawn mower – but having the salesman encourage you to consider a goat, or a food forest, instead? Bush is famous for encouraging us to "go shopping" in a time of tragedy, yet can you see Obama orating about the need to unplug from markets, stay home and build environmentally friendly, community-centric self-reliance?)

Getting to the Heart of the Matter – the Heart Itself

It is what people want, or can be made to want through media and peer pressure, that is at the heart of our problems. We simply can’t constrain ourselves, and industry and government encourage and manipulate this to their own ends.

And, while we know we must stop consuming the planet, for us to suddenly depart from this entrenched system would translate to widespread economic turmoil and immense suffering. Building a new framework to transition to is critical, yet environmentalists worldwide grapple with this concept, resorting instead to talking about efficiencies and ‘green technologies’, studying how to make ourselves merely less bad, but struggling to comprehend, let alone implement, the real necessity – inner, motivational change of the individual, and shaping greater society to foster that.

A boy learns in the village of Lagoswatta – Sri Lanka’s first eco-village – a
collaboration between Sarvodaya and the Sri Lankan government

Setting Priorities

The effectiveness and transparency of the now-enormous Sarvodaya network has encouraged many philanthropic organisations to funnel aid through them rather than other potential channels. A.T. Ariyaratne told me that often, however, Sarvodaya declines donations due to the strings attached. Many aid organisations measure their success by the number of food or clothing items distributed; the number of boxes shifted. But, for the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement – personal development, or ‘awakening’, is the beginning and the end of their ambitions, and this is not so easy to quantify.

As I’ve shared, the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement aims for individual, voluntary simplicity in combination with shared labour. For an individual to function in such a way it necessitates having a mutually cooperative community around him. Building those communities – those that nurture the values of self reliance and self restraint – is the central thrust of the movement.

The Village Republic

In contrast to the rapid centralisation and government dependence we witness today, the ideal for every Sarvodaya village is Grama Swarajya, or self governance, where every village effectively becomes its own village republic.

Bandula Senadheera, Executive Assistant of the Sarvodaya International
Division, explains the village graduation process
Click image for detailed view

Rather than the IMF/World Bank/WTO model that seemingly prioritises (but fails to achieve) economic ‘development’, villages enlisting with Sarvodaya go through a five step graduation process that begins with the hearts and minds of individual villagers.

The five steps are:

  1. Psychological infrastructure development
  2. Social infrastructure development and training
  3. Satisfaction of basic human needs and institutional development
  4. Income and employment generating and self-financing
  5. Sharing with neighbouring villages

Contrary to mainstream thinking, meeting basic needs is only step three in the Sarvodaya village development process. Before you’re assisted to improve your condition, you are first awakened to the consideration of what the true needs of a peaceful, sustainably contented society is. The village is infused with enthusiasm and agreement on a fully holistic level.

Continue on to Read Part IV


  1. All of this sounds wonderful in many ways, but cam you tell me about the role of women in these democratic processes and about the education of girls?

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