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Letters from Sri Lanka – Sarvodaya Builds Community and National Resilience, Part II

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

Post-civil war security in Sri Lanka
All photographs © Craig Mackintosh

Standing, jostling in a small space with 15,000 people of mixed ethnicity and religion, just after a deadly civil war had been quashed by Sri Lanka’s government forces, could make a person feel a tad jittery – particularly when the event that attracted the aforesaid 15,000 people was in respect to Lord Kathirgaman, a six-headed Hindu god of war.

But here I was.

Kataragama Festival, Sri Lanka

It was a steamy August evening in 2009, and the last day of the annual two-week Kataragama Festival in deep south Sri Lanka. Many devotees arrive here after grueling pilgrimages on foot, often barefoot, from all over the country. They share a belief in the god’s power to grant wishes, with a few even expressing penance in extreme ways – like walking on coals or hanging their bodies from hooks. Over the course of the festival, upwards of half a million people come here.

Buddhist Kiri Vehera Temple, Kataragama

Hindu devotee

Although celebrating a Hindu deity, the festival has attracted special recognition from almost everyone. Buddhists and Hindus, Sinhalese and Tamils – they all come. Even minority Catholics make a showing. Yet, the atmosphere was clearly one of peaceful, joyous harmony; not tension. There was a small, supervisory military presence – to be expected since not even three months had elapsed since the Tamil Tigers conceded defeat – but even they looked unperturbed.

The throngs of people emanated a palpable feeling of relief that the civil war had ended. The common people seemed keen to put aside the ugliness of politics and get on with the challenges and joys of living.

Sarvodaya Aids Tamil Refugees

Sarvodaya’s belief in non-violence, and their resulting non-partisan efforts, have made them one of the few groups the Sri Lankan government allowed into the hot zones in the north of Sri Lanka to assist with humanitarian aid.

The image here is full of practical symbolism. A Singhalese (the majority)
volunteers his time to Sarvodaya to truck supplies of water to Tamil
IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps in the north, in a truck
donated by German federal aid

As expressed about their involvement with Tsunami relief, wide-spreading community networks sharing common ideals are better situated to help when tragedy strikes than centralised government ever can. In this case it’s even more relevant when the political opinions of government heads might cloud an atmosphere of kindness with a desire to punish, rather than help.

Post Civil War Development

Sarvodaya provided the following items for IDP camps (correct as of mid-September 2009):

  • Cooked foods parcels: 91,097 (Feb-March)
  • From March to still now providing food items valued at more than 12 million Sri Lankan rupees (US$105,000)
  • Temporary toilets: 370
  • Clothes and household items parcels: 10,000
  • Baby’s cots: 400

Just like with the Tsunami, Sarvodaya doesn’t want to only help through box-shifting initial aid, and then just drop it. They desire to keep working with communities to help them permanently shift to a sustainable, bottom-up democratic platform. An understanding of what is ‘sustainable’, however, can be relative, depending on your view.

I want to note at this juncture, that I am not wholeheartedly and blindly holding Sarvodaya up as a perfect model of community and national development. But rather, as civilisation begins to unravel, I’m frantically looking for frameworks we can build on and improve. There are many elements of the Sarvodaya movement that I believe we need to examine – particularly as it’s the largest participatory democracy movement on the planet – but it is not perfect.

Sarvodaya Partnership with Microsoft and HSBC

In my first post on Sarvodaya I wrote the following question:

Did Sarvodaya hold the secrets to this systemic change? Or, being devil’s advocate here, did Sarvodaya threaten us with more of the same – taking impoverished but low carbon millions, helping them onto their feet, just to see them reach out for the very lifestyles from which we’re now trying to retreat?

A recent announcement from Sarvodaya – that they’re going to work in partnership with Microsoft and HSBC bank "to help educate the youth of the North and East and provide them with Information Technology skills", is a case in point. The announcement includes expressing the desire to ‘grow the economy’, which is, as we know, an impossibility if we’re seeking to reduce energy consumption, climate change, ocean acidification, etc.

The information technology training they are talking about would of course be done with the best of intentions. It may even help a few achieve a more ‘comfortable’ life. It would also provide inexpensive labour for the industrial machine…. What it won’t do is teach people how to build on the remnants of sustainable living they still retain. It won’t teach them how to develop localised cottage industries that supply food, clothing and housing in sustainable ways. It will encourage young people with new IT skills to leave their villages for higher incomes, and continue the trend to move people off the land – incentivising industrial agriculture to move in and fill the void. IT will encourage the beginnings of a process that leads to more specialisation and centralisation – and a greater dependency on supply lines outside of one’s control.

In the two-thirds world countries I’ve been in, one aspect that is striking, but expected, is a higher degree of naivety about world issues and current events. This is true particularly in regards to Peak Oil and its implications. Adverts reach these people far easier than the world energy and other peak-everything topics that are now commonplace in the west. Because of this, it’s not difficult for good intentions to get derailed along the way.

I take heart in one realisation, however. The energy and other issues we face will bring significant changes over the next few years. I don’t see there being time for these people to ‘develop‘ too far before they find themselves having to take stock of more realistic priorities, and fall back on community support and low carbon survival. Obviously the window of time we have now would be better spent in appropriate preparation, rather than chasing the mirage of a western lifestyle. In this sense misguided development attempts are an unfortunate, even dangerous, distraction. Here’s hoping Sarvodaya’s wide spreading network of ‘awakened’ villagers can urge their representatives (what we in the west, unfortunately, label our ‘leadership’) to avoid hopping into bed with just anyone that comes along bearing gifts (Sarvodaya people – please read this article). After all, that’s where the strength of a community shows itself, in their ability to shape their own future, and not just sit and watch, as we do in the west, as our governments lead us down the proverbial garden path.

Continue to Part VI of this series….


  1. Hi Craig, I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts about your time in Sri Lanka, particularly as I am hoping to spend some time out there this year to find out more about Sarvodaya and how we in the UK can learn from their approach. I’d really like to discuss this with you in a bit more detail and also see if you have any useful contacts at Sarvodaya that I could get in touch with. I’m hoping to have my trip supported by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and to spend a month or two getting to understand how the network works. If you have a chance, do you think you could get in touch?

  2. You lament IT skills being taught to villagers… that’s ironic, considering you’re writing articles online on a precious collection of practical and philosophical info that isn’t available anywhere else than the internet.
    You notice “a higher degree of naivety about world issues and current events” in the 2/3 world… well how are they going to get educated and savvy and aware of the issues if at least some of them are not “wired in”? Ignorance isn’t the answer, and neither is foreigners going in to preach our gospel of eco-salvation. They need their own education and wisdom and answers.
    I think IT training will be helpful if, and only if, it is preceded by an awakening and sense of responsibility that are given as foundations in this well-thought out Sri Lankan program.

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