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Letters from Sri Lanka – Sarvodaya’s Economic Development and Its Destination

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

Preamble: As I type, much of France is grinding to a halt as an enraged public strike against austerity measures that would impose restrictions on their lifestyles. This year we already watched placard waving, gold watch wearing, Greek protestors gnashing their teeth in their overspent, tourism-dependent country, and now the French are blockading fuel depots, torching cars, throwing rocks and threatening to bring the whole country to a standstill. Trouble is brewing in the UK and elsewhere as well as similar attempts to patch their disastrous economic situations are on the table, and let’s not even mention where the implosion already underway in the US will inevitably lead…. I can’t blame people for being mad. They’ve been told lies — given the "trust us, vote for us, we know what we’re doing" spiel and fed the immoral and impossible fiction of an American Dream to keep them as mere compliant labour and ‘consumers’. With their pockets beginning to suffer they’re awakening out of their apathy, but, in their protests, as they spit the dummy and throw their toys out of the cot, what are they really seeking to accomplish? As far as I can tell, they’re demanding a continuation of the status quo — they want to persevere with our credit based, unrestrained, consumer treadmill just a little longer. This also is wholly detached from reality. What if, instead of pulling down rather than buildingjust to usher in a new era of fascism as governments spend more on internal security than positive options like permaculture education — people were to objectively look at the situation we find ourselves in, learn from the mistakes of our past gorging on credit and finite resources, and determine to build an alternative, sustainable, cooperative, economy that has happiness, equality, health and natural capital as priority goals? We could then begin to replace our current leisure-oriented consumer system with an alternative that takes reality by the horns, and, en masse, urge our governments to incentivise and support it. We would aggressively propose, with a workable road map in hand, rather than aggressively protest without viable alternatives. We would transform present invisible structures through unity of purpose, defeating the system, rather than allowing the confusion born of our individualism to only strengthen the resolve of government. And should government fail to come to the party, we’d build a parallel economy regardless. In Sri Lanka, the world’s largest participatory democracy movement, Sarvodaya, has been quietly building such a parallel economy over the last few decades. We could learn something here….

All photographs © copyright Craig Mackintosh

We realized that while our programmes and activities to build "inner peace" are still needed, they are no longer sufficient. The consolidation of "outer peace" requires that we address other issues faced by people in their daily life, in the system of governance under which they have to live and in an economic system under which they are getting poorer and poorer and the Earth as a whole is becoming less and less able to sustain life. While people may gain more and more control over their own minds, they appear to be powerless to address the current political and economic systems apparently taking the human species and other life as well to extinction. – A.T. Ariyaratne, Tokyo, November 2008.

We should stop spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need just to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about. – Tim Jackson

The love of money [not money itself] is the root of all evil – Jesus

Billboard in Sri Lanka

Advertising billboards in Sri Lanka almost universally sport models with unusually creamy complexions compared to the local population. As a result of this — and TV shows full of unusually pale actors and actresses — while some in the west are spending their hard-earned dollars at tanning salons, trying to get darker, across Asia the growing desire is for fairer skin. We don’t seem able to be content with who we are, and there’s no shortage of industries who seek to encourage and capitalise on this innate human weakness. No wonder that here, despite the recession, one industry still seeing major growth is the skin lightening cream business.

Billboard in Sri Lanka

Creating and manipulating desires and urging them upon gullible customers — luring people into accepting an ever-changing new round of ‘needs’ — is the goal of most businesses. The morality and sustainability of today’s products are not the concern of the manufacturer, marketer and retailer of them, and they are desperate that their customers also neglect these considerations. Short term self-interest, and sales, rule supreme, and centralised detachment from the people and place affected make it all too easy.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts in this series, Sarvodaya tries to reach into the heart of this matter, concluding that happiness is found in cooperatively meeting basic needs in sustainable ways within a positive, nurturing community.

Yet, economic development is still part of the Sarvodaya vision — with a focus on low- to medium-tech solutions and voluntary simplicity. Economic development, as shared already, comes only after inner, personal development, with the goal of minimising materialistic- and ego-based ambitions in the economic structures they then go on to forge.

Sarvodaya’s five steps for village development are, once again:

1. Psychological infrastructure development (transforming people’s attitudes and priorities)
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

To facilitate economic development — point #4 in our list — Sarvodaya created SEEDS (Sarvodaya Economic Enterprises Development Services). There are now more than 5000 SEEDS offices, of one size or another, in Sarvodaya communities across the country — one for every three of Sarvodaya’s 15000+ villages.

A SEEDS office in Sri Lanka

… during the last two decades and half, we have developed Sarvodaya Economic Enterprises Development Services in over 5000 of our villages. This is the largest people’s savings, credit, microenterprises and community banking program in Sri Lanka. One of the main causes of conflicts and war is poverty and lack of economic opportunities. When people are economically empowered and they have equal opportunities to improve themselves there is a lesser tendency to take to crimes, robberies, bribery and corruption and lastly to civil disturbances and war. – A.T. Ariyaratne, Tokyo, November 2008.

If you want to build or buy a pottery wheel and kiln to provide people in your community with locally made ceramics, it might be impossible without some financial assistance to get started. This is where a micro-loan from within your local community could come to the rescue.

I asked at the few SEEDS offices I visited what the most common loans were provided for. Topping the lists were bakeries, small retail stores or roadside market garden stalls, sewing machines, garden infrastructure, and three-wheeler vehicles.

Applying for a micro-loan at one of Sarvodaya’s many SEEDS offices

Many loans were only between three and four thousand Sri Lankan Rupees (US$27 to $36), a little less often they stretched to around 15,000 rupees (US$135) and just a few maxing out at about 100,000 rupees (US$900) for a small business.

A roadside stall provides income from a family’s excess organic produce

Requests for loans within the SEEDS network are measured against base ethics determined by the Sarvodaya communities themselves. Business proposals out of harmony with community-determined principles are rejected. In the Sarvodaya context, this means no support is given to businesses involving products or services deemed detrimental to the community as a whole, like alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, etc., or damaging to the environment the community depends on. Yes/No or refer-for-more-information decisions are dealt with by a local SEEDS board.

An off-the-beaten-track village store helps build community resiliency

Significantly, unlike faceless collateral-based loans from large centralised banks, SEEDS loans are made at community level, dealing with people you know. Securing a loan is hence based more on relationships and trust than on collateral security you likely don’t have. Friendship and nurturing takes precedence over considerations of risk and litigation.

But how can this work?

In the west, we live in a society based on caveat emptor and litigation, checks and balances. It’s laws, loopholes and legal gobbledygook. But there can never be enough fine print to protect against our every-man-for-himself selfishness and dishonesty if we’re determined to find a way around it. This detached, individualistic and oft-antagonistic approach is born of social atomism and self-interest. Sarvodaya’s SEEDS system relies less on fine print and threats of prosecution than it does on building relationships and funding community-beneficial projects into life, and it manages to do this because it’s working with communities who have changed at heart and committed to contribute to their community in positive, interdependent ways. SEEDS is built on mutual participation and trust.

Is all perfect with the SEEDS system? I wasn’t in Sri Lanka long enough to thoroughly analyse this important aspect, but I doubt it. As I’ve expressed before, naivety about the destructiveness of the now all-to-prevalent consumer culture is rife in these so-called ‘developing’ countries.

A young monk is reprimanded for monetising his work – trying to sell to tourists

The seductiveness of western ways projected through western media is hard to resist, even in Sarvodaya communities. Entering one of the larger SEEDS offices in the country, I saw a colourful banner above the door advertising loan deals with staged incentives on offer — a succession of four prizes going from a bicycle, to a motorised scooter, to a three-wheeler to a family car. The sign projected the kind of inner-fulfilment-is-found-in-personal-mobility concept that hearkens back to the post-WWII General Motors adverts that ensured plans for sensible, low carbon U.S. public transport and rail systems were all shelved.

Nobody I spoke to within Sarvodaya was familiar with the peak oil concept, so in their designing their way out of social inequality and civil unrest and war, some significant areas of growing concern to us in the west are yet lost on them.

How on earth are we to get where we need to go? Sit in the back and hope?
Hijack the van?

Four political/economic scenarios to consider. All take us somewhere… See if you can’t spot the Sarvodaya approach:

1) Dictatorship. We’re taken by surprise and rushed upon by strong-armed men. They pull black hoods over our heads before forcing us into a windowless van and taking us to a work camp we don’t know where. We either sit quietly in fear and accept our fate, or we risk our lives in an attempt to rise up and kill the well-guarded driver. Dictatorship begins, and ends, in tears.

2) A van, covered in ingenious and attractive slogans, pulls up and we’re invited in. We passively trust the driver’s promises that he has our best interests at heart and we enjoy the in-van entertainment system as we allow him to take us where he thinks we should go (also to, as it happens, a work camp). A couple of more entrepreneurial types from amongst us seem to know the driver and they get to sit up front — where they collude with the driver to craftily rob us blind without our noticing while we’re working. This is government without our participation. It’s pretty much where we’re at today. The man at the wheel calls it a democracy, but we’re not driving, so it’s nothing of the sort. This is also ending in tears. Some of us are still relatively comfortable though, headsets in place. But, as soon as the destination, or the ride, or even the seat cushioning, fails to satisfy, we hop off at the next stop and quickly jump into another van to see if the destination, or at the very least the creature comforts, are more to our liking. This van — rather similar to the last one as it happens and heading in pretty much the same direction — is also driven by a persuasive driver who, we still don’t notice, is simply telling us what he thinks we want to hear. The ride ends up costing us much more than we were originally advised, despite our ending up even further from our destination than when we embarked.

3) Some people who’ve hopped off the afore-mentioned van all shout "f**k it" and determine to use their own means of transport. A few even go so far as to torch the van! Anarchy is afoot. Everyone working in their own individual self interest is judged the best way for people to get where they want to go. (It is certainly the simplest solution, as, empathy lost, most of the passengers have lost all ability to forge meaningful, cooperative relationships with each other.) These all walk away from the burning van to get into individual cars before determining their own preferred, respective routes and destinations. All the cars head off in a thousand different directions, with drivers honking and waving their fists at anyone who bumps into them or slows their progress. Most travel as sole occupants. Some, however, don’t have access to a car at all, and are left in the cold on the street. While most with cars don’t notice this, an ambitious few who claim several cars, put a few of these carless folk to work, driving them for a pittance. A couple of these ambitious types even hijack a new van to try the cycle of scenerio #2 again. Another group, a small minority, pool with their best pals (these are called, with great elitist pride, ‘eco-villagescars’). Many in the eco-cars fall out with their self-interested driver though, and are pushed out of their cosy vehicle into the cold as well. This is libertarianism. There is no social cohesion here. It leads to social atomism, social stratification and also ends in tears.

4) Option four is, I admit, something of a miracle situation. It’s where a group (or cultural) awakening takes place, with all or at least a decent majority of us humbly and objectively agreeing on where we want need to go — collectively recognising that no man is an island and that true success for the individual is impossible without success for the community, and vice versa. In this scenario we democratically determine not only the best destination but also the route most likely to get us there in one piece. We then work together to build a new van. The driver we place at the wheel, chosen from amongst us, is not allowed to determine the direction, but, rather, is acting on a groundswell of bottom up leadership. The driver is the servant here — stopped in his tracks, and potentially replaced, not at the next stop, but in the very moment he takes a turn not marked down on the road map. The passengers are now not passengers at all, and, although the van they’ve built is comfortable, it’s been intentionally kept free of any entertainment distractions that might keep them from watching where they are going. All involved recognise it’ll be a long, sometimes uncomfortable journey, but worth the trip. They all just want to get there. There are other vans like it too, servicing every region. This is participatory democracy. It offers the hope of arriving somewhere we might actually want to arrive, and live. Achieving this scenario is difficult — very difficult — particularly with a dumbed-down, leisure-loving and apathetic population to deprogram. But, with a little infusion of lucidity born of holistic education, it is possible.

I don’t see another trip worth taking.

Sarvodaya community cooperation built this water tank. It services,
by gravity feed, the water needs of 67 houses. The village has four more,
servicing a total of 278 houses. Villagers all pay a small contribution to
support the man pictured, who manages, maintains and cleans the tanks.

Closing thoughts on Sarvodaya

There are no perfect solutions to be found on this earth — purely because people are imperfect, often ignorant and/or fail to be objective, and tend towards greed. Even well-intended small scale sustainable development can thus becomes perverted into less than the original ideals. But, yet, the incredible, positive success of Sarvodaya’s decentralised structures must urge us to consider and emulate what they have achieved.

The unity I observed throughout the Sarvodaya communities was heartening, and their concern and loving commitment to those less fortunate and to the environment that sustains them is more than praiseworthy. And, given the sheer volume of their numbers, they make for a sizeable political force. Members are encouraged to form Sarvodaya Societies who register with governments to lobby for change. Their small communities of souls united with a common positive purpose, can, in aggregate, effectively put them in the nation’s driver seat, transforming the country holistically, from within.

Rebuilding localised resiliency is today becoming an acute necessity. But more, changing national invisible structures to incubate and facilitate such interdependent resiliency is just as important, or even more so — otherwise positive efforts are hampered at every turn. This restructuring cannot occur without community cohesion and cooperative purpose.

Cooperating to build something similar for our own local western context has got to be a better, more productive option than shouting "give me, give me, give me" as you clash with riot shields and watch society spiral out of control. For Sarvodaya, if their present development route does in any way ‘develop’ towards consumerism, it will be a short-lived experiment as the domino effect of peak oil and economic collapse slaps them back onto track. At least they have a community infrastructure already built that they can fall back on and bolster for the times ahead. Do you?

I’ll give A.T. Ariyaratne, pioneer of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, the final word.

In its development work in the communities during the last five decades, Sarvodaya has in fact attended to these three major spheres of activity, namely consciousness, economy and power in one way or another. What is new in the emerging Sarvodaya strategy is the elevation of the community development activities to higher levels; their better co-ordination and integration into a holistic development programme, with the communities themselves forming into effective and sustainable networks for desirable change. This is a tall order. It is not something we have achieved yet. But it is a goal we have dedicated ourselves to achieve. – A.T. Ariyaratne, Tokyo, November 2008.


Sarvodaya peace and meditation centre, Moratuwa, near Colombo, Sri Lanka


  1. For inspiration:

    – Global Ecovillage Network:

    – Creating a Life Together:

    – International Society of Biourbanism:

    – The Village Forum:

    – Earthship Biotecture:

    – Living Neighborhoods:

    – Institute for Bau-Biologie & Ecology:

  2. “anarchism is the gentlest of all political systems. It contemplates no institutionalized coercion. It’s the watercourse way, where everything is allowed to rise or fall naturally to its own level. An anarchic system is necessarily one of free-market capitalism. Any services that are needed and wanted by people – like the police or the courts – would be provided by entrepreneurs, who’d do it for a profit.” Doug Casey

  3. JBob. How do you make money out of taking care of these people?

    And, I think you totally missed the point unfortunately. The world is experiencing serious difficulty today, and heading into a whole lot more yet. To address this situation, we need a World War II type mobilisation – a major, rapid, thoughtful, and concerted effort from everyone everywhere to see us transitioning into a workable situation. Everyone working in their own interests, for profit, will not see this mobilisation occur.

  4. Yes, but this will not happen before most people understand why we act like we do. The human mind has no limits, because we were evolved in a world without limits, in small in-groups, until recently. To organize our self in a sustainable way we must understand our greed and egoism, and in which situations these negative sides of our mind thrives. Then we must organize our society in ways that oppresses our negative behavior, and encourage our good sides. Human behavior ecologist Terje Bongard has in his book “Det biologiske mennesket” made it VERY clear that we can only survive as specie if we organize our whole society, at EVERY level, in tribal sized in-groups. If we don’t manage very rapidly to break down the whole structure of our society into in-groups, we will either face fascism or destruction. I hope he can express these ideas himself some day at this site; I’m not able to do it correctly as I’m not a scholar.

    One more thing he is very clear about is that we don’t have time anymore to argue about who is right. Because the scientific knowledge about human behavior ecology is now so enormous that there is rather easy to tell which structures of society that will work, and which will not.

    The problem is that it’s a part of human biology to mean and act like majority, and to reject change. Terje Bongard thinks the only way to make people change is if people understand why they act like they do, this means everyone should have a huge understanding of human behavior ecology. And he’s surely doing his best to spread this information.

    Following his rhetoric, this site should publish lots of articles about human behavior ecology, to make readers of this site understanding why they act like they do, and make their decisions out from this knowledge.

  5. One more thing he is very clear about is that every in-group will be given recourses only according to nature’s surplus. This mean all surpluses of our ecosystems must be registered carefully, and then be shared carefully among the in-groups. The structure of these in-groups will hindrance corruption, egoism and free passengers. And they will encourage altruism and cooperation. Of course, their new knowledge in human behavior ecology will help too.

  6. Hi Craig,

    Truly enjoyed these letters. How soon do you plan on having the book out?

    Was reminded of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement which I’ve been thinking about recently as I slowly put together in print some of my own thoughts on the future.

    Yr description of the tea plantations shocked me – especially the ‘fair trade’ involvement in the workers’ exploitation – as it seems no different to what I saw there in the mid to late 1950s! Your “trickle-down” capitalism is what I call “tricky-done” economics – the trickle-down that doesn’t trickle down (i.e. never reaches the poor).

    And you are spot on the nail with the turmoil in Europe – it has all the hallmarks of the same scenario in the 1920s that led to fascism then & so easily could do so again.

    We need to be doing things NOW, putting alternatives (plural) into place in small communities, wherever any such alternatives seems viable. Hopefully I’ll have something on this to send for yr perusal in due course. Right now I’m in Laos, but should be back in Oz later in the year.

    I’m also passing on the letter sites to a former student living in Sri Lanka who will appreciate them even more. She is just about to finish high school & interested in a future in science. She is very much concerned with the state of the planet’s ecology, & injustice. Do you know of anywhere in Sri Lanka she could begin an involvment in soil science? I think this would satisfy both of her concerns.
    cheers, jim burns

  7. Further comment on the blogs:

    Nice also to see both you & Ernest giving the lie to libertarianism.

    Thatcher’s restatement of Rand’s dictum: “Society? Society? There is no such thing as society” when she thought the tape had stopped rolling let the cat out of the bag for anyone in the UK with enough sense to see where that was heading.

    The greatest problem with changing government today is that the acolytes of the Chicago Church of Economics (Patron Saint: Ayn Rand, former high priest: the late Milton Friedman) have cornered the market in advice to governments. Politicians world-wide have bought their economic pseudo-science with its “business as usual” scenario of greater production, ignoring the facts of finite resources, precisely because it continues to support their lifestyle as a global ruling elite. So I doubt greatly that we will ever see moves to devolve or redistribute land by any govt.

    You are absolutely right when you say “revolution will come soon enough” So, as Bush said: “The American way of life is not negotiable,” and later leaders have affirmed it by deed, if not by word, we are in for a very nasty future indeed.

    And yes, lots of people see permaculture as only for rich people. So, while I can understand permaculturists asking for large fees to impart their knowledge in workshops in countries like Australia, the Us etc. so those funds can, in part, be used to help people in much poorer nations, I believe it is now time that o0rdinary people (low-wage & unemployed) in “richer” countries had access to techniques that would allow tham to grow more of their own, healthier, food that what they currently by at the supermarket. Along with this information they can also be encouraged towards a simpler, more community based, lifestyle as a basis for a future participatory democratic system to replace the failed representative democracy that really represents only the elites.

    Love to hear from you on this.
    cheers, jim

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