New Internationalist

Too Much Too Soon

Issue 105

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SRI LANKA [image, unknown] The Sarvodaya Peoples movement

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Too much too soon

Debbie Taylor reviews a study of Sarvodaya's actual impact in the villages of Sri Lanka.


The critics view Sri Lanka’s twenty-year old Sarvodaya movement as a monolithic training organisation turning out volunteers imbued with a philosophy which refuses to come to terms with the economic facts of life. It is a movement, they say, entrenched in the authority of Temple and Church, dominated by the personality of its founder, and over-impressed by its own achievement in setting up a country-wide chain of soup kitchens.

It is easy to criticise any development movement. But it is rare to find Sarvodaya’s critics helping villagers build roads and dig latrines. And in the final analysis, the movement must be judged by its effects on the standard of living of ordinary, poor Sri Lankans.

A group of researchers led by Dr Ratnapala of the University of Sri Lanka have tried to do just that.

Their findings were mixed. They found villages with lively mothers’ clubs who met regularly, organised an efficient communal kitchen, and took full advantage of government facilities. They found a successful cooperative profit-making youth farm. They found a low caste village whose very personality seemed to have been buoyed up with new pride.

But they also discovered villages whose organisation was in disarray, with unfinished projects and disillusioned participants. In general they concluded that many of the problems seem to stem from over-dependence on their personalities.

‘Ari’ himself is a power house whose small figure generates the enthusiasm that motivates — and dominates — the entire Sarvodaya hierarchy. And hierarchy it is. This pattern is repeated down to the lowest level where the monk in the village temple and the Sarvodaya village representative become the focus of activity. In two of the villages visited by the researchers the impetus had fizzled out because the local leader had left the village. Gramodaya, or ‘self-sufficient organisation’, — the third stage of the Sarvodaya ‘awakening’ process — has proved very elusive.

One reason for this, the research team suggested, is that rigid planning at Sarvodaya headquarters had overwhelmed villagers’ — and volunteers’ — initiative. The focus has tended to be on batik, basketry, community kitchens and water-tank construction regardless of villagers’ own priorities.

The benefits of community kitchens and water tanks is not in doubt. And in achieving its material goals, Sarvodaya has been tremendously successful: roads, schools, clinics — all built with villagers’ and volunteers’ shramadana or ‘gifts of labour’. And the difference such things must make to the everyday business of living and working should not be underestimated.

The research team believes that Sarvodaya has tried to do too much too soon. They argue the movement would do better to concentrate its efforts carefully on a few villages at a time. Once they felt sure those villages could fend for themselves plan and organise their own self-supporting activities, then it would be time to expand. But at the moment success is ephemeral — depending on market forces and personalities.

The youth farm succeeded because it was started in a thriving tourist village with a ready market for its chillies and tobacco. But a fishing venture in another village floundered because it threatened the interests of local merchants. Making baskets and batik wall-hangings threatens no-one — because there is such a small demand for such things and no powerful competitors.

Ari comments angrily on the way people’s labour is judged by its market price. But the world is still a market place. And Sri Lanka is no different. To be self-sufficient means coming to terms with the market place, not retreating from it.

Meanwhile Sarvodaya remains dependent on external charity for the milk powder it sends to its kitchens and the books it gives to its schools. And young Sri Lankans seem to be becoming increasingly disenchanted with a movement which helps them build roads but doesn’t provide the means for them to help themselves.


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