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Election day at the beach

November 17

November 17, 2005

Today’s was the presidential election in the country. This meant half a day off for Sarvodaya workers. But, since many of the workers live out of town and they have gone to their home to cast their vote. Thus, many of the offices were empty and I couldn’t do much. Early in the morning I met with Mr. Emily Anthony of Sarvodaya Economic Empowerment Services (SEEDS). Mr. Anthony walked me through the various activities of SEEDS. The three main activities that SEEDS is involved, in creating economic empowerment, are encouraging collective savings, providing small scale loans (micro-financing), and conducting entrepreneurship development training. The loans start at SLRs. 20,000 ($200) and interest rate is about 22%. I had always thought interest rate for micro-lending was about 6 to 7%, Mr. Anthony told me it ranges to 30 to 40% internationally, including in Bangladesh.

Mr. Anthony told me that SEEDS is attempting to register itself as a finance company but because of high capital requirement it hasn’t been able to do so. He told me there is a shortfall of about SLRs. 200 million ($200,000) and asked whether Sarvodaya USA could help in mobilizing such fund. I assured him that I will try my best. Given that Gordon, chair of our board, is involved in such activities and had helped setting up the largest micro-finance company in Haiti, I thought he might be interested and willing to help.

Later in the day, I joined a group of foreigners to go to a nearby beach in Mt. Lavinia. I was with three American volunteers, a Japanese volunteer, and a Austrian worker. We went for there at 2 Pm, swam at the beach all day, read books, discussed about Sarvodaya and other matters, had a dinner at beach side restaurant, and returned back in the evening.

Christopher was very critical of Sarvodaya organization. He said that organization is too top down, very Buddhist meaning the organization lacks the fair representation of minority communities especially that of Tamil and Muslims. He wanted me to be aware of discontent and difficulty Sarvodaya faces as competition has ensued in non-profit world in the post-tsunami era for the skilled manpower. He also said that within Sarvodaya there are two factions, one that is attempting to change the organization towards more inclusive and efficient organization and the other that wants to remain as it is and don’t really care much about inclusiveness and fair representation of other communities.

Despite the philosophies of empowering people, Sarvodaya organization seems to be entangled in the same problems that any other organization runs into once it gets larger. According to Christopher organization runs completely against its philosophies of empowering people as every little decision has to clear through the highest echelon of the organization. The mundane matters like changing a panel of window in a district center office first goes of up the chain of command and only when cleared by highest official does can one act. This means inefficiency, centralization, and waste of resources.

However, Sarvodaya seem to have fabulous track record in empowering the poor people in the country. Unlike many of the NGOs that actually end of working with the rich and powerful (richest of the poor), Sarvodaya, even Christopher acknowledged, works for the benefit for the poorest of the poor. It has actually empowered poor people and its social mobilization has been remarkable.

The next challenge for Sarvodaya is how to remain attractive for the qualified and skilled manpower given that many international INGOs have come with lots of monies at hand after the tsunami. The challenge also is in being more inclusive and shading its Buddhist identity. Even though Sarvodaya and Dr. Ariyaratne himself have championed peace as a central to Sarvodaya’s activities, a major roadblock is its Buddhist and Sinhala identity. Despite the rhetoric that Sarvodaya doesn’t condone any religion, the presence of Sarvodaya is in heavily Sinhalese area- in the middle and south of the country. It seems that Sarvodaya is in transition as the leadership has come to young people from the founders of the movement. In the lack of charisma of Dr. Ariyaratne, to survive Sarvodaya would need to transform itself into an efficient organization. The onus to prove is in new leadership.

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