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Meetings at Sarvodaya

It was a good day today little more productive. First thing in the morning I had a meeting with Mrs. Udani Mendis, the Executive Director of Sarvodaya. We discussed about several issues that are important for respective organizations. She was very gracious and took me around the Sarvodaya headquarters to meet other senior staffs. Unfortunately, many were away in the fields and out of offices. She also asked Bandula to give special priority to my needs and I was flattered.

Later, I spent some time with her at Rural Technical Service Unit (RTS), which handles all most all of the constructions activities. These days they are involved in building drinking water systems with three major donors from Europe.

A few things really struck me of Sarvodaya’s operation: First, it seems like what projects Sarvodaya takes on is dictated by donor funding and thus donor interests. I queried why the focus on “the drinking water only”. These RTS is involved in drinking water projects because “donors want that way”. Already a major donor Novitas has told Sarvodaya that they are discontinuing the project in 2008 thus the RTS either needs to find another donor or discontinue their current work. There were other examples of how donors dictate CBO (Community Based Organization). I am told in a proposed “eco village” project certain donor wanted a specific types of bricks but this was more expensive and the durability wasn’t tested.

Second thing that really struck me is the idea of “self-sustenance” of units. I was told by Mrs. Mendis again that Sarvodaya Economic Enterprise Development Services Unit (SEEDS) was “privatized” as it was self sustaining. It has a separate board of directors and works independently. While the concept of the self sustenance and independence is so much part of Sarvodaya philosophy, I wondered what happens when the conflict of interest arises between what Sarvodaya wants (what’s its philosophy dictates) and what SEEDS wants as a private and separate entity. I asked Mrs. Mendis, she said “ya there already are problems” but she didn’t elaborate what they were.

Similarly, Mrs. Mendis told me that the RTS, given that a major donor was withdrawing in next few years, is looking into ways of self sustaining itself. One of the projects they were thinking was to start a business of selling bottled water. While a very nice idea and I am told there are several businesses that Sarvodaya is involved in for example printing press, crafts etc., selling of bottle water, for me, seems to me against the philosophies of Sarvodaya, which rejects mass market consumerism and supports self-sustained village units with a major focus on sustainable development. It seems Sarvodaya is not only a major NGO it is also a major private entity. Later in the day, I learnt that a sinfincant portion of Sarvodaya’s operating budge comes from this businesses and makes up to a major portion of endowment fund, which has grown to about SLRs 130 million from about Rs. 75 million in last seven years.

Late in the day, I spent time with Mr. Saman Algoda, Executive Finance Director. Mr. Algoda is a young but talented individual with degrees in Accounting (CPA) and MBA. At times, he is self-flattering, nevertheless a good person. A lot of what I wanted to achieve here had to clear from his desks. We discussed about linking up some of our large donors with a project here and decided that we would dedicate housing projects to them. Again a few things were out of place, I am told, contrary to my understanding, that when they receive funds from us, they don’t receive any instructions. This is really not a good thing as some of the money we have sent is designated funds. Another thing he said was when they receive funds from the internet their bank only provides them with the amount and credit card number but the name and other relevant information. I was hoping to collect the name and other information of donors for our database.

Later in the evening, Mr. Algoda took me around to Colombo. He drives a Sarvodaya given Nissan Santra. One thing really has surprised me here is there are more cars and motorbikes, and most of the cars seem to be Japanese. In Nepal, motorcycles and scores of Indian cars dominate the street.

The Galle Road, a long road stretch, which is a main road from Colombo to the south of the country, is the main center of business, public and private life. Not only the big shopping complexes but banks, hotels, and public buildings stand by the streets. We stopped at the Galle Place a nice open space by the sea. I recalled that this was the place where I had seen the sea for the first time in my life when I had come to Sri Lanka for SAARC quiz. The place was packed with people taking a stroll or just enjoying the nice cool breeze, the waves slammed into the walls and vendors were busy selling foods and balloons.

As we returned back, Mr. Algoda took me to a very nice hotel called Mt Lavinia for the dinner. It is one of the finest hotels in Sri Lanka and the building must have been a colonial era palace. It was by a very beautiful beach and beach side restaurants. However, I ended up passing the dinner as I don’t like sea foods. At the end, we ended up having dinner at a local run down restaurant by the Sarvodaya headquarters. By passing, I might have saved the day for Mr. Algoda, I traded Rs.3,000 a plate of dinner for Rs.150 ones. Later I joked, “Sarvodaya workers shouldn’t be eating at such places.” He smiled said “I just wanted you to see all aspects of Sri Lanka, when you go to villages next week, you will see another Sri Lanka”.

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