A Discussion with Vinya Ariyaratne, General Secretary, Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya Movement

With: Vinya Ariyaratne Berkley Center Profile

June 4, 2015

Background: This exchange between Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne and Katherine Marshall took place in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzogovina, on June 4, 2015, as they participated in Arigatou International meetings there. The Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka takes its inspiration from Buddhist principles and has developed wide-ranging programs and a well elaborated philosophy over its 55 year history. Ariyaratne assumed leadership from his father, the founder. A medical doctor and public health professional, he has broadened the organization’s scope and mandate in areas that include social entrepreneurship. Sri Lanka’s long and bitter conflict has also inspired his keen focus on peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

How did you get involved in the many areas you are involved in today? 

I am involved full-time with the Sarvodaya movement today, but my involvement really began from the day I was born. The movement was founded in 1958, 55 years ago, by my father. I was one of six children, and we grew up in the environment that was created by the movement, and it really was our private lives. My father was a teacher when he founded the movement, and he continued to teach until 1972. So all that he did with the movement at that time was on a part-time basis, using holidays and time after school, and going to villages all the time. Thus I grew up within the movement. Its influence was from the very earliest stages of life, as I experienced going to villages from the 1960s and 1970s. 

The movement’s focus was on village rebuilding and the underlying permeated it all. Though at the time I did not fully understand the underlying values and philosophy, over time it took full shape and has influenced me to this day. Above all I saw through that lens what poverty meant, including the richness, talents, and energy of people in the villages, all from a very early period of my life. It was a unique exposure and influence, compared to my fellow students and friends. 

My school life was also influenced by Sarvodaya because my father was a teacher in the same school where I was studying. In 1972 he resigned from his teaching career to devote himself full time to Sarvodaya. I continued to in the same school until 1980, through high school. Because of my exposure to communities, I always wanted to choose a profession that was service oriented and thought that being a doctor would a good way to serve the community. I chose to study medicine and sat for the university entrance exams in Sri Lanka. But the university system in Sri Lanka is very competitive, with few university places, so only the very best of the best were admitted. So though I qualified I could not get into university there to study medicine. Those who are not selected in Sri Lanka go on to other countries, including India, Nepal, England, and the United States. As I wanted to pursue my career in medicine, I looked for opportunities to study abroad, and went to the Philippines, where university courses are taught in English, and I secured a place in the university partly on a scholarship basis. Thus I went to the Philippines in 1982, two years after I sat for my A level examinations. 

How long did you spend in the Philippines? 

I was there for seven long years! First I did my bachelor’s degree, pre-med, and then medicine for four years. During the final year, the university allowed foreign students to go back to do part of their training in hospitals in their country, that they accredited. I was able to go to Sri Lanka during the final year and did part of my training in government hospitals there. 

I graduated from medical school in 1989. At that time I did not want any formal involvement with Sarvodaya. I wanted to pursue a career in public health because I thought that would be the best way to build on the Sarvodaya networks to assist public health. But if I did clinical work and focused on a single clinical subject, I would be trapped inside a hospital and would not have the same space or opportunity to work with communities. I was deeply committed to work with communities, in a scientific way, using my knowledge as a doctor. However, I could not get an appointment in 1989 to complete the compulsory internship required to get my license to practice. And I had to pass the exams for graduates of foreign institutions. Because of the insurrection of 1988 to 1992, in the south of Sri Lanka, led by a Marxist group called the JVP, Sri Lanka came to a standstill. They were not giving appointments, and the universities were closed. So I decided that, rather than just being in Sri Lanka, not able to work as a doctor or to pursue my career in medicine, I would apply to Johns Hopkins University in public health. I was lucky to be selected, so I joined the 1990 batch for an M.P.H. (Masters in Public Health). I spent one year, 1989 to 1990, in Baltimore, USA, studying public health. That was a unique experience that prepared me very well academically, in every aspect, to pursue a career in public health. 

I returned to Sri Lanka and immediately got an appointment as an intern medical officer in one of rural hospitals in Sri Lanka. That was a time when there was a brief ceasefire between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government. But soon after I arrived at that hospital and started working, the ceasefire broke and the hostilities started again. The hospital was one that received all casualties, military and civilian. It was an unusual, somewhat traumatic experience for me, seeing the full brutality of the war and the suffering of the civilians. I developed a greater interest in providing health services to communities that were affected by the war, especially the children, and also looking at the determinants and dynamics of conflict, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding. 

How did your interest in conflict resolution shape your next steps?

During decade of the 1980s, I was mostly in the Philippines, not in Sri Lanka, and could experience the political problems there. At that time the Marcos regime was toppled by a popular uprising, and I followed those developments keenly and had some understanding of why communities resort to violence. I also studied a bit the ethnic problems in the Philippines, especially between the Muslim people in Mindanao and the government. Work towards the peace accords was of great interest for me.

So while I was working as a doctor in the hospital for one year, I started looking at the determinants of war, trying to gain an understanding of what more we could do to address these problems.

During the 1980s, Sarvodaya launched a massive peacebuilding campaign through a spiritual approach, mainly doing peace marches and peace meditation. I was not totally disconnected while I was away from Sri Lanka, and was involved when I came home for vacations. Thus I was very much aware of what was happening and connected to it. I realized that these peace meditations and the marches and so on were very important, but that we needed to go beyond those approaches to understand other dynamics, especially political dynamics and those related to governance. As a people's movement we also needed to work on those issues as well, as just those related to consciousness.

So I resigned from government service. A lot of changes were taking place in the country, and I did not want to pursue a government career. I clearly planned to stay permanently in Sri Lanka. But I still did not feel that I wanted to work full time for Sarvodaya as I wanted to gain more experience as a doctor and a public health practitioner. I decided to get involved with Sarvodaya on a voluntary, part-time basis while working elsewhere. In 1992, I was elected as one of additional secretaries in the Sarvodaya governing council. This gave me a voluntary, honorary position that allowed me to be more directly involved in the movement. By then I had also got some training and exposure in organizational development, project planning, etc. My Johns Hopkins training in health systems development and the general principles you can apply to an organization helped there.

So you become increasingly more involved with Sarvodaya?

At this time Sarvodaya was in transition, with a huge diversification and expansion including economic programs. Microfinance was expanding very rapidly. There were also new programs for nutrition, for children, etc. At the same time during that period (1989-1992), the government in power was not in favor of NGOs, and particularly Sarvodaya. So there was huge harassment, and a presidential commission of inquiry was appointed to investigate, with many allegations that we had to defend. It was a very difficult time.

With a change in leadership with the assassination of President Premadasa in 1993 that all changed. So during that period I resigned from government service, and was doing consultancy work for a brief period. I got a fellowship to go to the United Kingdom, to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. That also gave me time to reflect on my experience in this war-torn area and develop some possible new strategies particularly for the Sarvodaya community health programs.

When I returned to Sri Lanka, I joined the university. I was still not ready to take up full time responsibilities in Sarvodaya, as I thought that I needed to gain more experience and skills; I was still new in my career and wanted to work a bit longer practicing my profession. From 1995 to 2000, my focus was on academic work, as well as clinical work as a physician. I was able to take students to the community to work on maternal and child health and public health-related interventions. That was a fantastic experience, working as a practicing academic, and it allowed me to get involved in Sarvodaya’s major reorganization work from a different perspective and on a part-time voluntary basis.

During this period, again many changes were happening in the country, with the war continuing. The year 1998 was a turning point, when Sarvodaya celebrated its 40 year anniversary. No resolution of the war in sight, and it was clear that the peacebuilding strategy had to be more refined. I was then contemplating taking more responsibility in Sarvodaya. There were also changes in the donor scenario. You can refer to the work of Professor George Bond, Buddhism at Work, that describes all that happened during that period.

When did you start to work full-time for Sarvodaya?

I decided to resign from my university career in 2000 because it was a transition period for Sarvodaya. The first generation of leaders were retiring and handing over responsibility to a second generation. With the new generation coming forward there was a need for leadership. While my father was there still, at the operational level new energy and thoughts and strategies were needed, and it fell on me. I decided willingly to accept that role and was given a free hand. We developed very collectively, in a very participatory approach, extending from the villages to the national level, a strategic plan for the movement for 2000 to 2005. We mobilized support from some new donors, and it was something of a comfort to have resources committed for a five year period so that we could really look to the new strategy could embark in new directions.

A new team was put in place, composed mostly of young leaders who came from the village. But at the same time we also brought in a few professionals from outside. That presented its own challenge, as we needed to find ways to recognize the dedication of grassroots workers but also to engage and treat fairly the outsiders, who were socially conscious and were making sacrifices to join; they did not come cheap, and we needed a remuneration scheme that was fair to them. That in itself was a challenge because we could not raise salaries for everyone in the organization, and the prevailing salary scales were not enough to attract the outsiders. We were, though, able to find ways and means to attract leaders with master's and Ph.D. degrees and M.D.s. I had a very good team with me from 2000 to 2005. The first few years were capacity building and implementing the new strategy, which involved consciousness raising activities with economic and governance activities coming in more planned and harmonious ways. Those who were doing peace marches and consciousness understood the links to economic activities and governance more clearly than before 1998.

What do you mean by governance work?

We understood it as the strengthening of village level governance and the development of village societies and the restructuring of the whole movement. It was about getting people to look at the political determinants of poverty and conflict. That involved bringing new dimensions into the organization. We were becoming a very strong organization and were making a lot of impact on the conflict itself by way of providing services to people affected by the conflict in a more effective way. At the same time the organization came to be seen as both humanitarian and trying to resolve and transform the conflict.

Where did this focus on conflict transformation take you?

During this period I came to be involved in a new area of work focused on conflict resolution. In 2001 I was selected to undergo training on conflict transformation with a group of government politicians and civil society leaders. So my work with communities and dealing with overcoming their trauma in the 1990s moved to another level, where I was engaging with actors at a political level, including dealing with the separatist group, the LTTE. There was a period of ceasefire, and both sides were talking to each other through Norwegian facilitation. That was also a unique opportunity for us to be able to influence the process. So I underwent training in conflict transformation and facilitation and as a result of this engagement with so many parties, they selected me as one of the neutral facilitators for national and district level dialogue between the political parties, the Tamils, and Sinhalese. I considered it as a great honor that they placed confidence in me. It was a unique experience to be able to operate at these multiple levels in trying to resolve the Sri Lankan conflict

What was happening during this period at Sarvodaya?

While this was going on, community level peacebuilding work continued through Sarvodaya under the new strategic framework. The new team there was given the freedom to try out new things. The organization was being very innovative.

One of our key objectives after 2008 was financial sustainability. We were learning the lesson that donors would not be around forever, so we were making efforts to generate internal income, and we had started an endowment fund. Our target for Sarvodaya’s fiftieth anniversary in 2008 was to make the main operational structure independent of donor support. So, for example, we developed our training facilities to a higher standard so that we could rent them out to other organizations and hold international conferences. We made modest investments to upgrade facilities, working to generate income within the mission of the movement, sort of a social enterprise. We succeeded to a great extent. But some enterprises we had started much earlier, for example publications and commercial printing, were less successful. It seemed a promising social enterprise but was not managed properly because the organization did not have the needed business acumen; it was not in the nature of the enterprise to look at the bottom line and profit, and that was a big hit on our reserves. In short, a few bad things happened.

The 2004 tsunami put Sarvodaya in the spotlight. How did that happen?

During this period the most important development was indeed the tsunami in December 2004. When it hit, we were a very strong organization in every aspect. We had a very clear strategy on how to move the organization forward, how we were going to address the ethnic issues facing Sri Lanka, and how to work for peaceful resolution of conflicts. We were thus well prepared to handle a major disaster like that, though it was totally unprecedented in the history of Sri Lanka. The devastation was terrible, but taking the Nepali earthquake as a comparison it was quite different. The destruction was all concentrated only a few kilometers from the coastal belt and everything else was perfectly normal. Thus access was not a problem. All the destruction took place in a 90 minute period. Thus the task was to rebuild and help the victims who were affected in a comprehensive manner. Sarvodaya came to handle one of the largest portfolios after the tsunami and was recognized as one of the best among national organizations in providing housing and care for those who were displaced. That elevated Sarvodaya’s profile nationally and internationally to another level.

We were able to use the tsunami disaster to educate the public about national disasters and contribute to the government having policies that were much more sound. Sri Lanka did not have policies for disaster management before; there were no national mechanisms, no coordination systems. They were all established in the wake of the tsunami, and Sarvodaya contributed significantly to that effort, testifying to parliamentary commissions, etc. The tsunami affected about 12 districts, and we then had to define and implement what was a five year recovery process to rebuild. That lasted from 2005 to 2010, and it was a unique process.

What was the next stage for Sarvodaya?

The ceasefire lasted until 2006. But then there was a change in government. The new government was more nationalistic, and a new president was elected on a very nationalistic agenda. Things started to change. He decided first to appeal to the LTTE to find a peaceful solution, but if they did not accept, he would go all out to crush them militarily. And that is exactly what happened. Over three years there were military confrontations and then the LTTE was militarily defeated, and the war came to an end in May 2009.

Before the war ended, in 2008 Sarvodaya celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. That was an occasion where we could look again at our own future in a much more informed manner, given the changing circumstances in the country. We realized that most of the direct services we were providing, for children, youth, for communities, for basic needs like water, sanitation, and housing, were now available through the government or state agencies and departments. Sri Lanka was now a middle income country, and as such not eligible to receive the same levels of overseas development assistance. Some of the major donors from Europe had already pulled out from Sri Lanka. There was no significant donor assistance after 2005 for Sarvodaya, except for a few countries like Norway, which they had a unique role because of its involvement in the mediation process for the NGO sector. The only money coming to NGOs in Sri Lanka was mainly for human rights and conflict resolution activities. We were able to tap those resources and found some funding opportunities, but the situation was clearly changing.

Sarvodaya decided then to concentrate more on governance-related activities, that is, to strengthen the village level societies (legally incorporated community organizations) to draw resources directly from the government agencies and to hold the local government authorities accountable to serve them. The local authorities were much more resourced by the government and had elected representatives. So it was important to get the village societies equipped in terms of knowledge and skills to tap those resources to fulfill their basic needs.

This was not at all a deviation from Sarvodaya’s basic philosophy of meeting basic needs through self-reliance. The only real difference was that rather than mobilizing donor resources, the goal was to equip the communities to meet their needs from the government and put pressure on the government. Sarvodaya would focus on what the government could not do, like the spiritual education that we had done from the outset. We did not want to lose sight of holistic nature of development. So even if they secured physical resources from the government to meet their basic needs, there were still cultural values and spiritual foundations to meet, and we needed to maintain the support infrastructure of trained village workers for community mobilization work, for example. That meant regular training interventions, but in a different way, not like we used to have earlier. We no longer bring young people for three months. We have no resources to do that, and young people don’t want to do that today. They want jobs and cannot volunteer for long periods. So we had to redefine our educational activities, which we did.

We are laying the foundations today for an educational institute. We are working on developing a unique Sarvodaya university where the learning is very much from the communities, through a network of learning centers that support the project. Thus we are redefining out educational interventions as well as our work on human rights and governance.

Our economic programs are also changing. We have the largest microfinance network in Sri Lanka. Our intention was to develop our own development bank, but the government did not allow that because the capital requirements to form a bank are very high. So we had to settle for an intermediary level regulatory framework, registering as a finance company. It is not the best way as we wanted an alternative economic model. We have done a great deal along these lines and have demonstrated that communities can do their own savings and support small enterprises that have become big enterprises, creating employment for young people. The finance company system is not the ideal legal framework, but we had no choice. The microfinance program has been strengthened and developed, a transition in itself, and not an easy one. There are many examples in other countries, for example in Latin America, of the painful process of transforming microfinance entities run by NGOs into banks. We were the first in Sri Lanka to see microfinance transformed into a regulated entity. We are still going through that process.

What is the situation today?

Since the war ended in 2009, the entire political, social, and economic landscape in Sri Lanka has changed, with many new challenges. The end of the war in itself was a huge relief for all people. Sri Lanka is one of the few conflicts where war came to an end militarily, with the comprehensive crushing of a separatist group. There are, however, many unanswered questions. There are allegations of war crimes, violations of international humanitarian law, and human rights by all involved. Because we were involved at every stage of the war, we are concerned about these things, which have become international issues. There is a UN Security Council resolution and an investigation by the United Nations, and the report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council meeting in September.

Religious extremism and nationalism have increased in Sri Lanka since 2009, to a great extent due to the state, which used this nationalism to gain political ground and that has fueled extremist groups. We face the challenge of how to address this emerging dangerous extremism. There is extremism in certain sections of the Buddhist clergy. As an organization that founded its development model on Buddhist teachings, but has successfully implemented that model in a very secular manner, bringing all communities together, now we have a big responsibility to address some of those issues as a leading social movement. There are many things happening now where we are bringing in many interreligious dialogues. But the situation needs to be handled carefully, not compromising out principles, so that we are not being branded as siding with one side or another, for example in relation to the religious minority communities, which have a lot of faith in Sarvodaya. We do not want to lose the confidence of non-Buddhist communities.

For the future, I believe the tremendous work that we have done, and the respect that ordinary people have for the movement, and the recognition it has from across the spectrum and internationally, can be used to address some of these major issues that Sri Lanka faces. I am now looking again at the third generation leadership development to equip them to face those challenges and take the movement to the next level.

Where do you think Sri Lanka and the Sarvodaya movement might be in 10 years?

What would I like it to be and where should the country go? There should be no possibility of a return to any form of violence. We can manage ethnic and religious relations in positive ways, so that diversity becomes an asset rather than a liability for the country. We need an economic model for Sri Lanka that is equitable, without the wide disparities that we see. Today, in terms of health, the national averages are fine, but when you look at the districts there are wide disparities. We should have opportunities for everyone. We should no longer have over 1.5 million women going to Middle East to earn their living. That has a huge social cost, and it is a good indicator. It is good for Sri Lankans to go abroad, but it should be in a dignified way, with a fair salary, not as migrant laborers doing odd jobs. The economy should be vibrant. Finally, we should have a more participatory, democratic governance system that constitutionally recognizes village level governance, in a type of panchayat system. This would involve a fourth level of elected government that is non party political.

Sarvodaya as an organization should be smaller than it is today (there are now some 2,000 full time staff, including the economic program). The infrastructure should be smaller, more streamlined, more efficient, with better use of technology that does not consume a lot of resources. It would be leaner and 100 percent self sustaining, so that we do not have to depend on any donor; Sarvodaya today is self-sustaining for 40 to 50 percent of its operational structure.

How would you compare Sarvodaya to BRAC? Both are renowned, large South Asian movements, though with very different histories.

BRAC has more characteristics of an organization than a movement. Sarvodaya has many communities doing things on their own, without even reporting them, not part of the organization. They simply get ideas, and the philosophy inspires people to do things. That is unique to Sarvodaya. Second, BRAC has more professional staff: Ph.D.s, etc. Sarvodaya is built from the grassroots. The deputy director and others have come from villages. That does have its own limitations, because to take the institution to the next level you need professional staff. At the moment we are helped a lot by volunteers (another characteristic), and volunteerism is a core principle. We mobilize a huge number, both from Sri Lanka and from abroad. On the financial side, BRAC is stronger, with its very successful, profitable enterprises. There are also differences in terms of the spiritual dimension, where Sarvodaya is grounded on spiritual, Buddhist principles, and we work a lot with that spiritual dimension, including interreligious dialogue.

There are also contextual differences. Bangladesh is still very much poverty stricken, and the state needs NGOs, as it cannot itself provide services. So it subcontracts certain services to NGOs. That is very unique. In Sri Lanka that is unthinkable. The government has the infrastructure at least for education and health that goes to the community level. The issues are around quality, and about getting the state system right. So whereas BRAC will probably provide those services for another 10 to 20 years, Sarvodaya has consciously stopping doing things that we used to do as the state has taken over. This is as it should be. NGOs should not be running services forever, and a democratic government should take on the responsibility. That means very different roles for NGOs, for example on innovation, climate change, developing alternative sources of energy, focusing where the government is lagging behind. We should be investing more on experimentation and seeking solutions for emerging development challenges. That is why I am pressing forward with the university idea, positioning ourselves to build on our access to communities and to try out new things. Our community network is a huge resource, unparalleled in Sri Lanka or, for that matter, in the world.

Can you comment on how you see women’s roles evolving in the context of Sarvodaya’s work and approach?

Sarvodaya has been one of the first organizations to give leadership to women. Among the key positions at the district level, more than a third are held by women, which is a good number as most organizations truly are male dominated. And when it comes to leadership at the community level of course women play important roles, and also in peacebuilding activities they are important because it is women who have suffered the most. There are more than 90,000 widows in Sri Lanka as a result of the war. So involving women is a very central and important issue. At the same time, in the Parliament and other elected bodies Sri Lanka is at the bottom compared to other South Asian countries, with only 13 women in parliament of 225 elected seats. Women have important roles in many places in our society, and in many regards a lot of improvement needs to happen.

Can you comment on the Buddhist character of Sarvodaya. Do you relate to the sangha?

Yes, very much. And indeed we have our own Sarvadoya sangha network. The character of the sangha has been changing dramatically over the past 15 years because the monks today have their own party, and lot of monks are now involved in politics. There are many concerns in this regard.

Apart from your work in Sri Lanka, you are called on in many roles internationally. What has been your focus there?

Sarvodaya very much starts from the individual personality, from a personal awakening, moving then to the family, then to the village, to the country, and to the world. It is a very broad philosophy. From the early stages of the movement, in the 1960s, Sarvodaya was connected to similar movements around the world. My father was very much involved with others who were advancing notions of holistic development. So Sarvodaya was very much internationalized and has attracted a lot of interest from practitioners and academics. It has been a unique experience, challenging prevailing development approaches in many ways. Much of what was revolutionary in the 1960s is accepted practice today: participation and so forth, but at the time it was not popular. So we have created links with many organizations, academics, donors, and governments. Many students have come to study Sarvodaya, writing Ph.D.s, and producing publications and literature. My father has many writings, which have been gathered in collections. In short, Sarvodaya is well known as a successful alternative, and we are invited to share the experience. We have been part of certain networks over the last 20 years. So that has meant that I personally am quite active at the international level, and for example I have been a member of the World Bank’s NGO working group and in coordinating the Sri Lanka NGO group.

I have also taken part in many dialogues in different fields, like community health, nutrition, health, microfinance, and disaster relief. There are so many networks, at all levels of policy and action. So in my case over the past five years I have become quite selective, focusing mainly on health-related topics and on spirituality and development and policy work. For the past four years I have been teaching at Brandeis University, two courses focused on the Sarvodaya experience, and on those of other countries. A module focuses on the integrated approach and on conflict and health. I have written about peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

Are there allies and approaches you especially admire?

I would tend to look more to individuals than to organizations. Of course we identify with and admire similar movements, like BRAC and Grameen. I admire Zafrullah Chowdhury, who has worked in Bangladesh, on pharmaceuticals. He is remarkable, and created GK pharmaceuticals, and made the drugs affordable. We have also worked with the Voluntary Health Association of India. I just wrote a chapter in a book that they led on how NGO experiences have become national policy. I wrote on our experience on early child education. Nepal also has several organizations that are especially interesting. Overall, Joanna Macy has been a great ally with her work grounded in Buddhism and alternative models!

How did you become involved with the Arigatou Network?

Sarvodaya has had many links with various organizations and Universities from the 1960s. One such organization was Rissho Kosei kai. The Niwano family made big contributions to Sarvodaya, especially in the 1980s, and my father was personally linked to them. He, of course, was a winner of the Niwano Peace Prize. Through those connections the Arigatou Foundation got to know about Sarvodaya and wanted us to be a part of the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC), an initiative of the Arigatou International. Myochikai, a Buddhist sect, identified with the Sarvodaya philosophy, so there has been a spiritual connection. These relationships continue.

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