Can development based on spiritual values, local activism, and volunteer labor compete with a global system built on western market economics? From Sri Lanka, Sandy Tolan reports on a movement that seeks to improve the lot of millions of poor people with self-help programs steeped in Buddhist principles.
A global debate has emerged from the street protests of Seattle and Genoa and Prague. From the anarchist tree houses in the Pacific Northwest to the six-star hotels in Davos, globalization has come under scrutiny as never before. Defenders of the global economy acknowledge the need to address poverty, but insist globalization can wear a human face. Detractors say the system is rigged against poor countries; that there must be an alternative vision that puts people before profits.
In Sri Lanka, a tiny island nation off the southern coast of India, some say this vision has existed for decades. Sarvodaya is a village-based movement designed as a viable alternative to globalization.
Too often, says Sarvodaya’s founder, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, “development results in a few people earning lots of money while millions of people are getting marginalized. That kind of system cannot sustain.” So, beginning 45 years ago, “Dr. Ari” began traveling to the villages, slowly establishing a movement he came to call “Sarvodaya Shramadana” – a “village awakening,” with the “gift of labor.”
“We said development is an awakening process,” Dr. Ari says. “Within a couple of years this expanded into so many other educational institutions in the country, and this became an independent national movement; a movement where your gift of labor, your land, your money, your skills, are for the well-being of all.”
To see Sarvodaya in action is to see, for example, a score of teenage villagers shoveling rocks in the rain – their “gift of labor” part of the village’s assessment of its needs: in his case, a new wall for the village temple. Other basic projects include building schools and water lines.
But in an increasingly connected world, with the global influence of material goods, the pressure from financial institutions such as the IMF to keep wages low in Sri Lanka, and the pull on Sri Lankan women to seek work as housemaids in the Middle East, such an effort faces immense challenges.
“The pressures we have from the international financial system makes it next to impossible to think of a commonwealth of village republics, which is our idea,” says Dr. Ari. “Our ideal is decentralized political and economic power to the maximum to the village. Bring it down to the village. To bring a village to that level of economic self-sufficiency or to become independent, you have to use the existing financial network. And still not become a part of it. That is the most difficult thing.”
Yet Dr. Ari’s ardent followers – of which there are many – would say that despite the obstacles, what Sarvodaya has achieved in reducing poverty and restoring dignity in the villages is remarkable.
“As Dr. Ari always says, there is a critical mass of spiritual consciousness that has been created by Sarvodaya,” says Krishna, who left the lucrative world of advertising to work for Sarvodaya (and who doesn’t use a last name). “So the effects of that critical mass have shed upon me. And I am absolutely happy here. Because I know that nothing can go wrong here. Because we are committed to the upliftment of human beings, and to awaken the human spirit.”
– Sandy Tolan