Sarvodaya, Sewalanka and Sanasa: Grassroots National Organizations with Strong Canadian Links

Sarvodaya, Sewalanka and Sanasa each have their own personality but they are all rich in development history and national scale development efforts in Sri Lanka. They also have early and ongoing connections to Canada.


One of the oldest and largest of the national organizations in Sri Lanka is led by Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne. He has won too many international prizes to list, including the Roman Magsaysay, 1969 and the Gandhi Peace Prize in 1996.

Sarvodaya started in 1958 with its first work camp. Working today with more than 100,000 people in 15,000 villages throughout the country of 20 million, its signboards are in every isolated corner. It supports preschools, community health centres, libraries, cottage industries, village banks, well and latrine construction, as well as solar energy and rural cyber cafes.

Dr. Ari walks newcomers through his Moratuwa-based headquarters south of Colombo and interprets the large mission statement signboards that decorate the plaza. He speaks of five stages in development forcefully making the point that economic development is not enough. He speaks of the importance of the psychological aspect of development or “self realization” that is too often the blind spot in development. Sarvodaya’s vision includes work with neighbouring villages and a commonwealth of village cluster republics, described as the Gandhian ideal.

Dr. Ari is clear in the value he places on early Canadian funding. In the early 1980s at the Canadian International Development Agency’s  Non Governmental Organization’s (NGO) Division, an important book circulating was Survival with integrity, Sarvodaya at the crossroads written by Canadian Denis Goulet. There were at the time many Canadian groups working with Dr. Ari, including but not limited to the International Development Research Centre, Oxfam Canada, CUSO, Overseas Book Centre, Toronto and York Universities, Plenty International and World University Service of Canada (WUSC).

It speaks to the strength of that partnership that Dr. Ari cites all the Canadian NGO and CIDA people with whom he sparred, laughing all the while today, even while acknowledging his previous frustration.

One of the early sparring partners, Ian Smillie, returns the compliment, recalling the difficulties for Sarvodaya that accompanied the creation of a donor consortium to replace its fragile and uncertain project support base.

It was no surprise, therefore, to have Dr. Ari at the WUSC 20th anniversary celebration in Colombo in 2010, making a keynote speech about a close partnership in vocational training. WUSC’s former Director General, Bill McNeill, is particularly cherished by Dr. Ari probably because they spent considerable time in each other’s homes. Yet Dr. Ari also remembered a WUSC seminar for Canadian students in 1953 in Colombo which formed long lasting personal relationships. Decades later Dr. Ari was bringing Sri Lankan “Caravan on campus” handicraft products to Canadian university campuses to sell.

In 2010 there are new players and young Canadians such as Rushini De Zoysa working with Sarvodaya. A Sri Lankan Canadian development student from York University, she was in Sri Lanka with her family in May 2009 as the war came to a tumultuous end. She was shaken by seeing the “protests in Toronto and the parades in Sri Lanka” in the same month. After working closely with Sarvodaya for a year, she came to appreciate its power in building local capacity. She says it also helped her move from theory to practice.

Sarvodaya has also played an important role in that the key players for the other two national organizations were connected to Dr. Ari in their early days.

Dr. Ariyaratne founder of Sarvodaya shows a visitor their preschool


Harsha Kumara Navaratne leads the organization deemed the dean of civil society by the UN and is in many ways a disciple of Sarvodaya. He is in fact related to Dr. Ari. Sewalanka has much in common with Sarvodaya. Its efforts have been relatively greater in the North and East. It works in all of the country’s 25 districts and had a staff of over 800 in 2010.

Sewalanka has made a remarkable effort to document its community-based organizing approach. If less overtly Buddhist in character, it is nonetheless spiritual in the importance it places on working in villages with people. Accompanying, rather than leading or telling people what to do, is part of it. Sewalanka has given active support to expand networks between different religious leaders.

The range of activities is broad, from livelihoods to environmental and youth activism, and is captured in an operations field manual which is well articulated in several languages.

Sewalanka has a long history of Canadian partnership funding and people connections. The Canadian Hunger Foundation (CHF), with CIDA funding, is the most recent Canadian group that has worked on livelihood efforts with them. Lakshi Abeyasekera is the Director of Special Projects and spoke appreciatively of CHF’s expertise in livelihood and income generating activities being a good complement to Sewalanka’s ability to communicate and organize effectively at the community level.

Sanasa Development Bank

Sanasa reorganized in the late 1970s under the leadership of P.A. Kiriwandeniya. His daughter, Samadanie, worked for many years by his side as Deputy General Manager.

Sanasa has had two Canadian cooperative partners, Desjardins International and Canadian Cooperative Association, both CIDA funded, working with them since 1990. Canadians, Uwe Foehring in 2010 and Ingrid Fischer before him worked within Sanasa. Ingrid published the Sanasa model at the University of Saskatchewan’s Centre for the Study of Cooperatives in 1999, calling the annual general meeting of its membership, a movement that is one of “the most powerful and interesting social and economic movements in the world today”. Samadanie Kiriwandeniya was educated in Saskatchewan so the learning has gone both ways.

Thrift and Credit Cooperative Societies were established as early as 1906 but Sanasa’s financial cooperatives had a more defined social dimension. In 2007 there were over 8000 registered primary thrift and credit cooperatives with an average of four staff each. It is particularly strong in the south and in rural areas.

A thorough study of microfinance institutions in Sri Lanka in 2009 by the Ministry of Finance and Planning concluded positively on the high degree of competition and significant savings culture and also saw many opportunities to strengthen micro finance.

Mary Heather White, Program Manager (Asia), Canadian Hunger Foundation in the field (courtesy of CHF)


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