Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: The power of many

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By Jane Thomson, Oxfam Australia Information Officer, Sri Lanka

Located in the deep south of Sri Lanka, Hambantota is one of the country's poorest districts. It was a stronghold of the 1987-90 insurrection in which poor, rural youth took up arms against the state, leading to some of the worst violence in the country's history.

By remaining largely unaddressed, the grievances of the southern youth of 18 years ago, including unemployment and entrenched political patronage, have been inherited by their children today.

"In the Southern Province, family dynasties control the system and manipulate the state machinery to their own benefit," Oxfam Australia Program Coordinator for Southern Sri Lanka Sarath Wijesiri says.

Last year's tsunami was, in many ways, another layer of suffering for the people of Hambantota, the majority of who live a hand-to-mouth existence,surviving through small-scale agriculture, fishing and tourism.

On 12 January 2005, Sarath set up an Oxfam Australia office in the district. During his previous five years with Oxfam Australia, Sarath had been responsible for coordinating Oxfam Australia community-based partners around the country. At the time of the tsunami, he was preparing a three-year plan to strengthen community-based partners, many of whom have worked with Oxfam Australia for more than12 years.

Indeed, a day after the tsunami, it was Oxfam Australia's community-based partners who, with support from Oxfam Australia, were able to assist tsunami-affected communities - often reaching affected communities long before the Sri Lankan government and other humanitarian agencies.

Two community based organisations, JSSK in Pollonaruwa and the Foundation for Rural Empowerment (FRED) in Digamadulla prepared and sent cooked meals to Batticaloa, Amparai and Pottuvil in the Eastern Province. Daily they sent 2,500 cooked meals providing a total of 49,000 meals over a two week period.

Oxfam Australia's community-based partners volunteered their labour for the tsunami effort, while Oxfam Australia covered costs including transport. Six days after the tsunami, Sarath organized 111 partner members who had volunteered to assist affected families in clearing up tsunami debris in and around their homes in Hambantota and adjacent districts. He then focussed on establishing a relief and development program in the district.

"After the tsunami, most NGOs [non-government organizations] extend assistance to selected groups such as persons who lost boats, people who lost houses - directly dealing with them," he says.

"In our work, we select a village and work with the poorest of the poor as well as with other poor groups including those who have been affected by the tsunami.

"While government assistance is directly given to the tsunami-affected, the main problem is that most of the poor, while not being directly affected by the tsunami, face severe difficulties in the post-tsunami context such as loss of jobs, trading activities and labour work and we intend to address these difficulties."

Sarath and the Oxfam Australia team of 10 field officers and five support staff are currently working in 13 villages and one tsunami-displaced persons' camp in Hambantota. To date, 35 Oxfam Australia formed livelihood groups are operating in the 13 villages in which Oxfam Australia is currently working, with an additional 30 groups currently being formed. Such groups comprise between five to six members depending on the activity they are engaged in.

During the group formation process, Sarath and his team discuss with the members their ideas for income generation and economic sustainability. While it is the responsibility of the group to decide collectively what activity they will do and how, Oxfam Australia field officers provide the support and linkages such groups need to establish economically viable activities.

One of the Oxfam Australia goat-rearing livelihood groups is made up of five members who are all fishermen. They have not worked since the tsunami as the boats they were working on were destroyed and they currently live on pay from ad hoc casual labour and government food stamps.

Group member Mr WD Darmasena said that he joined the goat-rearing group because his family needs a supplementary source of income and the collective system gives him the flexibility to do other jobs while fulfilling his obligations to the group.

Many women have started joining Oxfam Australia livelihood groups eager to develop their own skills and earn money, particularly after the tsunami, because regular work for themselves and their husbands is unavailable.

The Oxfam Australia field officers, who all come from the villages they work in, are faced with the tremendous challenge of supporting livelihood groups in overcoming multiple hurdles, some of which are tsunami-created and others inherent to the poor.

Across the district, fishing communities lost their boats and nets during the tsunami. In a group in Gonnoruwa, a member has thyroid cancer and cannot afford medical treatment. In Siriyagama, a farming group can't afford the expensive chemicals for paddy cultivation. In Welipatanwila, a member of a newly formed home gardening and soap-making group can't get her daughter's 2003 high school leaving certificate which she needs to sit the higher school examination because the principal has refused to issue it to the family. In other groups there are problems regarding water shortages, lack of funds to get medicine for sick relatives and inadequate housing. Sarath supports his field officers by meeting with the groups and discussing these problems.

Knowing that Mrs Ranjan and her farmer husband have been reluctant to approach their daughter's school principal on their own, Sarath suggests that her livelihood group meet the principal together and persuades them to come up with a strategy to get the certificate as a group, with the guidance of the field officer.

In order to meet the needs of fishing communities, Oxfam Australia fishing groups have been provided with nets and net accessories. Housing problems are being met in targeted areas with the construction of transitional houses in consultation and collaboration with involved families. Concerns over water shortages and chemicals are addressed by Oxfam Australia organic gardening and farming techniques which are demonstrated and introduced by Oxfam Australia agriculture consultants to involved groups.

In another livelihood group in Welipatanwila, five enthusiastic women (of whom four are widows), want to packet and market curry powder and other spices as their livelihood activity. They have numerous plans and ideas about how to go about it. Sarath tells them to put together a plan identifying what resources they require to start and the involved costs and to work out what their expected profits are, so that he and his field officer can sit with them and agree to what Oxfam Australia can provide and what the women must contribute themselves.

These are a few of the daily issues faced by Sarath and his team in Hambantota.

"We can't sort out all these issues and all the problems. We can concentrate on strengthening groups and once they are strong we can coordinate them with other organisations and groups," he says.

"Yesterday in Magama village, I conducted a common meeting and we were informed that there was one very poor family with three children where the husband had died long ago and they didn't have any support to finish their house. An international NGO had given them 25,000 rupees ($323) to construct a house but it was half complete. The wife requested at the meeting that Oxfam Australia assist her to complete the house.

"Today I contacted the international NGO and explained the situation to them and requested that they extend additional assistance to this family to complete the house. Like that I link people with organizations. I think it is part of my job."

The issues that Sarath and his team deal with are exclusively those of the poor. The villagers with whom Oxfam Australia is working in Hambantota are those who slip through the cracks in governmental assistance, who lack political power and patronage to demand and secure entitlements, and who live in a state of social exclusion.

Oxfam Australia is using the power of numbers to collectively organize, on one level, for sustainable group livelihood activities and, on another, to collaborate and mobilise on issues that affect members and their communities. Thus, groups serve the purpose of meeting individual economic needs and collective socio-political interests.

When Sarath conducts Oxfam Australia common meetings or open forums in villages as the first stepn in a new location, villagers are often extremely vocal about their needs and problems. Yet, at the meetings people speak with what Sarath calls "isolated voices," as individuals with personal concerns rather than as villagers with collective concerns.

On another level, as politics is entrenched in every aspect of life in Sri Lanka, the space for independent non-partisan civil action remains extremely narrow. As Sarath says, "there is no common space for people to express their interests."

Forming and working with livelihood groups who engage in collaborative income generation is one way of encouraging collective interests and needs to be recognised and addressed at the village level. Another is that of linkages and networks. Oxfam Australia and its network of community-based organisations are engaged in linking micro-level problems with that of macro-level issues such as government policy.

"Our objective is to empower small groups in small areas and our advocacy work should cut across all areas," Sarath says.

"Privatisation of water is gradually taking place at the village level but people don't know it. There are a lot of protests against such things in Colombo but in the villages, people are in the dark. People face the problem of a lack of water while the government is privatizing it,"

This is one area where Oxfam Australia will link villagers and livelihood groups with its district, regional and national networks in order to advocate on behalf of its members for rights to water and other basic entitlements which have been denied to many for generations.