Empower Sri Lanka: An Era Beyond War


Empower Sri Lanka: An Era Beyond War

January 11, 2013

Empower and partner Sewa Lanka chose to collaborate with Puthumunmarchicholai in Batticaloa, a war affected community of 614 residents that currently face deep social, economic and environmental hardship. The aim of the project is to enable community self-reliance within a 5 year period, transcending prescriptive approaches to poverty alleviation.  Below is an account by Executive Director of Empower Inc, Shanil Samarakoon, having led the launch of this project from Jan 4th to 10th in 2013.


Our Arrival

We were greeted by Sewa Lanka’s reporting officer Dominic Paul at 7:00am in Colombo on the 4th of January, all prepared for a 6-7 hour drive to the eastern town of Batticaloa. Along the way, shy introductions gradually gave way to passionate discussions over the state of post-conflict Sri Lanka and the road ahead in terms of our organisations collaborating to enable self-reliance.

I felt at home, weaving through the traffic, stopping by roadside eateries and reconnecting with my days as a social worker in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami. All the while explaining and providing context to my partner Sophie as it was her first visit to the island.

It was a gloomy monsoon evening in Batticaloa when we arrived and after a short rest, we met with District Coordinator Sairajan and Sewa Lanka Foundation Director, Mr. Iqbal. We casually discussed the purpose of the days ahead and confirmed the flow of activities over cups of tea. I was impressed by their candour and calm confidence in negotiating all that was proposed.


Community Mobilizer Training




We were greeted by a room of eager faces as we entered the Sewa Lanka Training room on the morning of the 5th. The community of Puthumunmarchicholai had nominated 16 mobilizers to serve as change agents for their community. This was in response to our criteria which requires 4 male youths, 4 female youths, 4 men and 4 women to facilitate community development over the 5 year duration of our project.

I was admittedly a touch nervous on a personal level as I welcomed the mobilizers to the training day ahead. Primarily as I couldn’t shake wondering whether these keen individuals would embrace me as a Sri Lankan or if I’d simply be perceived as a well intentioned foreigner, entirely disconnected from their context.  My predicament was compounded by a language barrier as I was speaking in either English or Sinhalese to a Tamil community. Fortunately, the assigned Project Coordinator from Sewa Lanka, Ms. Zaluja, was an excellent translator. The emphasis throughout being that this project would centre on self-determination and as such, the community standing on its own feet within 5 years.

After an extensive explanation of the purpose and scope of our joint project to enable self-reliance, we had a series of games and activities to further develop communication, facilitation and planning skills. Any fear of conversations being dominated by a few individuals were soon laid to rest. I was greatly impressed by the level of participation throughout the room by both young and old, regardless of gender. There was healthy debate, questioning and a great load of laughter as Sewa Lanka’s facilitators worked skilfully alongside the mobilizers to strengthen their capacity.




We ended the day feeling that the mobilizers had a firm sense of the project’s approach and their role in it. Most of all, I was heartened by the sheer level of passion and enthusiasm on display. We parted ways that evening with the understanding that the mobilizers would spend the next two days spreading the word and engaging their community to participate in their own vision workshop.


Out and About

Our attempt to conduct interviews and walk through the community on the 7th was cut short by bad weather. Yet amidst that rain, community members rushed to our aid with their umbrellas and had even prepared a generous meal for us – we were treated to fresh fish and prawns from the lagoon! As we ate, I smiled at the thought of the universal thread of sincere generosity that I’ve found running through the hearts of the so called “poor”. Another warm testament to the observation that it is so often those who seemingly have the least to give, give the most.



On the flipside I noticed signs of a community accustomed to welfare, lacking in confidence and initiative. Understandable considering the severity of their displacement and the subsistence mindset it tends to breed. The prime evidence being amidst the elderly who would often descend into a list of shortcomings or lacks with little to no mention of possible local action. This, as I discussed with Project Manager Zaluja, had also been reinforced by an NGO culture focused on handouts. Mindset change, in my view, is the most important (and the hardest) aspect of our mission as an organisation and I got a sense of the challenges ahead of us in Puthumunmarchicholai. Ones that would take years to truly overcome.




Vision Workshop Day 1 – Charting a 5 Year Vision



We drove through winding dirt tracks, rain filled pot holes and past acres of green paddy fields to reach the community on the morning of the 8th. A crowd of people had already gathered in an open shed with canvas sheets to further extend the roof in the event of rain. 50-60 members of the community gathered around enthusiastically as the project banner was put in place and we explained, as we did to the mobilizers, the purpose of the project: self-reliance in 5 years. We collectively stated the project was to be driven by the community, for the community and that this first day was focused on developing their own 5 year vision.



Listening to Community Elders 

The day started with a river crossing role play. The mobilizers dramatized the message of self-reliance being about learning to cross the river (to their development destination) by themselves and thereon teaching others to navigate the currents and floods (obstacles). The feedback from the observing community members was positive, indicating an intellectual understanding of locally driven action. Thereon the community produced a 3D map of both their current state and their future state as a community, using local resources to produce a high level of detail and aesthetic beauty. It was wonderful to see youth exercising creativity to craft ponds from coconut shells and electricity poles using sticks and coconut leaves. The village they wanted was taking shape in their minds and then across the soil before them. Infrastructure such as better roads, electricity, water access, housing and school buildings being the most visible. We all lunched under the shade of a Jack fruit tree,all seemingly pleased with the direction the day was taking.



The river crossing roleplay – an anology for self-reliance 



A visualization of the community in 5 years

We spent the rest of the day engaged in activities that would allow the community to reflect on the best times/periods for action and to take stock of their skills and assets. The final task for the day was for 3 cross-sectional groups to present their 5 year vision to the rest of the community. This was an inspiring close to a long day. While there were many inspiring examples of vision by the presenters, I was particularly struck by the genuine passion of Dinesh. He spoke bravely about the need for there to be harmony within the village and the intention to foster a relationship with the neighbouring Sinhalese village to move past a legacy of war. He focused on the need to learn Sinhala. I found his sentiment particularly touching as he was a child of a mixed marriage and his father had been murdered during the war. Thus ended a long rewarding day. We went home feeling energized by the community commitment we experienced under the elusive monsoon sun.


Vision Workshop Day 2 – Action Planning

Heavy clouds loomed over us as we drove in to the community the next day. The philosophically inclined would daresay that the sunshine of a vision gave way to the murky reality of taking action towards it. Yet our spirits were high and we were all admittedly curious as to how the day would pan out. The focus, as we explained to the community that morning, was to narrow down their vision to 3 development priorities for the year.



Dr. Harsha, a Permaculture Consultant, joined us and started the day with an overview of Permaculture. Particularly in that it was a set of principles to guide the development of sustainable systems – be it social, economic or environmental. Later in the day, he would provide his thoughts on how Permaculture could be used to inform the action plans they develop to bring about positive change.

The prioritization of development goals for the year proved to be the most intense and challenging component of our entire program. There was a mixture of enthusiasm and frustration in the shed as all three groups converged and ranked their proposed focus areas. Some, like “housing” and “roads”, were broad infrastructure projects. A good hour of advice and debate ensued, primarily on the need for pragmatism in the form of small steps to build confidence. This discussion was powerful, an elder’s comment in the heat of debate captured this beautifully “we’ve never had the opportunity to discuss our future as a community like this before, thank you!”




The development priorities were finally distilled into 3 focus areas that all the community representatives felt were appropriate for their first year:

1)      Clearing their entire network of irrigation channels

2)      Building a pre-school for their children

3)      Developing dairy farming in their village

The rain poured down and the mobilizers were quick in organizing a shift of location to the local primary school. Thereon we moved on to brainstorming, a SWOT analysis and finally a SMART action plan for each of the aforementioned development priorities.  One could sense the value of this learning experience in terms of translating a big picture vision into a specific plan for action. Dr. Harsha and I chimed in with Permaculture approaches to each of the three areas and we all challenged each group to pursue local action, utilize their own resources and pre-empt challenges.

By the time each group had presented their action plans to the community (each subject to their scrutiny), there was a look of tired satisfaction across all our faces. We had worked hand in hand for over 9 hours that day and we felt genuinely proud of how well the community had done. We had genuinely bonded; even Sophie had formed friends with the local children and a few teenage girls as she photographed this community’s journey over 3 consecutive days. The program ended with an acknowledgement of their tremendous effort and the importance of the community forging ahead with their own plans. We ended with the promise that Empower and Sewa Lanka would discuss how best to enable their action plans after discussions over the next few weeks. This process would be repeated annually, after all development is a continuous process.


 One of the 3 action plans developed by the community


The Road Ahead

That same night I had a dinner meeting with Mr.Iqbal, Sairajan and Dr. Harsha to debrief and discuss the road ahead.  We all felt that the community appeared united, with many young men and women that were keen to take action towards a new era. In addition to underutilized human effort, there was an abundance of natural resources such as sunlight, waterways, ponds and organic waste that presented many opportunities.

One key matter discussed was that Empower will recruit two of the trained mobilizers (one male, one female) to serve as full-time staff for the first two years of the project. We felt this was crucial towards providing an incentive to drive local action in these early stages and add another layer of accountability.

As we left Batticaloa the following morning, I felt a quiet sense of elation. Sourced in the feeling that a seed of hope had been planted, by none other than the courageous community members I had spent the week with.  This too, in a soil that had only known of violence and sorrow for nearly 30 years. As I write … I wonder what this seed will grow into…




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