Friday, January 30, 2009

How to help the rural community best?

One of the readers of my blog asked me to let her know the key issues that face the people in my community. In some ways I feel privileged to have some close relationships with 5 very different villages as my nomadic existence constantly takes me into their areas and I have been involved with some of their personal issues. I will just name the villages and in a different essay report on the individual characteristics of each village separately and that would be a comprehensive document which will assist further.

They are ancient Ratmale and Rotawewa in the Minneriya jungle of the Polonnaruwa districts, Raja Ela near Hingurakgoda, in the Polonnaruwa district, Godagama, Meegoda in the Colombo district, Thaligama in Kitulgala in the Sabaragamuwa district, Kotiyagala jungle in the Moneragala district. I am associated in Agricultural projects in all these areas and hence come into contact with a cross section of the people in these villages.

While each village has some unique characteristics, there are some common threads that run through all these in very different locations in the country. Some of my observations may surprise the reader and I will not make any apologies for that. I believe there is much help for disenfranchised and marginalized people, which go astray and is terribly wasteful. The root problems are not recognized until one takes the trouble to live in that area and be part of that community. I have learned the hard way in my own sphere of helping these communities.

I have found computers for kids in a village. I have attempted to teach English to kids. I have lent money to help those in need or perceived need. I have purchased agricultural output from them. I have tried to collect petitions to address common grievances. I have spoken directly to people about some issues in trying to resolve them and get their opinions. I have also helped find jobs for people. These views are my own based on my personal experiences.

1 It is extremely difficult to get community participation, as there are too many goals trying to compete. Helping an individual breeds a lot of jealousy, as each family believes they are the most deserving of assistance. There has to be a consensus in the village as to what it is that they really need if one is to assist a collective.

2 The men are generally very unproductive, lazy, alcohol dependent and unreliable. The women on the other hand are the reverse having to take up the slack, and bring up the family unit, balancing the needs of the good for nothing father, and taking care of the family.

3 Women are empowered in every way except in being able to leave an alcoholic, lazy or abusive husband. The family units that usually thrive are those where the male is dead, or absent, and the women are able to ‘husband’ the family resources wisely to succeed.

4 Choosing the most deserving cases to help or finance, is an almost impossible task. This feeling that each one is the most deserving is at the nub of the problem, as one cannot use the local official like the Grama Sevaka, as he may not be impartial due to having some political connections, where help is then only directed at party supporters and not those in need.

5 I don’t believe that there is a lack of education as such, just a lack of commitment to education as the facilities are offered, but not taken up. The exception being the low quality of English teaching, and now with the gradual introduction of computers, there is not enough to go around. 2009 has been declared the year of Computer literacy and English learning as both go hand in hand and there are projects to make this happen.

6 Looking at the young, it is boys that have fewer options. I see women being able to find some vocation. The men as is typical in the culture wait for help, and I know young men who just do nothing living off money their mothers send from the Middle East. There are vocational courses if one is committed so there are opportunities for those who seek them.

7 The Sinhala people just don’t have the natural knack of entrepreneurial spirit looking instead for a government job or one in the forces, not wanting to take a risk in a business. I see so many people just going from one training course to another, full of qualifications waiting for Santa Clause to set them up in a business and provide working capital.

8 The poor must show effort to get out of the poverty trap and there are so many opportunities available to them. It is a question of them not using them. I agree their priorities are wrong to get them out. A cell phone a stereo or a motor bike are the first things a young man buys when he has access to credit, not a loan for business!
To try and summarize, picture the facts of Sri Lanka. It is a land blessed with everything, spoilt by bad management and poor governance. Only 15% of the aid pledged is spent. The problem therefore is not a lack of funds, but a very ineffective organizational set up to manage its distribution, due to the lack of commitment amongst those responsible for it. Also be quite clear that it is a country with a GNP per head of over US$1500, and when taking purchasing power parity into account works out at US6000, so does not come into the category of the African countries where starvation and famine are rife.

While there is no need to empower anyone, my struggle is to educate people to think, as this is the theme of this blog. If people can think then most of their problems are solved. There is no point helping someone with what he asks as he or she has not thought whether that is what they want. They think it is, because they use the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ analogy of the next-door neighbor has it therefore they want it. A further analysis of this phenomenon is that there are many people with a string of qualifications, diplomas trainings, who are waiting for the correct job to be handed to them. That is why they are unemployed. The specific job they want is what is not available, though there are alternative jobs they don’t want to do.

Taken at its extreme Sri Lanka has a surplus of doctors, but there are no jobs, unless one sets up a board in a village and practices for oneself. There are no government vacancies in hospitals.

Frankly I believe there are more opportunities in Sri Lanka than in the United States, for a person with a good work ethic to make it to the top as all opportunities are available. The success of my enterprise is dragged down purely because of the poor work ethic of my staff, who view desires as needs and ignore the needs.

It is this desire to want to improve oneself that is lacking, and the culture which does not encourage greed and wealth as being extremely un Buddhist effectively numbs the senses into an equilibrium of accepting handouts from anyone who maybe foolish enough o offer them, but otherwise existing for the day, with little thought for what tomorrow brings.

This is the land of opportunity. I have traveled the world and I believe this country has so much potential. We don’t just have a ‘slum dog millionaire’ in everyone, but an every dog millionaire possibility for the taking.

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