Sri Lanka's 'little Gandhi'; ARI-ONOMICS' STANDS ACCEPTED WISDOM ON ITS HEAD

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As he stands up before a crowd of American dignitaries in this Boston suburb, dressed in the simple collarless white shirt and sandals of his native Sri Lanka , it's hard to picture Ahangamage Ariyaratne as the leader of a massive social revolution.

But as he begins to speak, a breeze out of the Gandhian past seems to sweep through the room.

"A wise Indian I knew once turned to a rich man and said, 'You have fallen.' But to a poor man he added, 'You have not risen up.'

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"Poverty must no longer be approached as a matter of mere economics," he goes on. "It's a matter of human development. The real source of change lies in the people's thinking."

The idea of development from the bottom up is nothing new. But this man has made it work in thousands of Sri Lankan villages -- with astonishing success.

Mr. Ariyaratne is a big part of the reason his country, though backward technologically and still scourged with poverty, has achieved a quality of life enviable in the developing world. In fact, by some measures, this island nation off the southeast coast of India compares quite favorably with industrialized countries, with its average life expectancy of 68 years, 80 percent literacy, and a low infant mortality rate.

E. F. Schumacher, of "Small is Beautiful" fame, couldn't have been more delighted by the phenomenon. Mr. Ariyaratne's social revolution, he said, is an example of "a nonviolent, truthful, and just society" worthy of every person, village, and nation.

The Sri Lankan development model could also suggest answers for half a billion of the world's most impoverished, malnourished people, who live in millions of villages around the globe. These needy are far too numerous to reach by foreign aid alone -- especially now that rich countries are cutting back aid. Winning the war on hunger now depends on whether the poorest can be inspired to help themselves.

This is the secret of the "little Gandhi of Sri Lanka."

"Ari," as he is usually called, had come to New England to meet with Oxfam-America officials after having met with development leaders in western Africa and Mexico. One spring evening after a formal reception in his honor, I found him willing to stop and reflect on why his approach seems to be working.

As he shakes hands, the diminutive, silver-haired man bowed self-effacingly. His playful lightheartedness and gentle, star quality gives him the air of a blend of Charlie Chaplin and Omar Sharif -- complete with black tootbrush mustache.

Ariyaratne, like Gandhi and the Indian village reformers before him, wants to steer villages clear of slick development theories that are more concerned with material progress than with mankind's cultural and spiritual development.

"We human beings have lost out in the process of modernization," Mr. Ariyaratne says in his characteristically high-pitched voice. "We have lost the relationship people once had between their external work and their internal development.

"Centuries ago, for example, my country was a prosperous food exporter.But people in those days planted crops not thinking to make so many bushels per acre or so much money. They planted them, thinking, 'I am doing something which is going to feed human beings and animals.' The external activity had an internal social and spiritual relevance, so that not only the plant grew but people's lives also grew. This is what we are trying to recover."

Wrong assumptions have gotten world economies in a mess, he argues -- assumptions that man is basically selfish, that resources are scarce, that land, labor, and capital must be efficiently combined for the sole purpose of meeting demands of the market. The result: Land gets taken out of nature, labor out of the human personality, capital out of social wealth, science out of popular reach.

"Here lies the problem," he says. "Land, for example, is only one element of production, not the whole thing. Nature is the whole. The moment we take land out of nature we can put on too much fertilizer in the name of increasing crops, though we poison the natural environment. For selfish reasons we may inflate the price of the food we produce, break it into pieces to multiply its money value; but you can't do that with nature.

"And so with people. We start to value their physical and mental labor only for its market price, not for the development of the human beings themselves and the whole of society."

"Ari-onomics" -- and its extraordinary results in Sri Lanka -- have been standing conventional economic wisdom on its head for over two decades. The ingredients: high respect for nature and for beautifying the environment; high value placed first on human development, second on economic; stress on socially oriented work ("You have knowledge, I have knowledge, so we can put these things together to the happiness of both of us"); and moving science and technology out of the university and government offices to make it accessible to the needy ("Place it in the hands of the people so that new wealth can be generated for them").

Above all, he says, "Measure success by the emergence of better human beings."

At first it sounds too Tolstoy-ish, too Utopian to work in today's aggressive economic climate. But Ari is convincing when he speaks about what the approach has made possible for Sri Lanka's villages.

Hundreds of thousands of rural and urban Sri Lankans have voluntarily pooled their time, labor, and resources for village improvements. In the process, he claims, caste and class barriers have been overcome, and a wide range of social services established --from construction of schools to disaster relief; from irrigation and water purification to new farm techniques; from teaching in basic sanitation to instruction in traditional Sinhalese culture.

Since the early 1960s, one in ten Sri Lankan villages have benefited. It's made a giant difference in a country where rural villages --where 80 percent of the people live -- often have no schools, where women must walk several miles each day to get water, where health services are restricted to untrained village healers, housing is poor, and poverty a crushing reality of daily life. Even in the late '70s some 40 percent of the children still suffered from malnutrition and 1.5 million were unemployed.

"We call our effort the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement," he explains. "Gandhi had coined the word sarvodayam ["welfare of all"]. In the Sri Lankan context it came to mean 'awakening of all.' Shramadanam means sharing of labor. So 'sarvodaya shramadana'm means the sharing of one's time, thought, and energy for the awakening of all."

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of villagers in some 3,600 villages who have volunteered for Sarvodaya projects, the movement now has about 7,500 full-time workers, some with technical know-how, distributed among each of its 24 autonomous districts. All participate at great personal sacrifice. About 6, 500 are paid a subsistence wage of only $5 to $10 per month (hardly enough to live on); another 1,000 with more experience or expertise get twice that.

The Sarvodaya concept first "seized" Ari bak in 1957 in a sort of Peace Corps venture Sri Lanka-style.Then a 27-year-old science teacher at a leading prep school in Colombo, he led students and teachers into the countryside to get a firsthand look at the living conditions of lower-caste countrymen.

"We had to travel 18 miles through jungle, park our jeep part way and then walk the rest, and spent the night in dark, dingy huts made of the bark of trees.Food was so scarce that some people had been living a whole week just chewing on bark.

"One morning we heard this woman yelling in great pain. We met a man who said she was in childbirth labor. And to our shock, we saw him rush off to assist in the delivery, carrying rusted tools in his hands -- and this at a time when our country had very good health services."

Ari was convinced: Education must "stop catering to make the human animal a marketable product." It must, rather, awaken people to be more mindful of people's needs. Back at school he called for students to give some time for the benefit of the less fortunate. Teen-agers responded in great numbers, going out in groups during vacations and weekends to find ways to share knowledge and learn something at the same time.

"It's like the Bible says," Ari (a Buddhist) is fond of pointing out. "To lose yourself is to find yourself."

To a limited extent Ari locates his work in the line of the great Indian village reformers who emerged since the days when Gandhi launched his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. He did not know Gandhi himself, but has consulted with leading Gandhian disciples. He was greatly impressed in the late 1950s by Bhave Vinobe, who masterminded the voluntary redistribution of an astonishing 1. 2 million acres of land to needy Indians.

Some social changes credited to Mr. Ariyaratne seem to echo Gandhian ideals. Upper-class Sri Lankans once scorned manual labor. Today that is a thing of the past. In a typical Sarvodaya road-building project, for example, it is not at all uncommon to see government workers and educated urbanities laboring side by side with rural villagers.

Also gone are the days when strict caste divisions forbade lower-caste men and women from wearing clothes above the waist and required their children to sit on the floor at school.

And although Sarvodaya draws most of its workers from the primarily Buddhist population of Sri Lanka, Mr. Ariyaratne's ideas have proved sufficiently benevolent to merit participation from Christians, Hindus, and Muslims.

Despite the Gandhian similarities, Mr. Ariyaratne's approach has a unique stamp. His formula has been tailor-made to Sri Lanka's welfare state and Buddhist culture, drawing on traditional Buddhist ideals of compassionate action , sympathetic joy, and equanimity. And whereas the Indian village reformers had stressed voluntary sharing of land, Ari has transformed that goal into the sharing of one's time and energy for the benefit of others.

The emphasis shifts from impersonal alms-giving to a respect for the people being helped, he explains, pulling one of many tales out of his story-telling hat to drive home the point.

"A poet was invited by an Indian king to a feast in his honor. But on arriving he was turned away because he wasn't dressed like a prince. So he came back in prince's clothes just in time for the food to be served. When the king saw that the poet was putting food in his pockets, he asked if he had gone crazy. 'Your majesty,' the poet replied, 'this feast is not in my honor but in the honor of my clothes!'"

Sarvodaya workers say that Ari frequently compares his movement to a small dog that barks a lot to make sure that the big dog, the government, keeps away.

On the one hand, he has always believed that his social reforms can peacefully coexist and cooperate with government.But as the ranks of his volunteers around the country swelled toward the half-million mark in the 1960s, politicians became suspicious and tense -- a factor that put to the test the Sarvodayan commitment to nonviolent change.

When local politicians hired notorious Sri Lankan criminals in the early '60s to assassinate Mr. Ariyaratne, he went to the home of the weapons-laden head crook, talked things over with him, gained the man's respect, and defused the whole plot.

It wasn't so simple in 1974. The minister of justice, Felix Bandaranaike, nephew of then-Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, tried to put controls on Sarvodaya activities. Accusing the movement of immorality and subversive activities, he sent out notices to heads of government ministries, members of parliament, and the police. Mr. Ariyaratne received the personal backing of the prime minister. But for years the government harassments continued.

"We decided to extend our compassion to the people who were against us," recalls Ari. "We were careful not to have hatred against any of them, because you do more damage to yourself that way.

"We easily could have overlooked our principle of staying out of power politics and taken revenge by political action in the upcoming elections. But we didn't do that. And when the new Jayewardene government took office in 1977, the prime minister visited us, affirmed that our movement was a good one, and since then they have actually helped us."

What about civil disobedience?

"If that justice minister had been endorsed by other ministers," he says, "I would definitely have been forced into nonviolent resistance. Not power-politics actions. I would have demonstrated that what they were doing was not true politics but a form of evil. But that would have been a waste of time and energy that could be used in better ways to help people."

Despite the politial clashes, large arenas of cooperation between the Sri Lankan government and the Sarvodaya Shramadana workers have opened. Sarvodaya peace committees have worked to ease potentially violent social crises. And the Jayawardene government has aksed Ari's staff to teach development orientation courses to senior officials, to give police officers a "more humanitarian orientation," and to help the Ministry of Education upgrade 2,500 schools in the most poverty-stricken areas.

But in the end, can a reform ideal like Sarvodaya Shramadana survive? How does Mr. Ariyaratne reply to Western economists who argue that Sarvodaya is yearning for an outmoded golden age of village existence that does not really face up to modern challenges?

"They would first have to convince me that their own vision is right," he says. "When the physical environment is getting so polluted; when the psychological environment is so ill at ease; when a president can't walk the streets safely without the whole Secret Service guarding him; when so many people are trying to get drugged with chemicals; when the price of packaging and chemical additives in our foods cost many tines more than the real value of the food we consume; when the level of oil consumption is so high that we know in a few years greater problems will be upon us; when so many billions of dollars are spent on unnecessary armaments as millions are going hungry -- now if you think that's the golden era of progress we should be heading for, I think the world has gone mad."

In Arionomics, modernity is not really a question of time, but of outlook.

"The time has come to look to see whether happiness is really being achieved in proportion to the quantity of material goods and power we possess.Real happiness emerges in proportion to the degree to which we learn to share and live joyfully with other people. We have to stop and think before it's too late."

Looking to the future, Ari is now contacting similar "sharing" movements worldwide. He commits a quarter of his crowded schedule to talk with groups around the world that are directly or indirectly interested in Sarvodayan-like goals.

There are now Sarvodaya groups working for community development in French Guyana and Thailand, as well as in Western countries like Belgium, Holland, Norway, Switzerland, and West Germany. The Sri Lankans themselves also get private or government funding from these Western countries as well as Canada, Japan, the US, and West Germany. A Chinese delegation is also scheduled to spend the month of May studying the Sri Lankan movement. "At this moment les us do that act, think that thought, say that word, that will give the maximum of joy for others, the maximum of sharing what we each have to give for the advance of all," Ari concluded before a Brandeis University audience.

"If a thought comes to your mind that says 'I need to get for myself another million dollars,' tell that thought, thank you very much, now get out, I am still hardly making use of the millions I already have."

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