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

By Richard M. HarleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 1981



Cambridge, Mass.

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.

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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.'

"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.