Sarvodaya, Buddhist roots for self-sufficient communities

Although ‘Fab City’ or Fab Lab are terms originating in the West, other cultures carry common elements of a vision for the resilient and sustainable development of territories. Indeed, quite a while before we could use a 3D printer at the neighborhood Fab Lab.

An example of this type of ancestral knowledge to be considered for the development of today’s cities and territories is found in the philosophy of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Mouvement. The largest NGO in Sri Lanka, headquartered near Colombo with 25 district centers and an active presence in over 3,000 villages in the country, Sarvodaya is also possibly the oldest and largest organization in the world rooted in Gandhian and Buddhists traditions. Based on the Sanskrit concepts of “the awakening of all” and the “gift of work”, Sarvodaya’s mission is to create a society “without poverty, without wealth and without conflict” through “the sharing of one’s time, thought and energy for the well-being of all”.

More than sixty years ago Dr. Ariyaratne, a former high school teacher in Colombo, designed an educational project for his students, based on their voluntary work with members of an impoverished community to build infrastructure for their economic and social development (for example, planting gardens and building a road for farmers to access the market). Today, under its integrated approach to development based on people’s participation, empowerment and self-sufficiency, the movement has reached over 15,000 disadvantaged communities in Sri Lanka. It combines the promotion of spiritual and cultural development with an economic empowerment program based on microfinance and entrepreneurship. Under a holistic and sustainable vision of development, Sarvodaya identifies 10 basic needs of human beings: a clean and beautiful environment; clean drinking water; sufficient supply of clothing; adequate and balanced nutrition; simple housing; basic health care; basic communication facilities; minimal energy supply; holistic education; and satisfaction of spiritual and cultural needs and peacebuilding.

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement is structured through independent legal organizations responding to specific areas of development activities (community health, higher education, disaster management, among others) and societies at the village level. Each of the latter is managed by an executive council comprising a diversity of members of the community, of which there must necessarily be representation of child, youth, and mother members, in addition to the so-called ‘ordinary members’. While Sarvodaya’s philosophy is rooted in Buddhist traditions, the movement actively engages people of all religions and ethnic backgrounds, its aim not being to proselytize but to help participants see their common humanity.