The Church Empowers the Poor to be independent

Considering the rapid changes that have taken place in the political, economic and social fabric of the country, the Church has been obliged to change its approach to address these issues over the last five decades. In this context the Church has had to take up issues arising from these changing policies at different levels to find an appropriate solution.

Especially since 1977 when the free market economy and liberalized trade were introduced, accompanied further by foreign direct investment, the setting up of free trade zones and  the dominant role of  multinational companies marked by their profit maximization motives, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. While the rich get richer, the poor have got poorer.  In fact, a number of people still live below the commonly accepted poverty line.  Foreign trade is still heavily tilted in favour of imports, thus having a negative impact on local initiatives.  The structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the IMF have added to the cost of living burden of the people. The debt situation of the country as a whole has only worsened in recent years.

Caritas Sri Lanka as the Social Arm of the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka has been responding to the situation arising from post emergency disasters and conflict, accompanying the vulnerable communities such as the IDPs, the poor and the marginalized in Sri Lanka.  In fact, Caritas has been involved in such activities since the mid 1990s as one of the responsible institutions in the country that has helped the poor and vulnerable population.

The National Animation Programme (NAP) was started by Caritas in the 1990s.  Under this grassroots level poor and marginalized communities were mobilized to form Self Help Groups (SHGs).  They were given training on group dynamics, knowledge on book-keeping and encouraged to make savings.  Each member contributed a small sum to the group fund and Caritas contributed a sum of money to this fund.  Guidance was given on the setting up and operations of a “Revolving Loan Fund” and arranged for the group members to apply for loans to start new or further develop existing income generating ventures.

More than 80 percent of those who became SHG members were women.  Backward rural women got the opportunity to come forward, take up leadership and voice for their rights.  In 2010, Caritas network started implementing the 3-year programme on Integral Human Development through Community Empowerment.  In order to further strengthen the community institutions, the small groups were encouraged to join into Community Based Organisations (CBOs).  CBOs were formed and capacity enhancement programs such as trainings, exchange and exposure visits were provided. Seed money was given to each CBO in order to create self-reliance. Some of the matured CBOs were registered and functioning effectively.  They have established links with local government agencies and are in a position to access government services and facilities to develop their communities.

The small self help groups joined up and had formed 162 CBOs and collectively have been able to win many rights claims, such as water for irrigation, land for cultivation, repairs to small tanks, roads, bridges, pre-schools, libraries and places to market their produce. Women are empowered and now in decision-making positions providing leadership to other backward women in their groups to come forward and voice their problems and grievances.  Many of these CBOs are now independent and continue on their own.

Under the on-going project of Caritas, namely Integral Human Development  – Civic Dialogue & Cross Community Activities, the CBOs are being further strengthened to form into diocesan level or district level federations, so that with their large membership, they are able to influence decision making of political leaders in favour of the poor, marginalized and neglected communities.

Under the concept of Social Entrepreneurship which typically attempts to further broad social, cultural, and environmental goals often associated with the voluntary sector in areas such as poverty alleviation, health care and community development, Caritas Sri Lanka has played a successful and impressive role over the past two decades.

Allowing these community institutions to be strong and independent, the Church will always remain with them, especially at times of disasters.