The obligation to establish a Social and Economic Development Centre for the benefit of the destitute, the downtrodden and marginalized people of the nation, fortifying the Catholic Social Teachings on the life and dignity of the human person and work of solidarity, was the development of late, His Eminence Thomas Cardinal Cooray. Fr. Joe Fernando was given the task of establishing such a feat, in the year of 1956. Stemming from a small-scale cooperative society in view of serving the underprivileged fisher-folk in the coastal villages of Negombo, with the undying guidance and persistence of Fr. Joe Fernando, with time, and a knack for people-oriented development, a fully-fledged national institution was formed, encompassing aid in the fields of relief, rehabilitation, livelihood support, resettlement and integral human development. More than 50 years later, Caritas Sri Lanka – SEDEC (Social and Economic Development Centre), with her affiliation to Caritas Internationalis, a church-based humanitarian network of over 165 nations and functioning as the national secretariat of operations for the Justice, Peace and Human Development Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka strives towards uplifting marginalized communities through 13 diocesan centres spread across the country.

Ever since the inaugural efforts made towards helping the less privileged communities, Caritas Sri Lanka has been unceasing in heading to the “realization of a just Sri Lankan society based on the gospel values of love, forgiveness, peace, unity and equality-lived, promoted and protected irrespective of caste, creed and nationality” as the overarching vision. With Fr. Joe Fernando’s passionate and energy driven leadership, to all who bore the responsibilities of National Director of the organization, Caritas Sri Lanka is now one of the few strongest humanitarian networks in the nation. The place in which Caritas takes with the people who benefited and continues to benefit from the network’s aid, is memorable. The toil of the leaders of the organization paved the way through the history of Caritas Sri Lanka to make her a formidable organization.

The philosophy behind Caritas’s determinations of empowering people through animation and being in solidarity, with a key focus on integral human development is ever-evolving. We live in an era of unprecedented change. Change upshots in flagrant inequalities in the world at large, and thus, solidarity and doing fundamental good for the less fortunate people of the world is becoming increasingly difficult. As a result of this evolvement, the programme management of the humanitarian sector changes. Integral human development embraces a much greater vision of resilience and climate change. Just as integral human development works for improved togetherness, modern times has amplified human development to not only remain in the line of economic resolve but also environmental protection; instigating the programme management to concentrate on resilience and climate change. Change in factors concerning environmental thresholds has triggered the ongoing health crisis, with the pandemic wreaking severity on human nature causing global economic downfall. Now, more than ever, the humanitarian sector has to evolve rapidly, approaching from these changes. In this sense, Caritas Sri Lanka is blessed to be led by yet another passionate and energy driven leader, Fr. Mahendra Gunatilleke. The organization’s National Director, Fr. Mahendra Gunatilleke, having taken part in numerous Asian and global fora, was quick to adapt to these changes through the Caritas network in Sri Lanka through learning from new trends relating to programme management.

In the context of our nation, a widely known fact is that Sri Lanka was self-elevated to the upper middle income status almost 10 years ago, recognized as an emerging state, but with the recent instability in the government, the Easter Sunday attacks that left the country’s tourism at the brink of collapse and the pandemic, drove the nation to a lower middle income country. The present situation raises heavy concerns on the state of the humanitarian sector in the country.

Sri Lanka has very little funding in terms of humanitarian aid, hence, with these changes, in time to come, it is safe to say that a dark period is forthcoming. The voice of the poor and destitute cannot be ignored by the rest of the world, yet, foreshadowing this dark period ahead, Caritas Sri Lanka understands that the efforts made is not a task of human promotion but a constitutive dimension of evangelization. Thus, since there cannot be a strict dependency on direct funding from donors, in addition to the DFCC Scholarship programme; an income generation programme in partnership with DFCC Bank, that assists students from ordinary level, advanced level, universities and vocational training through scholarships, Caritas Sri Lanka has raised for purely the purpose of income generation, the “CSL – SEDEC Building” for the use of continuing to strengthen the programmes, to support the people of our nation. The construction of this building will not only be a manner in which present programmes are strengthened, but an initial leap towards widening the number of programmes that are funded locally through Caritas Sri Lanka for the benefit of people in inter-cultural setups alike. The perseverance of all National Directors to work for the poor from the founder, Fr. Joe Fernando, is instrumental in noting the development of the CSL – SEDEC building. The funding that stood the CSL – SEDEC building was entirely from the fund management of Caritas Sri Lanka. The organization has been very particular in managing funds from donors to the maximum advantage of the many communities who benefit from these funds, and have been used to not only uplift people but to give them confidence to be a valued part of the society. The work put into the erection of the CSL – SEDEC building with regard to the finances used is not a recent achievement. Previous National Directors too played a vital role in securing ways and means of making the CSL – SEDEC building a reality, Fr. Shanthi Kumar Weliwita, Fr. George Sigamoney and Fr. Damian Fernando collected to fund the building. The CSL – SEDEC building stands as a footing to amplify the call to help people in need across the island, and through this completion, it is clear that Caritas Sri Lanka sets an example to the humanitarian sector in the country, showing that the position Caritas Sri Lanka takes starts out always from the point of view of the poor and places the poor at the centre of our analysis and reflection.

By Jerome Morritt