A coalition of women's grassroots organizations representing mostly rural communities in Sri Lanka has taken a daring step towards gaining inclusion into the country's development process. They have sought to be involved in the disbursement and use of funds granted to the Sri Lankan government by a new federal corporation, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), formed by US President George W Bush in 2002. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads the Board of Directors.
Members of the Colombo-based National Women's Collective of Sri Lanka (NWCSL), were encouraged to engage in the MCC process by the Washington DC-based Women's Edge Coalition, a women's economic empowerment advocacy group, to demand inclusion in the economic development process.
Sri Lanka is one of 24 countries that have been selected for inclusion in the MCC programme. The MCC describes itself as an innovative approach to the problem of poverty, one in which development assistance would be provided in the form of grants, not loans, to countries that meet certain criteria "using objective indicators...based on their performance in governing justly, investing in their citizens, and encouraging economic freedom." The mechanism for administration of these funds is to be a "compact" - known as the Millennium Challenge Account - between the MCC and the individual country.
The NWCSL, which represents 25 grassroots organizations working throughout Sri Lanka on a wide range of issues - including women's rights, provision for orphans, reviving the traditional handloom industry and helping the country's 18,657 war widows - organized a symposium recently in Colombo. The idea was to meet with representatives of the MCC and learn more about the programme. The symposium was attended by 39 women from NWCSL member organizations.
NWCSL and its member groups have been helping people in the island paradise of Sri Lanka - ravaged by 23 years of civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese and the 2004 tsunami - recover some means of employment. Projects for women include crafts like weaving palm fronds into wallets, making rice hoppers (noodles), harvesting and polishing rice, creating embroidery for lace cushions, and so on - home-grown activities from which they are able to earn a subsistence living. Some of the groups, like the Association for War Affected Women, are focused on creating dialogue to facilitate peace between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.
Irangani Magedaragamage, Director, NWCSL, says that the group wants "women to monitor the project at the grassroots level" in order to get the maximum from these projects to women, especially rural women. "It is the rural women who suffer now. As such, it is they who should decide how to end their suffering." Tellingly, NWCSL says, although most girls receive at least an elementary school education in Sri Lanka, women's participation in Sri Lankan government is less than five per cent.
At the symposium, the women leaders said that they saw the opportunity offered by the MCC, but that they want more than just a voice in the discussion. They want to be participants in the compact. They want to see funds directed toward their needs for training and skills development so that more women can start successful small and medium-sized enterprises.
After the symposium, the NWCSL prepared a 'Report of the Consultation', which proposes an "integrated monitoring mechanism, to be conducted by both the government and the NWCSL...to ensure efficient and effective project implementation".
The MCA for Sri Lanka includes considerable investment in large-scale infrastructure improvements, including an irrigation system with three medium-scale reservoirs, improved highways, 45 cyber cafes and nine regional business centers.
The women's report noted that prior irrigation policies have actually exacerbated poverty, with small farmers losing their livelihoods, and have had negative environmental impacts due to expansion of urban areas. Sri Lanka already has 45,000 minor irrigation reservoirs and tanks all over the country, they observed, which could be "renovated, maintained and sustained by the people themselves" with some outside financial assistance.
The report also urges that "top priority should be given to rural roads" and that "when roads are constructed, women should be involved and their ideas taken into account (on issues such as) road width, the shape it should be, the drainage systems, the culverts...and what trees should be planted as the green cover..." The women questioned the wisdom of concentrating resources on regional business centers, when they could be better allocated to creating opportunities for people in rural areas. Again, although energy plans had not been made available to them, the women urged the use of small-scale solar and other alternative systems.
Despite these criticisms, the report was optimistic and deeply appreciative of the MCC.
In a telephone interview with three MCC representatives, press officer Davy Kong stressed that "country ownership is one of the most important lessons of development that we've learned in the past five decades". Programme Officer Eileen Burke said that irrigation "did emerge as high priority" in all eight provinces engaged in the process. (The ninth province, the Tamil-dominated Northeast, has not been invited to participate.) And Country Director Darius Nassiry explained that it was the Sri Lankan government that had drawn up the irrigation plans.
Burke and Nassiry attended the symposium but acknowledged that language was a problem, because they do not follow Sinhalese. Nassiry said he had received the NWCSL report, but is yet to read it.
The priorities, and the inefficiency, of the Sinhalese government could well be where the challenge lies. Ritu Sharma, Founder and Director of the Women's Edge Coalition, speaks of how frustrating it is to deal with delays in reconstruction projects in Sri Lanka because of the government's laggard decision-making process. "In general, I think that reconstruction since the tsunami is not going as fast as everybody needs it to because the government has not told people where they can live." But there is hope as well. "My impression is that Sri Lanka has a huge potential to take advantage of globalization because the people are fairly healthy and most are educated."
Explaining Women's Edge's role in the NWCSL process, she explains: "We are a small advocacy organization; we do no work in-country. We advocate for the women, letting our government know what we are hearing from local women on the ground. We are definitely trying to get in there and shape the MCC. Our message is that it is not economic growth, but poverty reduction, that is needed. They should pursue the kinds of strategies that reduce poverty."
Is MCC listening? "They seem to be responsive to incorporating women's views," Sharma says. "They are going to have a specialist in gender analysis. That really is a big leap forward."