Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Experience in the field - Sri Lanka

My name is Megan McCoy and I am a Programme Officer in the Pacific Group of NZAID. As I write this blog entry, I am sitting in the Moratuwa (just south of the capital Colombo) office of a local non-government organisation (NGO) called Sarvodaya. I am currently two weeks into a six-week volunteering stint. The Communications Team and I thought that it would be good for me to write a blog about my experience to help illustrate what development work is really like on the ground. While this trip is unconnected with my official work, it was through a previous job at NZAID that I heard about Sarvodaya.

Sarvodaya is one of the oldest and largest local NGOs in Sri Lanka. It has a real grass-roots approach to development work. In practice this means they have people working directly with the villages in the districts. It also means that they work with the people in those villages, not for them. This isn't charity work, it's about empowering communities to make decisions for themselves about their lives (including incomes, children's education and reproductive health).

I saw this approach for myself first hand on the weekend when I went with Sarvodaya to a small village in Tangalla on the south coast. The whole area was completely devastated by the tsunami. While there are many shops and homes that still lie in ruins, there were lots of new houses built by some of the many international donors that flooded into the area after the tsunami. We were going to visit a Safe Centre that Sarvodaya had helped to establish itself in the village. It is run by a very capable woman called Shanti. Shanti knows her community very well and has gained the trust of the families in the area.

Prior to the Safe Centre being established, alcohol abuse and domestic violence were big problems for the village. However with the support of the programmes run by the Safe Centre, and Shanti's support and advice, the incidence of domestic violence has decreased. Changing the behaviour of many years takes time though, and the Safe Centre still has a lot of work to do. Some of the men are still drinking and indeed one man we visited was drunk at lunchtime on a Sunday. However his wife still said that it was a big improvement on his previous behaviour.

NZAID is providing some funding to Sarvodaya for a mobile medical clinic which should be up and running early next year. The clinic will provide primary health care, focusing on prevention to rural areas in the south. It was through this support that I first learned of Sarvodaya.

As a large NGO, Sarvodaya has recently established a Partner Coordination Unit (PCU) and it is here that I am working. This unit is trying to set up some systems and processes which will help the people who are actually doing projects (like the Safe Centres) manage their relationships with donors better. I hope that my work here will have some long-term impact in helping the organisation to spend more time doing what they do best, working with people, rather than deciphering donor relationships.

Well, there's lots more work to do, so I'd better get cracking.