College helping to rebuild the co-operative movement in northern Sri Lanka

The Co-operative College is running a training programme in Sri Lanka to help co-operative development in the north of the country.  The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami...

The Co-operative College is running a training programme in Sri Lanka to help co-operative development in the north of the country. 

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami left Sri Lanka devastated, and a civil war that began in 1983 and lasted for 25 years also caused substantial damage to the country’s co-operative movement. The conflict ended in 2009, but the army effectively ran the north. With the election of a moderate as president in January 2015, the Northern Province has been delegated effective powers, which include promoting co-ops.

 “The co-operative movement in the north is clearly in need of support,” says Stirling Smith, associate at the Co-operative College. “The post-tsunami reconstruction wasn’t possible because the war was going on. It is only since the end of the civil war that we’ve been able to look at helping there.”

In February, Mr Smith travelled to Sri Lanka to undertake a scoping visit for the project. The co-operative movement has a long history in Sri Lanka, dating back to the British period.

“Our approach with the fund has been to try to rebuild the movement rather than a particular enterprise, through stressing basic co-op principles and co-operative identity,” he says. “There are a lot of misunderstandings in Sri Lanka and confusion between what co-ops and what NGOs might do.”

He adds that the college aimed to help Sri Lankan co-operators move away from a project approach to a sustainable enterprise approach.

Developed in consultation with local partners, the training programme will place a strong emphasis on training key groups such as younger members or widows and to renew the movement’s leadership. In 2014, the college ran a course for co-operators from the northern region of Sri Lanka which, due to the unstable political climate at the time, took place in India.

The first new training sessions will take place after the general election in July, targeting around 200 people. The college will be running training workshops for a month in Jaffna, the capital of the Northern Province, and visit all the main towns.

“Some courses will be a couple of days, some will be four or five days. After that there will be a process whereby they go themselves and do training. That will reach about 1,000 – 2,000 people.”

The project aims to reach 1,000 – 2,000 people
The project aims to reach 1,000 – 2,000 people

The project’s legal partner is the Federation of Thrift and Credit Societies of the Northern Province. “Credit unions are key to rejuvenating the sector there,” says Mr Smith. They can lend capital to groups trying to set up co-operatives.”

The College’s team will also be working with the provincial government and Sri Lankan diaspora in the UK. Another objective of the project will be to support people in the north take part in existing training programmes.

But Mr Smith acknowledges there are complex challenges, including poor infrastructure and managing people’s expectations. “People want to go too fast,” he says. “Quite often they say we should be having a co-operative college – well we need a co-op education network in place first and then a college.

“We’re very used here to a self-help approach to co-ops. We don’t want the government’s support. In the developing world, there’s still a state-led model, people looking to the state to do things. That’s the real kind of change that we are trying to bring about.”

 The programme, which would run from July this year to June 2016, is supported by Co-operatives UK, as part of long-term work funded by its members in support of co-operatives in South East Asia.

The funding was allocated through the final tranche of the Tsunami Reconstruction Fund set up by Co-operatives UK as a response to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004.

Secretary general of Co-operatives UK, Ed Mayo, adds: “Co-operation has a long history in Sri Lanka and it is exciting to see the potential that co-operatives could have for reconstruction in areas so badly hit by long years of war. We are grateful to the Co-operative College for leading this project on behalf of the UK movement.”

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