College working to rebuild the co-operative movement in Sri Lanka

The Co-operative College has given an update on its work in Sri Lanka, where it has spent several years helping to strengthen the co-operative movement. In July, the College’s...

The Co-operative College has given an update on its work in Sri Lanka, where it has spent several years helping to strengthen the co-operative movement.

In July, the College’s team travelled across the country’s Northern Province to observe local trainers in action. During the tour, the College team trained 20 co-operative consultants – four from each of the five districts of the Co-operative Federation of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.

Following this, Jane Collis, former training development manager at Ethical Trading Initiative, travelled across the province to see local staff in action.

Ms Collis has worked on different training projects in South Africa and Asia. After deciding to have a gap summer, she chose to spend her time volunteering for the College in Sri Lanka.

Around 90% of participants in the project were women aged from 20 to 60, said Ms Collis. While many of them already work in collaboration with credit unions, they are not necessarily involved in setting up co-operative enterprises.

Prior to Sri Lanka’s civil war, which started in 1983, the co-operative movement had been very strong. The conflict ended in 2009 but security threats continue.

“In every group there were people that had been involved in the movement before the war so the level of knowledge was quite high,” said Ms Collis. “They understood the principles about governance and benefits. They all recognised the scope to derive more benefit from the co-ops then they were currently doing.”

She also visited the Poonakary Fishing Co-operative, which lost assets during war and, because it was unable to provide any proof of ownership, saw its infrastructure reduced.

“Those who remember how co-ops were before the war find it depressing,” said Ms Collis.

The area has 15 co-operatives and 4,000 families of which only 2,400 have someone working, so many female-headed households rely on the co-operative for support. It managed to continue with funding investment and support from an International Labour Organization Project. Members said they would have been completely wiped out without the support of the ILO.

Ms Collis also met with the commissioner of the Northern Provincial Council for the Department of Co-operative Development.

Each of the five districts has an assistant commissioner and a team of district commissioner officers plus, across the province, a team of 180 field-based co-operative development officers (CDOs), of whom 46 are women. The College and the commissioner are currently exploring the possibility of working together, with the former running training courses for CDOs.

Challenges faced by CDOs when working with thrift and credit societies include a lack of accounting skills and a tendency to approve loans without a proper scrutiny. CDOs pointed out that credit unions need plans for the future that take in long term and short-term benefits. Trainers also expressed interest in knowing how to use local resources properly.

Other challenges in delivering training include the lack of money as an incentive for participants to attend, to compensate for a day’s missed work. In some rural areas transport can also be an issue.

“With women accounting for around 90% of the participants, the federation did a very good job in recruiting for the sessions,” said Ms Collis. “In all groups, there were some outstanding contributors, often young women with good presentation skills, leadership talent and knowledge. Some would make great trainers and champions to cascade to others.”

But there were still problems to overcome, she warned, with “little appetite among participants for co-operative enterprise and new business ideas.

“Trainers need to have more examples, conviction and approaches to help make the case.”

Ms Collis found the College’s project in Sri Lanka different from her previous experiences on projects around the world.

“What was good about this project was that it was rooted in a movement and the principles are well understood by everybody,” she said. “People know what this is all about.”

Previously, she worked on a project to improve workers’ rights in the fruit and farming sector in South Africa. While this had some positive results, the benefits were limited to the employees and employers taking part in the project. As soon as employees changed their jobs, their working conditions would also change.

The Sri Lanka project did not have this problem, she said.

“The College’s work in Sri Lanka is part of a movement, rather than being an isolated project, so it has a real strength compared to other projects I have been involved in because people are invested in the movement.”

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