2000 Co-operators Trained in Northern Province, Sri Lanka

A group of young women (pictured) have been introduced to research methods and are now in the process of conducting research into the youth needs of their communities.

The Co-operative College (CC) has completed its work on the Rebuilding Co-operatives in Northern Province, Sri Lanka project. The 18 month initiative was delivered on behalf of Co-operatives UK in the light of the post-Tsunami Funds raised by the UK Co-operative Movement.

As always the College works with local people to deliver projects, in this case with the
Northern Province Co-operatives Department, the Northern Province Co-operative Federation and the Ministry of Co-operatives. A local project co-ordinator, Vidhya Muttulingam, was employed in Jaffna.

This was a pioneering programme in a number of ways. Following the Civil War and the Tsunami, Sri Lankan co-operatives identified a need to rebuild a relatively moribund movement in what was once a thriving Province with co-operative hospitals, houses, shops and theatres. Although Sri Lanka is now deemed to be a middle income country by the World Bank, Jaffna remains poor as a result of 30 years of isolation during the conflict. Many people remain traumatised by a war which according to the UN, claimed the lives of 100,000 people. Many thousands remain missing and unaccounted for.

For Northern Province, functioning agricultural, fishing and life stock co-operatives are fundamental to livelihood building, poverty alleviation and wealth creation. Engaging members, developing democratic practices, encouraging collective entrepreneurship and addressing women’s co-operative leadership, underpinned the thinking of the initiative. Although Thrift and Credit Co-operatives have flourished in Sri Lanka, there was a need to take a new look at the role and nature of co-operatives in the economy. A whole generation of men has been wiped out in a Province where males traditionally head households.

Early discussions with the Federation and CICO (a UK based diaspora group) concluded that a ‘training the co-operative trainers’ approach would be the way forward and that this should be developed with a focus on local co-operative trainers (employed by co-operatives and the Federation) acquiring participatory and co-operative active leading methods for their work with grass roots co-operatives. This is one of the College’s specialisms and approaches of this kind were unfamiliar within the Sri Lankan context. Two 5 day courses were run to develop the skills of trainers to engage co-operative members and active learning manuals were produced and translated into Tamil for further dissemination. In addition to exploring the democratic governance and values base of the co-operative model, there was also training on business planning and how to meet the wider needs of co-operatives.

Each course had 20 attendees with large numbers of visitors including the Commissioner of Co-operatives and members of the Jaffna Federation. External visits were also made by the CC team to the Minister of Co-operatives and the University. A third course was aimed at 20 Co-operative Development Officers and parallel sessions were run which brought together officers and trainers. Co-operative trainers expressed some concerns about co-training with Co-operative Officers, (their ‘seniors’) but these were rich and productive days as they practiced working together for the first time to devise new approaches to raising co-operative capacity. The project was also able to fund additional one off days for all 40 participants with an aim to ensure that peer support mechanisms (identified by them) were established between the two groups.

This project was a success on so many levels. 2000 co-operative members have been reached and there have been significant numbers of co-operative startups since the project began. New, more democratic relationships have been built between officers and trainers, who are now working creatively together. Trainers have developed a whole range of new skills including those of being reflective practitioners and rethinking the nature and value of the co-operative model. A group of young women (pictured) have been introduced to research methods and are now in the process of conducting research into the youth needs of their communities.

However much more work needs to be done. Co-operative structures are highly centralized by the Sri Lanka state, making innovation difficult. For example serious thought will need to be given to how co-operatives/collective entrepreneurship can become meaningful to a generation which has grown up in an age of globalization and new technologies. Young people in Sri Lanka (as in Europe) are not necessarily drawn to agricultural livelihoods and the relatively subsistence economy of much of the Northern Province. A further disincentive is that legally, co-operative employees can only earn half of the daily rate of their counterparts working in the private sector, Given the ILO Recommendation 193 on co-operatives and the Decent Work agenda, this is something that will be picked up with the ILO and Sri Lankan trade unions. Overseas remittances are also an issue and Sri Lankan co-operators tell us that these creates great inequality within communities. Likewise Dr Cilla Ross addressed 400 women at Sri Lanka’s National Widows Day. Engaging young women and focusing on women’s co-operative leadership in a society where men are privileged, needs to be a priority for the co-operative movement in Sri Lanka.

However it is impossible to overestimate the massive distance travelled by project participants in terms of their personal development and the value of their work on the ground with co-operatives. Good work was already developing in the Province before the College became involved but the growth in trainers confidence and the emergence of critical thinking and reflective skills in their practice as co-operative organisers and capacity builders, is something everyone involved in the project is really proud of – including the local co-operative movement. We are now seeking funding for the next phase – all ideas welcome!

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