By Ben Fowler
A Panel Discussion for The Stromme Foundation early this week successfully concluded a panel discussion and Regional Asia Workshop 2011 on “Building Grassroots Democracy for Sustainable Development.” It strove to address issues of poverty primarily through the use of education and micro-financing.
The Stromme Foundation is an International Development Organisation established in Norway in 1976 determined to, as their mission statement says, “eradicate poverty”. The foundation works with local partners in 12 countries in four regions of the world–Asia, South America, and East and West Africa.
Stromme Foundation Asia’s regional office is in Sri Lanka, where it assists in helping the poor at home and at Bangladesh, Nepal, and East Timor. Attending the event, aside from the international array of panelists, were over 20 representatives from partnering NGOs in Bangladesh and Nepal, state officials connected with the development sector, and other veterans of sustainable, community development.
Of the estimated 925 million people who go hungry, about 578 million (62 %) are from Asia. The main contributor to hunger is poverty, and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, food prices continue to rise.
“Poverty is not due to lack of money or assets, but social exclusion,” said Regional Director Stromme Foundation Nimal Martinus, “We must engage poor people, not treat them like recipients or objects.” Much of the dialogue revolved around changing the way organisations engage with poverty, as well as defining the function, purpose, and authority of NGO’s interested in helping support the poor in today’s world.
On developmental programmes: “There are 1.2 billion people living under $1 a day. There have been good results, but poverty is growing.”
“Solutions can’t be dumped–people become dependent on the state or NGOs, unless we empower people, and people understand the forces making them poor, development won’t be sustainable.”
Traditionally, developmental philanthropy and assistance have focused on the lack of capital and inability to acquire any in poverty-stricken areas. Advisor at Stromme Foundation Asle Stalleland said “Without understanding people, there will be little progress. Failure in development programmes come from a lack of understanding.”
Throughout the day, speakers reiterated the importance of a “grassroots” approach that helps communities help themselves, while considering the larger socioeconomic picture they fit into–or are often excluded from. Martinus stressed that development must be value-based, that too often a dependency on governments and foreign organisations can be corrosive to culture and community. The goal for Stromme Foundation is not only to eradicate poverty, but to do so by supporting the community in such a way that they can sustain success and growth without the continued presence of an NGO.
Their holistic approach simultaneously focuses on three aspects of society: the individual, relationships an individual has with his or her community and governing bodies, and the larger social structures that can influence from far away.
According to the event’s keynote speaker Dr. Wijaya Jayathilaka, Executive Director for Transparency International, all three aspects are crucial for successful grassroots development. That development must also be sustainable, in a manner that “supports the present without compromising the future”.
On the individual level, people need not only education but also self-motivation, and civic responsibility. Regarding the latter, such development is severely hindered without legal safeguards for all to engage in the democratic process. The media also plays a key role here, especially for bolstering the validity and accountability of institutions.
Stromme Foundation Asia works across 10 districts with over 100,000 households to help mobilise those who are marginalised and excluded.
The panelists at the event were
Dr. Wijaya Jayathilaka - Executive Director, Transparency International: “Democracy and Development”
Susil Siriwardana – Coordinator, South Asian Perspective Network Association (SAPNA): “People’s Participation and Community Mechanisms”
Prof. Ramanie Jayatilaka – Head of Department of Sociology, University of Colombo: “Women Empowerment for Inclusive Development”
Nimal Martinus – Regional Director, Stromme Foundation Asia
Dagny Mios – Counsellor Development Corporation, Royal Norwegian Embassy
R. M. S. Ratnayake – Secretary, the Social Welfare Ministry
Lakshman Hulugalla – Director General Media Center, National Security
Asle Stalleland – Advisor, Programme Stromme Foundation
- Pics by Upul Abayasekara