Sarvodaya Leader A T Ariyaratne at 80: Conscience of a Bruised Nation

Dr A T Ariyaratne (left) in an expressive moment with Nalaka Gunawardene

When Dr A T Ariyaratne, founder and president of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka, turned 80 years on 5 November 2011, felicitations poured in from all over the world. This spontaneous act was an indication — if any were needed — of how much and how widely he has touched the lives of millions.

Ari is also our elder statesman of inclusive development. For over half a century, he and Sarvodaya have advocated a nuanced approach to overcoming poverty, illiteracy and various social exclusions. Unlike some die-hard activists, Ari doesn’t ask us to denounce materialism or revert to pre-industrial lifestyles. Instead, he seeks a world without extreme poverty or extreme affluence.

Suddenly, his quest for social justice and equality is resonating all over the world. In fact, Ari has been speaking out for the 99 per cent of less privileged people decades before a movement by that name emerged in the West. In a sense, those occupying Wall Street and other centres of affluence are all children of Sarvodaya.

While Ari shares their moral outrage, his own strategy has been quite different. He didn’t occupy physical spaces in his struggle; he went straight to the fount of all injustice – our minds.

* * * * *

Thus opens my personalised tribute, published on Groundviews.org as Ari of Sarvodaya: Conscience of a Bruised Nation.

In this 2,400-word essay, I salute a hero of mine who continues to speak truth to power, and makes a difference to millions of people in his land and elsewhere. For doing this, he has been ridiculed, harassed and vilified by small minds and the state. He continues undaunted, and shows no sign of slowing down after turning 80.

Here’s another excerpt:

In Ari, we find elements of Mahatma Gandhi (non-violent pursuit of the greater good); the Dalai Lama (interpreting Buddhist philosophy for the modern world); Martin Luther King, Jr. (struggling for the rights and dignity of marginalised people); Nelson Mandela (nurturing democracy and healing society); and Jimmy Carter (globalism with a humanitarian agenda).

“Yet Ari is more than the sum of these noble parts; he is his own unique visionary. And an adroit ‘remixer’ who constantly blends the best of East and West. He adapts our civilisational heritage to tackle the Twenty First Century’s anxieties and uncertainties. Thankfully, though, he doesn’t peddle simplistic solutions to today’s complex problems.

I also recall my first encounter with Ari, in early 1991, when a tyrant leader of Sri Lanka had virtually declared ‘war’ on this unarmed, non-violent small man. I have interviewed him several times since then – the most recent was in March 2011, when I accompanied my journalist friend Aditya Batra from India to talk to Ari (photo, below).

Read the full essay on Groundviews.org: Ari of Sarvodaya: Conscience of a Bruised Nation

Read a compact version of the essay on Light Millennium website (New York)

Read a compact version on Down to Earth magazine (New Delhi): Sri Lanka’s Gandhi Turns 80

L to R - Nalaka Gunawardene, Aditya Batra & Dr A T Ariyaratne of Sarvodaya, March 2011

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Timeless Gandhian advice: Be the change you wish to see in the world…

Biggest gap: between rhetoric and practice!

Biggest gap: between rhetoric and practice!

It happened a decade ago, but I still remember the incident.

I was visiting London while the British Isles were having their typically limited experience with summer. My then colleague and I had gone for a business meeting, and were returning by Tube, or the London underground railway. Being the afternoon rush hour, the trains were packed to capacity.

My colleague didn’t say much on the journey, but I noticed her look of dismay. As we emerged from the tube station, she finally spoke: “Gosh, it’s another world down there, isn’t it? I didn’t know people smell so much!”

The warm and sweaty summer would surely have added to the experience, but as Londoners know well, the tube is the best mode of transport to get around quickly and inexpensively in that metropolis. It was only then that I realised my liberal, bleeding-heart colleague was not a regular user of public transport. She either uses taxis or drives around in her own Volvo car. She doesn’t normally commute with the Great Unwashed…

Yet, the same snooty ex-colleague speaks and writes so passionately on the virtues of public transport and mass transit systems as a means to better manage urban challenges in the developing world. Listening to her, one could hardly imagine her disdain for using public transport in her own city.

Practise what you preach. That’s a simple yet profound piece of advice for everyone promoting public interest causes in development, conservation or anything else. Or, as Mahatma Gandhi put it: you must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Saving the Planet: Living the Change

Saving the Planet: Living the Change

‘Living the change’ is also the title, and underlying message, of one film in Saving the Planet, TVE Asia Pacific’s new regional TV series showcasing communities thinking globally and acting locally.

The series features outstanding efforts in education for sustainable development (ESD) in South and Southeast Asia. It goes in search of answers to these key questions:
• What can ordinary people do for our planet, now under siege from multiple environmental crises?
• How can we change attitudes and lifestyles to consume less and generate less waste?

Here’s the synopsis of the India story:

For people in Dindigul in India’s Tamil Nadu state, waste isn’t really a problem – it’s just a resource in the wrong place. School children and housewives have been at the forefront in collecting household and market waste to turn them into compost. They have not only cleaned up the streets, but also persuaded people to grow organic food. As the word spreads, more towns and villages are emulating this example set by CLEAN India project and Gandhigram Trust.

Watch Saving the Planet: Living the Change

Read more information on this effort on Saving the Planet website.

Full credits and acknowledgements here

Shooting wildlife or wild-life: Environmental film-makers’ dilemma

Speaking of wild-life to a mild audience....

Speaking of wild-life to a mild audience....Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP

The Wildscreen film festival got underway at the British Council Colombo this morning.

The keynote address was delivered by Sri Lankan minister of environment and natural resources. The British Council asked me to speak a few words at the opening as TVE Asia Pacific is a local partner for this event.

Here’s what I said, which sums up why we are in this business:

We are delighted to be partners in hosting Wildscreen film festival in Sri Lanka. We thank our friends at the British Council and Wildscreen festival for this opportunity to join hands.

May I say a brief word about ourselves. We’re Television for Education Asia Pacific — trading as TVE Asia Pacific. We’re a regionally operating media foundation anchored in Colombo and engaging developing countries of Asia. We were set up in 1996 by a group of Asian and European filmmakers and TV professionals to cover the full range of development issues using broadcast television, narrowcast video and now, the web.

We are driven by a belief that what is happening in the world’s largest and most populous region has far-reaching implications not just for our region — but also for the entire planet.

When introducing our work, I like to recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi. Once, when asked by a visiting foreign journalist for his views on wildlife in India, he said: “Sadly, wildlife is declining in our jungles, but wild – life is increasing in our cities.”

It is precisely this wild–life that interests us more. In our work we keep asking: when life itself is going wild, what hope and prospects are there for wildlife, Nature and environment?

For example, we’ve literally just finished a short film looking at environmental restoration of Afghanistan. This will be screened to the environmental minister from around the world who will gather shortly for the UN Environment Programme’s Governing Council meeting in Nairobi.

We can't just walk into a glorious sunset and forget real world challenges - Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP

We can't just walk into a glorious sunset and forget real world challenges - Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP

Capturing wild-life is now the focus and concern of wildlife and environmental film makers everywhere. There was a time, not too long ago, when films used to simply capture the beauty of Nature and the diversity or behaviour of plants and animals. Such documentation is still very necessary and useful — but it’s no longer sufficient.

In the past couple of decades, all film makers have been challenged to look at how our own ‘wild’ ways of living affects:
– each other in our own human species;
– the rest of Nature and other species; and
– also, the future of life on Earth.

We see this transformation reflected in the content of films entering Wildscreen and other film festivals. I saw early signs of this when I served as a juror at Wildscreen 2000 festival. This process has gathered momentum since.

To remain relevant and topical, films can no longer just cover ‘green’ subjects — they have to acknowledge the ‘brown’ issues as well as the harsh black-and-white, life-or-death concerns such as climate change.

At the same time, we have seen a rapid diversification of formats or genres — especially with the emergence of online and mobile platforms. These now compete with broadcast television to engage audiences. This is both good news and bad news for us engaged in film making and film outreach. Yes, we now have more ways of reaching people than ever before. But engaging audiences is harder: people have more choice — and more distractions!

Of course, we can’t just give up the good struggle and walk away into those beautiful sunsets. At TVE Asia Pacific, we believe that making good films is only half the job done. Distributing them far and wide is just as important. This is why the slogan of our own organisation is: Moving images, moving people!

In that process, film festivals such as this one play a key role. We’re very happy to add an extra day of screenings to this event. On Saturday in this auditorium, we’ll be showing a number of films on climate change and sustainable development drawn from our own catalogue of films we distribute to broadcast, civil society and educational users across Asia.

These are small efforts in a big world. I can only hope all these help us in winning history’s greatest race – which, according to H G Wells, is one between education and catastrophe!

Nobel Peace Prize: A ‘Loud speaker’ for quiet peace-makers of our troubled world…

Can five unknown Norwegians achieve the worthy goal that has eluded so many leaders and activists – peace within and among nations of our world?

Well, if the individuals happen to be selectors of the world’s most prestigious prize – the Nobel Peace Prize – they stand a better chance than most people. The Norwegian Nobel Committee, appointed by the country’s parliament for six-year terms, may not be very well known beyond their country but their annual selection reverberates around the world and has changed the course of history in the past century.

But Professor Geir Lundestad, Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, says the Nobel Peace Prize cannot claim to have achieved peace on its own.

“It’s the laureates who work tirelessly and sometimes at great personal risk to pursue peace and harmony in their societies or throughout the world,” he told the international advisory council meeting of Fredskorpset, the Norwegian peace corp, held in Oslo on 4 – 5 September 2008. “With the Nobel Peace Prize, we try to recognise, honour and support the most deserving among them.”

Where high profile laureates are concerned, the prize becomes an additional accolade in their already well known credentials. But for those who are less known in the international media or outside their home countries, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is akin to being handed over a ‘loud speaker’ — it helps to amplify their causes, struggles and voices, he said.

In today’s media-saturated information society, the value of such an amplifier cannot be overestimated, says Lundestad, who also serves as Secretary to the Nobel Peace Prize selection committee. It allows laureates to rise above the cacophony and babble of the Global Village.

Geir Lundestad, Director, Norwegian Nobel Institute (photo from NRK)

Geir Lundestad, Director, Norwegian Nobel Institute (photo from NRK)

Every year in October, Lundestad makes one of the most eagerly awaited announcements to the world media: the winner of that year’s Nobel Peace Prize. He would typically give a 45 minute advance warning to the laureate – this is the famous ‘call from Oslo’ (and ‘call from Stockholm’ for laureates of other Nobel prizes).

Lundestad, who has held his position since 1990, has had interesting experiences in making this call. For example, the 1995 prize was equally divided between the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and Englishman Joseph Rotblat, its founding secretary general, for their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics. But when he received the call, Rotblat had insisted that it was some sort of mistake; the media had hyped the prospect of then British prime minister John Major winning the prize for his work on Northern Ireland peace process. He went for a long walk and wasn’t home when the world’s media beat a path to his door a short while later.

Such early warning to the laureate does not always happen, especially if the media keeps a vigil at the favourite contender’s home or office. When Al Gore and the UN-IPCC were jointly awarded the 2007 prize, Lundestad rang the New Delhi office of IPCC chairman Dr Rajendra Pachauri shortly before the decision was announced in Oslo. Pretending to be a Norwegian journalist, he asked Pachauri’s secretary whether any media representatives were present. Being told yes, he just hung up.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 95 individuals and 20 organizations since it was established in 1901. During this time, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has tried to honour the will of Swedish engineer, chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel. Where the peace prize was concerned, he wrote that it should go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.

To decide who has done the most to promote peace is a highly political matter, and scarcely a matter of cool scholarly judgement, said Prof Lundestad, who is also one of Norway’s best known historians. He described the thorough selection process and the various checks and balances in place so that the prize does not become, even indirectly, an instrument of Norwegian foreign policy.

Notwithstanding these, the peace prize does not have a perfect record in whom it has selected as well as those it has failed to honour. The most glaring omission of all, he said, was Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi was nominated five times – in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, a few days before he was assassinated in January 1948. The rules of the prize at the time allowed posthumous presentation, but the then committee decided not to (although UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld did receive the 1961 prize posthumously after he died in a plane crash). Gandhi’s omission has been publicly regretted by later members of the Nobel Committee; when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi”.
Read Nobel website’s essay: Mahatma Gandhi: The Missing Laureate

Norwegian Parliament that appoints Nobel Peace Prize Committee

Norwegian Parliament that appoints Nobel Peace Prize Committee

The prize does not have a very good track record in gender balance either. Only 12 of the 95 individual winners are women. Heroines of Peace: profiles of women winners (up to 1997)

And a few laureates may not have deserved to be so honoured – but Lundestad won’t name any for now (he likes his job and wants to keep it). Perhaps one day, after retirement, he might write a book where this particular insight could be shared.

Controversy has been a regular feature of the prize – both over its selections and exclusions. This is only to be expected when thousands of nominations are received every year, and given the high level political message the selection sends out to the world.

Despite its flaws, there is little argument that the Nobel Peace Prize is the most prestigious of all awards and prizes in the world. At Swedish Krona 10 million, or a little over 1.5 million US Dollars, it isn’t the most lavish prize – but much richer prizes lack the brand recognition this one has achieved over the decades. And it is the best known among over 100 peace prizes in the world.

In recent years, the committee has steadily expanded the scope of the prize to recognise the nexus between peace, human security and environmental degradation (Wangaari Mathaai in 2004; Al Gore and IPCC in 2007) and the link between poverty and peace (Mohammud Yunus, 2006).

The most important question, to many historians and scholars of peace, is the political and social impact of the Nobel Peace Prize. Lundestad is being too modest when he says that it’s the laureates, not the prize itself, that has achieved progress in various spheres ranging from nuclear disarmament and humanitarian intervention to safeguarding human rights and poverty reduction.

“We may have contributed — and that is quite enough,” he says. “We don’t claim to have ended the Cold War, or apartheid in South Africa.”

But the prize’s influence and catalytic effect are indisputable. When the 1983 prize was given to Polish trade union leader Lech Walesa, it triggered a whole series of events that eventually led to the crumbling of the Iron Curtain, collapse of the Berlin Wall and the eventual disintegration of the once mighty Soviet Union. The process culminated when Mikhail Gorbachev became the 1990 laureate.
Read Nobel Peace Prize: Revelations from the Soviet Past

In another example, over the years there have been four South African laureates – Albert Lutuli (1960), Bishop Desmond Tutu (1984), Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk (sharing 1993 prize). Lundestad says: “But we would never claim that the prize was a major factor in ending apartheid in South Africa. The prize was part of the wider international support that built up and sustained pressure on the white minority government. In some respects, the 1960 prize to Lutuli may have been the most significant – for it triggered a process that culminated in the early 1990s.”

He acknowledges, however, that in hot spots like Burma, East Timor and South Africa, the Nobel Peace Prize has enhanced the profile of key political activists and helped maintain the international community’s and media’s interest in these long drawn struggles.

And as Lundestad and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee of five unknown Norwegians know all too well, there is much unfinished business in our troubled and quarrelsome world seeking an elusive peace.

Read Geir Lundestad’s 2001 essay on the first century of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Read his 1999 essay ‘Reflections on the Nobel Peace Prize’

Watch a 2005 interview by University of California television, where host Harry Kreisler talks with Geir Lundestad. They discuss the Nobel Peace Prize, its history, impact and the controversy surrounding some of the awardees (December 2005):