Posted July 1996
by Cameron Clark
In 1989, the People's Participation Programme assigned a female Group Promoter (GP) to two neighbouring villages in the Galgamuwa Division of Kurunegala District. Within two years, nine PPP groups had been created and were functioning to the point that the members felt a need for greater inter-group cooperation. Total group membership included 87 individuals comprising one all-male group, five female groups and three youth/children groups. Being small farmers, their economic activities centred on upland agriculture, including non-irrigated paddy production.
The first meeting of the inter-group association (known as a Village Board, or VB) was held on 3 July 1991. A chairperson, secretary and treasurer were selected by the group members at an open meeting called by the GP. Regular monthly meetings have been held since then. Since 1993 the VB has been functioning without the support of a GP owing to a reduction in project budget. By the end of 1995 the number of participating groups has declined to six - five female and one youth group - totalling 44 individuals. The one male group has become inactive.
In accordance with project guidelines, each group has two representatives on the VB. From this number, a chairperson, secretary and treasurer is selected to serve for a period of one year. It was understood from the outset that rotation of leadership each year would be encouraged, and this has become the normal practice in the primary groups. The selection of representatives from each group is based on their availability, regular attendance at group meetings and proven performance in the group.
At the end of six months, in an effort to focus on areas of specific need and to foster the concept of shared leadership, the project recommended each VB to establish seven sub-committees to be headed by different VB members. The committees were:
This structure has continued to the present in accordance with a written constitution developed by the members themselves. However, the chair for the first two years was held by the same man, for reasons unclear. Another male was elected for the third year. From the fourth year, however, all posts have been filled by females, as the male group has become inactive. The reason given for its inactivity was that their wives are already members of one of the female groups and they are too busy to attend regular weekly meetings which, in their opinion, deal mainly with petty matters.
As members of the adult groups are all female, the growth and development of female leadership within the VB has been outstanding. Prior to the Project only one female member had ever served in a leadership position in her village (chairperson of the traditional village religious women's group) and only 5 other members had ever felt confident enough to even join that group, which supposedly was for all village women.
Selection of their two representatives for each year is based on rotating leadership posts. However, one of the two should continue for two years to ensure continuity. All posts are filled through a process of consensus. After full discussion among the members as to the person most suited (or most in need of the experience for her/his future development and that of the group), someone formally proposes that person and unanimous agreement is reached. In instances when this is not possible and two or more names are proposed, each member present is asked to list the names in order of preference on a separate piece of paper. These are then tallied in front of everyone and the person getting the greatest number of first choices is selected. Open voting is discouraged as they feel it damages group harmony.
The VB members stressed that it is not necessarily the chairperson, secretary or treasurer of a PPP group who is selected by the members to represent them on the VB. A deliberate effort to develop new leaders from amongst the poor has been a hallmark of the project.
A normal VB meeting consists of reports by each group on their progress and problems, followed by discussion and, when requested, suggestions for improvement. This practice has become a type of regular monitoring and problem-solving, which builds up inter-group unity and records success through public recognition. Requests for bank credit from groups are given priority attention as VB endorsement is a requirement before banks will release money.
Every three months a General Assembly is held and all group members are encouraged to attend. Its purpose is to give the general members an understanding and feel for the importance of the VB in their daily lives - first hand information on VB activities is better than getting it through the group VB representatives, which is often poorly relayed. The meeting also provides an opportunity to promote and organize community undertakings, such as tree planting or temple maintenance. Development officers find them an effective extension vehicle. One group had managed to secure a large nursery contract with the Forestry Department; it was able to use the VB meeting to share out the work with other groups, to the benefit of all.
The VB fund, as of November 1995, was Rs. 775 (about $15), built up over time through monthly contributions from each group of Rs. 5. It is used to purchase such small things as record books for the secretary or treasurer, to provide tea for each meeting and to reimburse VB members for their bus fares if they need to visit the Bank or Government officials on VB business. Members who are required to attend any special training related to improving the performance of VBs may also be reimbursed the cost of hiring someone to do his/her normal work while away on training.
The VB has made tentative plans to start building up its VB Fund by getting each member to contribute 1 kg of paddy, to be milled and sold. The proceeds will then be lent back to the groups for productive purposes at 2 percent interest/month (the Bank rate is 1.5 percent) and thereby contribute to their own development. The VB also plans to make bulk purchases of certain inputs on behalf of the groups. The groups have proven their capacity to generate savings as their individual group saving funds total almost Rs.40,000/. They feel the same results can be achieved at VB level.
Members feel this to be the most valuable contribution made by the VB. They help solve each other's problems and through the process build up group strength and feelings of unity.
For example, one group was having difficulties in maintaining accurate records. Their two VB representatives revealed the problem during their monthly report to the Board. The VB then arranged for one of its members from another group with good experience in record keeping, to visit the group and to help straighten out the matter. Another group was having a problem agreeing on which seven of their members should receive a new latrine base, being provided free by the Department of Health. The problem came to the attention of the VB during one of its monthly meetings. It suggested that those seven families which first completed preparation for installation of the units would be given priority. The VB monitored the matter to the satisfaction of all.
A group requiring bank credit must present its Group Production Plan to the VB for endorsement and signature by the VB chairperson, secretary and the two members on the Credit Committee. Initially the banks required the signature of the GP as well as a copy of the minutes of the VB meeting at which approval was granted.
The VB also assists a group to monitor its loan repayment. From the end of the first month of the bank loan, groups are encouraged to repay at least the month's accumulated interest. This is done to reduce the problem of having to repay the full amount, including interest, on the loan's due date. This practice was started from 1993, after several groups had experienced defaults due to poor discipline and an absence of monitoring. If repayment on the due date is not forthcoming, the VB Credit Committee visits the defaulting group and evaluates the circumstances. If legitimate, due to drought, pests etc. the VB will support the group's letter of request to the Bank for rescheduling of the loan.
Most of the group members have opened individual savings accounts at a bank. This has come about due to persistent pressure from the VB. Good relations with the local People's Bank have been established and maintained from the outset. On several instances the VB has even been able to get the Bank to open individual savings accounts for group members unable to secure their own Identity Card. The Bank has also agreed to lower the minimum deposit required to open a savings account for PPP group members from Rs.250.00 to Rs.50.00. As noted earlier, the group savings of these five groups has totalled almost Rs.40,000/-. It may be assumed that much of the credit for the success in the area of savings is due to the emphasis given it by the members of the VB, since its inception.
The VB has been able to establish good relations with the field extension workers of several government departments by directly visiting them and their senior officers. Based on the specific needs of the group, as expressed during the monthly VB meetings, verbal and written requests are submitted to the appropriate agency. Agricultural Extension has organized several field demonstrations on member's fields, including pest control of chillies, improved varieties of bananas, pigeon peas, maize production and improve techniques for establishing chilli nurseries.
In response to written requests from the VB, Agricultural Extension staff have provided improved planting material for lime trees and improved seeds for a variety of crops. In the case of the lime trees, only six were available for free distribution. The VB was able to select the six families most in need of such assistance.
Many examples were provided by VB members of training courses organized for group members at the specific request of the VB. Its main function has been to consolidate the training needs of the various groups and to arrange for suitable locations and dates. In many cases, the training is given to the appropriate VB committee members, who in turn organize and conduct the training for the interested group members. VB funds are used to cover the expenses incurred by such trainers.
The chairperson and the secretary of the VB had attended the regular monthly meetings of the Inter Village Board Federation (IVBF) up until May 1995. However, in June the IVBF elected a new Board of Directors without inviting any of the VBs from Kurunegala District to participate. A letter of protest has been sent to the IVBF but to date no reply has been received. This problem is seriously affecting the functioning of the VB, particularly in the areas of bank credit and training.
Relations with neighbouring VBs, however remains good. One neighbouring VB was experiencing a dispute amongst its members. The Padipanchawa VB was asked to help resolve the problem. Two members visited it and helped correct the situation.
A programme somewhat similar to the PPP called the Change Agents Programme, sponsored by the Ministry of Planning, has recently formed two groups in the project area. Two VB members want to also join this programme while remaining on the VB. The VB will discuss this problem at their next meeting.
Three VB members have also recently joined a local Farmers Organization (FO), created under the Ministry of Agriculture's "Ama" small farmer development programme. The future relationship of the VB with the FO is also to be discussed at their next meeting. The female VB members expressed a fear that the FO would be male dominated. They would like to be able to form their own FO, if possible, to ensure that their unique needs as female farmers are adequately met.
Several VB members have also joined the women's group known as "Kulangamie Samithi", being organized in the area by the Sri Lanka Women's Bureau. As this organization is close to the Divisional Secretary, they feel it necessary to belong since "50 percent of all land problems" are handled by him. Basically, the women feel it is necessary to join all programmes in order to be eligible for any of their benefits and services.