He could have remained a community teacher doing a 10-to-5 job in a little-known village in Sri Lanka. But P. A. Kiriwandeniya, inspired by Mao Zedong and Mahatma Gandhi, wanted to “do something for the poor masses”. So he quit his government job of a community teacher to work with a local community savings society. At that time, the island state’s banking system ignored small borrowers and the non-plantation rural sector, leading to a burgeoning thrift and credit movement. Finding the local organization staid and too small, Kiriwandeniya launched experiments to expand lending and borrowing at the grassroots and in 1978, founded SANASA.
SANASA means thrift and credit society, standing for collective saving and banking. Today, the NGO has 805,000 members and says it has reached out to over 3 million people. It is a three-tiered body with the SANASA Federation at the top, followed by district unions and primary societies at the grassroot level. There are about 8,400 primary societies spread nationwide.
The key working areas are poverty alleviation with schemes to provide micro credit and financial services to rural communities who have no access to formal banking; environment conservation; and development education. It also lays emphasis on gender representation. Nearly 57 percent of its members are women.
SANASA functions through four channels: Banking, marketing, construction, and insurance. Members pay a fee which collectively creates an initial fund used to provide loans. Members taking loans have to pay an agreed-upon interest on the sum and the income the interest generates then goes into the original pool of money to create more funds available for further loans.
Kiriwandeniya, now 70 but still tireless, says he drew inspiration from his uncle, an “obsessed activist” devoted to improving villagers’ lives. His father managed a village cooperative society and his mother was a housewife.
“We were villagers living far away from the comforts of city life,” he says. “No paved roads, no drinking water, no library. Having a telephone was a luxury. It was a remote village, obscure in every sense.”
After infusing new vigor into the micro credit movement for nearly 15 years, SANASA felt it needed its own bank to deposit its savings and borrow during times of need. The members chipped in to collect an initial share capital of 121 million Sri Lankan rupees (nearly $930,000) and on Aug 25, 1997, the SANASA Development Bank (SDB) was born. Today, SANASA and SDB together have a capital of 23 billion Sri Lankan rupees. Kiriwandeniya is chairman of the bank.
“The best part is that SANASA caters to the individual needs of people with customized products and services,” he says.
According to him, feudalism and colonialism are the worst curses for mankind — so are beggary and slavery.
That largely explains why Kiriwandeniya keeps “telling poor people not to beg, but to borrow, make productive use of the money and repay it when it is due”.
“It is a tribute to people’s power and participation,” he says about the organizations he has fathered. “We try and promote people’s inherent talent and skills and make sure they mobilize their own capital in a group format and pursue their goals. We offer a blend of state and private-controlled financial options.”
Kiriwandeniya says SDB does not depend on foreign financing and offers more then credit. “We also provide solutions to a whole lot of needs and problems. For instance, we guide farmers on what to do when crops are poor, advise whether a business move is wise or not, even ensure that villagers get quality drinking water.”
SDB also helps primary-level education in villages through scholarships and funds to buy computers. It is still assisting in rehabilitation programs in the wake of the tsunami in 2004 that killed over 30,000 people in Sri Lanka and left tens of thousands of people homeless. “All these are part of the community program, our main mission,” he says.
Kiriwandeniya describes SDB as a bank with a difference which puts over 20 percent of its profits into corporate social responsibility funds. “Social responsibility will remain the chief focus of our engagements,” he says.
In 1990 Kiriwandeniya visited China for the first time. “(The economy) was just beginning to take off,” he reminisces. “I was greatly surprised to see how everyone was involved in their country’s development through a community-based production system. It was also fruitful for my bank.”
He visited China several times after that and traveled extensively. “What really impresses me the most is their willingness to learn from almost everything,” he remarks. “We have a very good example in recent times. With Europe and the United States going through bad times, China has taken measures to reduce its dependence on exports. It’s a very judicious move because it knows it has a huge domestic market to fall back on.”
In his view, the same prescription can work very well in Sri Lanka, which has a population of about 21 million. “We can easily build a strong domestic market, which will go a long way in improving the living standards of people,” he says.
Kiriwandeniya opposes the dominance of the dollar, which he calls a “symbol of slavery” for Asian countries. “It is time for more cooperation, stronger integration between Asia countries,” he says. “We have no dearth of talent and have some of the finest minds and brains. Asia has Japan, China, South Korea and India. All these countries have made significant progress in every field — science, technology, arts and commerce.”
In 1996, Kiriwandeniya received the Vishwaprasadani Presidential Award, one of Sri Lanka’s highest and most prestigious national honours. In 2005, when the state-owned commercial People’s Bank was going through a crisis, he was asked by the government to take over as its chairman. His two-year stint from 2005 saw the bank recover.
“Managing the People’s Bank was a great learning experience,” he says. “I learnt a lot of things about how to run a commercial bank.”
In 2008, Forbes ranked SDB third among 600-odd micro finance institutions.
Kiriwandeniya is often called Sri Lanka’s Muhammad Yunus, after the Nobel laureate economist from Bangladesh whose visionary micro credit system has helped a huge number of people in Bangladesh achieve financial self-sufficiency.
“Maybe our philosophy and goals are the same, but our approaches are different,” he says. “SDB is basically a cooperative bank that treats customers as its partners.”
For many successful people, there is a natural temptation to join politics, win elections and enter the corridors of power.
“Such thoughts have never crossed my mind though we work closely with the government and ministers,” he says. “We have been able to distance ourselves from political parties but we do need and seek their help.”
He is “happy and content”, but says a lot more can be done.
“I have decided to visit the countryside more often and try and educate young people,” he says. “I’ll explain to them the value of sustainability, what should be their ideal role in society, how they can define and prepare their own goals and achieve them.”
That’s the firm resolution of the septuagenarian.
P. A. KIRIWANDENIYA
SANASA Development Bank (SDB)
2007-present: Chairman, SDB.
2005-2007: Chairman, People’s Bank.
1997-2005: Chairman, SDB.
1990-1997: Consultant, International Affairs, Canadian Cooperative Association.
1985-1995: Consultant, Canadian Cooperative Association.
1977-1978: Research officer, International Cooperative Alliance.
1976-1977: Deputy coordinator, National Heritage Program.
1972-1975: Director, Development Education, Sarvodaya Movement.
1965-1972: Assistant teacher, Education Department.
1965: Bachelor of Arts in Social Science from Vidyodaya University, Nugegoda, Sri Lanka.
Awards and honors:
2002: Goodwill ambassador, Sri Lanka United Nations Friendship Organization.
1996: Vishwaprasadini Presidential Award, Presidential Secretariat, Sri Lanka.
What inspires you?
With whom do you feel happiest?
My family, children and grandchildren.
Your favorite hobby?
Working for villagers.
Most challenging experience?
Everything I do is a challenge.
Any action you regret?
I never regret my decision or action.
You are currently reading?
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle, a German-born Canadian author.
Born: Nov 14, 1941.