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TamilChangemakers Insights: Sri Lanka’s National Crisis - How the Tamil Diaspora can Help
"We can sit around and talk about this all we want, but as the diaspora it is important that we recognise the role we can realistically play to help those most marginalized in Sri Lanka now. We have to recognise that part of our identity is service - service to those communities that have created that identity and provided us that heritage and a place to call our homeland. I feel that while there is a resurgence of Tamil identity amongst the diaspora youth, there sadly hasn't been a resurgence in giving and philanthropy amongst the next generation."
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Abarna Raj's insights appeared in our April TamilChangemakers Newsletter. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter here and join our private LinkedIn group here.
 
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As Sri Lanka deals with the worst economic crisis since independence, it’s important to reflect on the role the Tamil diaspora can play and where we can have impact beyond politics.
 
There are various factors which have led to the current situation. The voting in of a nationalistic agenda driven by the need to reaffirm majority identity is not a phenomenon unique to Sri Lanka in the global context of Brexit, Trump and Putin. The Easter bombings played into this fear as well. What we have started to see is that when you overemphasize one dimension (nationalism) at the expense of others (financial management, good governance, development, prosperity etc) you end up with a crisis.
 
I like to believe in mobilization, but protests will not be enough. Real change in systems are required. Overthrowing a government may provide some temporary reprieve but in Sri Lanka’s history we’ve seen that it usually just paves the way for another organized party willing to fulfill the role – this is not what is needed for real change.
 
What is life like on the ground?
 
From power cuts, price increase and curfews to a lack of transportation and military presence, the negative impacts are far reaching, across all socioeconomic backgrounds.
 
The rural poor are used to hardship, so while this is a challenging time, they are also resilient. For the urban middle class and upper class, this hardship is new. April is traditionally Sri Lanka’s hottest month and for many the first time they've experienced discomforts like not having air-conditioning or fans.
 
However, it is always the poorest who will experience the greatest long-term impacts and whose livelihoods and futures are most at risk.
 
Many of the rural poor who have rebuilt their lives after the war now travel as laborers for work. Without reliable transport, their ability to access work and earn an income to support their families is cut off. There has also been a significant reduction in job opportunities as many retailers and small to medium sized businesses (where many of the rural poor work as laborers) are unable to access the required goods to keep their businesses running.
 
Fertilizers, which are required by many farmers, are hard to access and are too expensive. Farmers are concerned about the impacts on their crops and yields this year and in years to come.
 
What can people do?
 
Donate. We can sit around and talk about this all we want, but as the diaspora it is important that we recognise the role we can realistically play to help those most marginalized in Sri Lanka now. We have to recognise that part of our identity is service - service to those communities that have created that identity and provided us that heritage and a place to call our homeland. I feel that while there is a resurgence of Tamil identity amongst the diaspora youth, there sadly hasn't been a resurgence in giving and philanthropy amongst the next generation.
 
Many young people are concerned about hand-out and traditional charity approaches, and rightfully so.
 
While well-meaning and certainly impactful to some and in a crisis, what we really need to focus on as the diaspora is strengthening communities and ecosystems. We cannot risk creating reliance and a handout mentality.
 
We didn’t want this narrative to stop the Diaspora from engaging so we have been working hard over the last decade to establish an evidence based holistic way of working. Palmera’s work is about longer term sustainability, not just a handout. You can learn a little more about our way of working here - Palmera - How we work on Vimeo.
 
During this crisis we will be supporting communities and families to ensure their food security and their connections to market – jump on our website and support. Working together, we can create change – www.palmera.org.
 
Abarna Raj, a lawyer by training, started her career as a social strategy consultant at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, working with companies to create shared value by aligning social impact with overarching business strategy. She then led the sustainability portfolio at Leighton, Australia’s largest construction and mining services company. Following this, she continued her passion for social strategy consulting at Social Ventures Australia, broadening her clientele to Government agencies and Not for Profits. In 2014, Abarna co-founded Palmera Projects, a development agency that works in Sri Lanka to help vulnerable families earn a living income.
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