Sevanatha; a case study of an NGO


What kind of development programme works?

There is  a lot of discussion around this question; should it be top down or bottom up? I guess that at the end of the day it has to be about what works and what is sustainable.

Governments in many developed world countries are involved in the financing of expensive development projects in Africa, South Asia and South America, but the effectiveness and relevance of these projects is quite often questioned, as are the motives behind the giving. Do these expensive top down projects really work? Do they really meet the needs of the populations of developing countries and are they sustainable?

Development programmes not only need to be relevant to the needs of local people they also should be acceptable. To ensure that is the case local people need to be listened to and they need to be involved in all aspects of the decision making process; identification of need, planning and implementation. Without that the key criteria of relevance and acceptability are unlikely to be met.

One organisation which does make a difference is a Sri Lankan NGO: Sevanatha. Founded 25 years ago it works with local communities at grass roots level to bring about change to the lives of the urban poor.

Sevanatha:   Meeting the needs of local people:


Earlier in the year I paid a visit to Sevanatha a small NGO based in Colombo, Sri Lanka; this is their story.

Vision and Mission

” To be a dynamic change agent for transforming the lives of urban and rural poor to be self reliant and empowered members in the Sri Lankan society. ” and “to revitalize and enhance the capacities and creativity of urban and rural poor in Sri Lanka. “


There is no significant rural to urban migration flow in Sri Lanka and there are no large areas of squatter settlement in Colombo BUT there are a significant number of people living in under served settlements or USS for short. Most of these settlements have been in place for a long time. In the USS the main problems are:

  • no security of tenure
  • poor or non-existent services; eg. legal electric supply, clean water supply, inside toilets, made up roadways
  • poor sanitation, polluted ditches and canals, garbage strewn
  • overcrowding
  • poor personal security
  • low incomes

One such area is Seevalipura


photo credit : phil brighty

Seevalipura is the biggest underserved settlement in Colombo. It houses 300 families and roughly 15000 people. The settlement which is on the eastern edge of Colombo dates back to the 1930’s when migrants from rural areas came to Colombo to work in the expanding industries around the capital. Government provision of housing could not keep pace with population growth and so informal squatter settlement grew up. In !984/6 Seevalipura was declared a special project area and electricity and water supply were brought in. Even so the area has remained poor; very much a working class neighbourhood with low income and poverty the main threat to local people.


  • narrow streets
  • high density building
  • paved road surface
  • power provided

The area is clean quite neat and well tended, but it might not always have been like this. The reason for the improvements you see comes down to the amount of pressure that the local people were able to exert on Colombo Municipal Council. For neighbourhoods to be able to do this, to feel confident enough to do this the people living in them have to become communities with a common interest and purpose. That is where an NGO like Sevanatha comes in.

What does Sevanatha do?

Don’t assume that the local people living in the USS are happy with their situation or don’t want to see improvements to their environment; they do. The problem is how to go about getting the changes they want. That is where Sevanatha fits in. It doesn’t fund projects directly, although it does provide “seed” money for a limited number of exemplar projects.

Instead the focus is on providing advice and support to local people to organise themselves so that they feel empowered to make their case to the municipal authorities.. So representatives from Sevanatha work with locally elected community leaders to identify projects which the community see as necessary. Emphasis is placed upon;

  • organisation of local people
  • increasing the capability of the community leaders through training, workshops and education
  • helping to develop both hard and soft skills within the settlement; eg building and construction, negotiation with council officials, management of contracts, representation at municipal council meetings, understanding of recycling, environmental management.
  • building self confidence

In this way people in the community become empowered, they are encouraged to take responsibilty and to make the key decisions and this type of approach is sustainable because:

  1. local people are involved
  2. they get the projects that they want
  3. the work (often carried out by members of the community) is cheaper
  4. and better quality
  5. the USS aren’t reliant on external funding
  6. they manage the links they build with their local councils  and are not dependent upon outside help

The projects themselves are often quite small scale; like the building of this toilet block for example. The thing is that the locals were consulted and this is what THEY wanted. Why did they want it? Well because before it was a latrine, not connected to the main sewer system, it was not cleaned the units had no doors. There was minimal privacy and securtity especially for girls and younger women. What they wanted was modern connected toilets, with lockable doors. In the scale of things this is not a big project; but then devlopment doesn’t have to be.


photo credit phil brighty

It may not look much but it is fully plumbed in, the doors lock, the units get cleaned regularly and everyone feels more comfortable using them now.

This paved area in another small USS may not look much but again it was better than  the muddy track that was there before. Again it was what the locals wanted not something that was foisted upon them.


photo credit; phil brighty

in another project local people are involved in recycling dry waste particularly for compost which has formed the basis of a company MEC pvt ltd. Check this out

What that does is show local people how they can acquire business skills whilst creating a greener environment.

For the full list of projects Sevanatha is involved with check out

Final thought

For me the key question is; does this NGO make a lasting and significant difference to the lives of the people and to the local environment? Sevanatha does this on both fronts not least because, instead of throwing money at a problem and wandering off to the next problem area; they work with local people they create the conditions for sustainable development in the community and they stick around to monitor its success. Money isn’t wasted on expensive 4 x 4 cars, high salaries and apartments for ex-pats or expensive education for the ex pat children (as it was in the post tsunami era). In fact money isn’t wasted at all. What they do though is they help people harvest the skills within the community and put them to good use.

Sevanatha is not  glamorous and doesn’t make a big noise about itself BUT it ought to be celebrated for what it does in its quiet and effective way. Maybe the big NGO’s could take a leaf from the Sevanatha book.

For more details of Sevanatha and what it does go to

Funding and Partnerships

  • Sevanatha is funded by Homeless International which is currently supporting SEVANATHA to implement a project funded by UK Aids; UNESCAP, The Asian Coalition for housing rights
  • Sevanatha is partners with a wide range of organisations including: Citynet Yokohama, The Women’s Co-operative Bank in Colombo and local municipal councils across Sri Lanka

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