* This interview was first published in May 2022 in ICAN’s Annual Report 2021.
Through ICAN’s Innovative Peace Fund (IPF), we have supported the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW) in Sri Lanka since 2013. Since 1998, AWAW has been a leading voice in promoting peace, justice, and reconciliation in Sri Lanka with a unique vantage point of being locally-rooted, working with women across the country’s ethnic and religious communities, and engaging the government, parliament, and security sectors.
Visaka Dharmadasa, Founder and Chair of AWAW, spoke to our IPF Program Director, France Bognon, about how flexible funding in their project yielded unexpected results.
France Bognon: What was the initial project you proposed and what changed?
Visaka Dharmadasa: Our project seeks to promote reconciliation from multiple viewpoints. Since the Easter Bombings in 2019, our society has been even more polarized and online hate speech has been a serious concern. At AWAW, we have held workshops for women and youth to provide them with the awareness and tools for combatting this divisive and dangerous phenomenon. We carried out the initial part of this training with 36 civil society actors and planned to conduct other trainings with university students. However, we were unable to because of COVID-19, and were forced to think again. Having the flexibility to change our activities allowed us to take a new approach. We conducted an analysis of the peace process in Sri Lanka to understand what has gone wrong and what role civil society was playing in peacebuilding.
We assembled 15 key civil society actors from diverse backgrounds, religions, and professions to collaborate on this research. The group has since formalized and is now known as the Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus (SLCC). We didn’t originally anticipate forming this collective. We thought we would focus only on the research as individual actors, but the project’s flexibility gave us the freedom to form this group, resulting in unexpected impacts that will continue far past the end of this project’s implementation period.
We thought we would focus only on the research as individual actors, but the project’s flexibility gave us the freedom to form this group, resulting in unexpected impacts that will continue far past the end of this project’s implementation period.
France Bognon: What was the impact of creating the Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus (SLCC)?
Visaka Dharmadasa: SLCC engagements have contributed to major shifts within the government. The SLCC engages with the government to promote reconciliation and good governance. This has historically been a challenge because the government has a reputation of suppressing civil society. However, the SLCC engaged in honest and frank dialogues with the government. As a result, we were able to successfully transfer the NGO Secretariat, which was originally housed in the Ministry of Defense, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This shift has enabled greater dialogue between civil society organizations (CSOs) and the Sri Lankan (SL) government and created more space for CSOs to operate.
Now the SL government is more willing to engage with different actors. This was witnessed when the UK Minister for South Asia, North Africa, and the United Nations Lord Ahmad [of Wimbledon] came to Sri Lanka and met the President and Foreign Minister. The President asked Lord Ahmad to organize a meeting with Sri Lankan diaspora. This was a new signal that the government is more willing to engage with this population, which is a strong indication of reconciliation. Because of the tense relationship between CSOs and the government, the SLCC has received criticism for engaging with state. However, we made it clear that dialogue is a technique of peacebuilding, and we will speak with all parties if it will bring peace. Even if they are perpetrators of violence, if engaging in dialogue could save a life, we will speak with them. That is what differentiates us as peacebuilders.
We made it clear that dialogue is a technique of peacebuilding, and we will speak with all parties if it will bring peace.
France Bognon: How did the IPF’s flexible funding mechanism enable you to have greater impact in your community?
Visaka Dharmadasa: Without the flexibility and trust that came with the IPF grant, the SLCC wouldn’t have existed. We wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet with the SL President and other senior government officials. I was able to accept meetings and explore opportunities with government and other key stakeholders that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. By being able to use our funds for things like travel and accommodation, we were not dependent on others and were able to maintain a position of neutrality – which is essential for our legitimacy. There is unanticipated potential when organizations have the flexibility to adapt and adjust as new situations present themselves. If flexibility and trust are there, then you can get back the results of every penny you put in. Multi-year funding is also extremely important because it gives you the assurance for the next year.