© 2023 Dr Margaret Sheppard

Janashakthi Bank Janashakthi Bank Meetings Social Development

Janashakthi Bank

A Sri Lankan approach to poverty relief through consultation and empowerment of the people


The search for an effective and long lasting policy to relieve and eradicate poverty can perhaps all too often be much like the ancient search for the Iegendary Holy Grail.  Relief has frequently merely crushed local initiatives, proven inappropriate, or resulted in the recipients becoming dependent on free hand-outs.

During January and February 1994  I was given the opportunity to observe what so far seems to be a very effective system - the Janashakthi Programme based on the Janashakthi Bank Society. I was privileged to meet members of the Janashakthi Bank in Hambantota District in Southern Sri Lanka and to observe the workings of this unique bank. Although like any other bank it provides credit and savings facilities to its members, it is unusual in that not only must all the members be women, but also, on joining, they must be poor - their household, incomes must be less than 1500 Sri Lankan rupees per month (approx. £21). The bank js run for and by its members. In addition, apart from

providing conventional banking facilities the Janashakthi Bank is an agent of social and economic change - encompassing a programme that promotes all aspects of social and economic development for its members.

What follows summarises my observations.

(Please note that the following descriptions and outlines mostly relate to the period 1994-5.)


Brief History of the Janashakthi Bank

Hambantota District is situated in the Dry Zone of Southern Sri Lanka. The unreliable rainfall has been important in causing this district to be one of the poorest areas of this lush and fertile tropical  island. It was the social effect

of poverty and debt on the people living in the jungle villages of this district that formed the background to Leonard Woolf's early twentieth century novel "A Village in the Jungle" which is set in this area. Leonard Woolf knew this

area well.  Durirg his three years as the Assistant Government Agent he had travelled the whole district on horseback, foot or bicycle. (After resigning from the Colonial Service in 1912, he returned to England where he married the writer Virginia Woolf. They founded the Publishing Company, the Hogarth Press.)

Although Woolf is describing the first decade of the twentieth century, many conditions were little better in the 1980s.  Many development projects had been short-lived, inappropriate, or largely ineffectual. Then in the late 1980s Hambantota District suffered from terrible, politically inspired riots which tore the local communities apart and further impoverished the people. But the local government adopted a bold philosophy to promote long-lasting development in the District, it was decided to encourage self reliance rather than dependence among the poor who were to be involved in their own development at all stages as subjects rather than objects. To mitigate this, senior officers from the Hambantota District Secretariat toured the villages and hamlets holding local meetings, listening to the people and

encouraging them to speak out and express their own ideas of their problems - why they were poor and what help they thought they needed. In addition the same questions were asked in social surveys that were conducted throughout the District at about the same time.

Results from the public meetings and surveys showed that the main problems were ill-health, low educational levels, poor nutrition, debt , land shortage and lack oi credit facilities. These problems were inter-related. Ill-health often being caused by poor sanitation through poverty, lack of education (e.g. not having children immunized or poor nutrition). Debts would increase during acute or chronic periods of family illnesses. Then if death resulted further debts were incurred from funeral expenses. Lack of credit further increased indebtedness as the poor ( with no collateral) had no access to bank loans and could only borrow at exorbitant rates of interest from the village money lenders.

The Government Agent and his staff quickly realized that these problems would need to be addressed if lasting development was to be achieved. The innovative meetings continued and developed into an approach which is best

expressed by the Sinhala term Janashaktharanaya which means empowerment of the people. In this case it meant that the poor people were to be given the power to develop themselves. This "power" was not to take the form of "hand-

outs" that would only serve to increase dependency but rather the people were to be assisted to define the reasons for their problems and poverty and then be assisted lo find the solutions. In this way they would be empowered

to develop themselves, their families, and communities and so break the cycle of poverty.

Thus they participate in their own development. At every stage they are involved in decision and policy making. A policy of development is not imposed upon them by outsiders who all too often in the past have failed to understand

the underlying causes of their poverty and thus have been unable to bring about any lasting development to these communities.

Another important fact discovered by the surveys and meetings was that unemployment was not a major problem. Most people had jobs, but the problem was rather one of very low incomes. That is family incomes were not enough

to provide for the basic needs of the family. Insufficient income was further adding to the burden of ever increasing family debts, particularly in times of inflation and crises e.g. illness, monsoon storms destroying houses, family deaths requiring funeral expenses, marriages and other traditional ceremonial occasions etc..

Mrs G.A Premalatha, a founder member of the Janashakthi Bank Society, conducting a survey to assess  problems and needs


Many of these JBS members and their families were severely affected by the Asian Tsunami on Boxing Day 2004. Not only were their several deaths as many were attending the sea front weekly Hambantota Market. The terrible waves swept away all in their path - shoppers, stall holders , goods etc. The coastal villages lost their fishing fleets, many boats having been bought with JBS loans. JBS members inland lost their vegetables, fruits and small enterprise products they had supplied on credit to the market traders etc. etc.

Despite all this terrible devastation JBS members were used to supporting and helping each other. They worked together to rebuild their livelihoods and homes and by 2006 although those lost could never be returned they had largely through the Janashakthi spirit of group work and co-operation rebuilt their lives.

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