Employability, empowerment, sustainable development: The Berendina difference

Thursday, 5 April 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Holistic sustainable development spans a gamut of inclusive features, where a combination of funding, skills development, contact networks, livelihood upliftment, lifestyle development and good health work together and in tandem to create the apt milieu of total community development and thus, individual and community empowerment.

This also cascades to sustained contribution by the rural communities into economic pathways, permeating into myriad aspects of uplifting the national economy as well.

“The creation and construction of a strong financial foundation, which is complemented with tangible and intangible features of sustainable development has been the extraordinary story of Berendina,” stated Chairman of Berendina Stichting, Hein Princen, at the Berendina 25th anniversary celebrations held recently.

This story of commitment and energy, innovation and change was further accentuated when Chief Guest, Ambassador to the Netherlands L.W.M. Piet stated: “With Economic Diplomacy being the buzzword at The Hague, here in Sri Lanka, a part of what we as diplomats are tasked with is to spur positive economic change on the ground. I see significant increases in bilateral trade among our two countries, nearly a 30% rise from 2010 and you will see Dutch investment in manifold areas, whether it’s in industries like manufacturing, processing, health and fisheries or in infrastructure development. But, when there is proactive contribution from organisations like Berendina, this economic contribution gains manifold enhancement, as the final objective will see tangible benefits in overall national development.”

The Berendina story saw its genesis in the little village of Garagoda in Yatiyantota, when the founder Berendina Borst, together with her friend, retired English teacher Eva Mudalige, first began the foray into livelihood development, working with the extremely poor plantation and rural families.

And in 25 years, from a milestone perspective based on the theme, ‘Doing things differently to make a difference,’ Princen highlighted the significant input into these marginalised communities, which now spans five districts through 26 offices working on a budget of Rs 1 billion.

The two agencies under the Berendina umbrella, Berendina Development Services (Gte) Limited and Berendina Microfinance Institute (Gte) has extended over 60,000 small loans and trained over 18,000 loan borrowers in business management and skills to ready themselves for demand driven and financially sustainable avenues of income generation.

The inclusive empowerment approach was further entrenched with Berendina linking over 10,000 youth with the private sector for employment and granting over 6,000 vocational training scholarship. Princen also declared that Berendina’s emphasis to transparency and accountability was aptly commended when it received kudos vis-à-vis a Silver Award from Mix Market – a global microfinance information Exchange for its process of Social Economic Reporting in 2011.

“Berendina’s approach to poverty reduction is a long term one and the focus is not simply on income poverty but also alleviating other aspects of poverty including health, sanitation, housing and giving access to education,” explained Chairman of Berendina Sri Lanka Dulan de Silva.

“The target groups which gain assistance from our two agencies extend to the economically active poor like daily paid labour who barely make ends meet but are willing to work hard to uplift themselves; similarly, we also help those who have no income source due to key householders who suffer from disability, old age or infirmity as well as youth, the plantation community and war victims. Microfinance is extended to the economically active poor.”

This inclusive reach is further emphasised with over 16,000 families in plantations and rural areas gaining access to clean water and sanitation being provided through the construction of over 1,700 toilets, nearly 500 homes constructed for the extremely poor and 1,107 gaining better eyesight through funding assistance for cataract surgery. Flood victims also benefited through Berendina when over eighty homes were constructed in Ratnapura and Mihintale and tsunami victims gained immediate short term funding assistance to uplift themselves.

The integrated approach adopted by Berendina towards poverty alleviation and thus, permeating socio-economic positives into disadvantaged segments of society encompasses myriad stakeholders. These include microfinance institutions including the Sri Lanka Savings Bank, EITMOS and Stromme Microfinance (Asia), co-operative societies and community groups, international donors and entities from the state and private sectors, the latter which saw the establishment of vocational training centres, career workshops and job fairs with great success.

Entrepreneurial ventures gaining Berendina assistance include those in agriculture, poultry farming, fishery, sewing and embroidery and even in community ownership programmes where farming and plantation infrastructure like irrigation streams, water and sanitation aspects are rehabilitated to benefit the entire community.

In the ensuing panel discussion chaired by Executive Director CEPA Priyanthi Fernando, Director of Verite Research Dr Nishan de Mel and Regional Manager – Asia of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management Saliya Ranasinghe presented papers on the Development Sector and Private Sector Partnerships for Livelihoods as well as the learning from Microfinance work of Berendina respectively.

De Mel, who surmised that the private sector must move away from only profit maximisation and emphasise more on its role of corporate stewardship, saw De Silva add that: “The private sector todate remains the largest contributor to poverty alleviation and therefore, has a much bigger role to play in the inclusive approach being encouraged.” There was also consensus of the immense need for more soft skills development as financing and basic training alone does not suffice when encouraging an entrepreneurial culture.

As Princen, a former Ambassador to Sri Lanka concludes, “As we open our next chapter, we will continue to work towards the realisation of our goals, which have now developed considerably from our Founder’s initial vision of simply helping the disadvantaged, into becoming an institution that truly eradicates poverty by using a visionary long term sustainable plan. This plan evolves around equipping the underprivileged and marginalised segments of society with skills and knowledge, while giving them the added self assurance, dignity, security and confidence to live and work in an empowered environment.”