Daniela Schermerhorn – AFE Blog – UNDP, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: A delightful journey through diversity!

FIRST IMPRESSION

14 of May 2017 was the day I arrived in Colombo, the vibrant commercial capital of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. I was about to start my internship adventure working with the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office, the United Nations Development Programme and the Peacebuilding Fund.

Upon arriving at the airport, I found a big Buddha statue providing welcome, and outside, the city was set to celebrate the Vesak day[1].  My heart was pounding as I was stepping into a dream, to experience life in Asia. This mystic world had always inhabited my imagination, but it is so distant from Brazil…

Observing each detail, I continued to my hotel destination, forcing my jetlagged mind to assimilate every new shape and cultural trade. After a long winter in the United States, it was delightful to feel the embracing ocean breeze.

I realized that I am on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that has a great strategic importance to the economic development and trade history of South Asia.

Joining the gentle pace of Sri Lanka and its hospitable people is a lifetime opportunity, one I am determined to explore at the max.

DISCOVERING

As a legacy of ancient kingdoms that ruled the country for centuries, followed by diverse colonial empires, Sri Lanka offers a surprisingly colorful and culturally rich journey.

Surrounded by warm golden sandy beaches, the heart of the country is a surprise with its completely different landscape. Cool mountains and natural parks host a great diversity of plants and animals, such as the majestic elephant – a national symbol.  Large paddy fields and tea plantations still provide subsistence to those inhabiting rural areas, and indescribable UNESCO world heritage sites enchant any curious soul, such as: Siguiriya, Anuradhapura, Dambulla, Pollonaruwa, Kandy, Galle and many others[2].

To face the crazy traffic of Colombo, a traditional “Tuk Tuk” ride is mandatory. What an experience! No rules seem to apply and those tiny vehicles are quite a challenge to the laws of physic. The traffic defies the leisurely pace of Sri Lanka, with noisy horns always advertising brave risky maneuvers. Nevertheless, the preserved green scenery around the city soothes the environment with beautiful parks, large cricket fields, and deep-rooted trees spreading their pleasant shade along tiny sidewalks. The city seems to have been built around its natural beauty.

People walking with flowers to decorate temples, and the sway of sarongs, saris and skirts remind me of a slower traditional and refined lifestyle striving to survive in modern times. You can also stumble upon some cows crossing the road, transporting the rural scene to the middle of the city, a clear representation of Sri Lanka’s diversity.

Another worthwhile experience is to practice yoga and meditation, which are great ways to build bridges with spirituality and peace of mind. It is helping me to raise awareness to a simple vital activity that we usually forget, which is breathing.

Complementing the magic, spices and curry give a special taste to a rich healthy menu, and wonderful teas had offered me a new meaning to this brew.

However, an attentive observer can easily identify the mixed turbulent marriage of coexistent faiths and ethnicities, and the divergent level of development and social welfare that resulted in twenty-six years of civil war (from 1993 to 2009). Yet, Sri Lanka has a high human development index (UNDP, 2016), and is managing to sustain peace for the last nine years.

According to the Global Peace Index 2017, Sri Lanka had the largest jump in rankings this year (17 positions), placed within countries on the mid peace group, showing a huge improvement in regards to the Societal Safety and Security Domains (Vision of Humanity, 2017). Thus, some questions come to my mind, such as: What makes Sri Lanka successful? The progress achieved in past years, is it sustainable? What are the threats to peace and stability on the status quo? Development is for all? How to achieve reconciliation and social reintegration of affected communities? …

 THE UNITED NATIONS: PEACEBUILDING AND RECONCILIATION

The work done by the United Nations and many other international and national social actors is supporting the country to answer some of those questions, taking crucial steps towards long term progress and peace. The UN concentrates in supporting the Government to develop war affected areas and implement its reconciliation and accountability commitments to its people, a fundamental phase to allow sustainable peacebuilding.

I have had the honor to learn in practice how the UN system works to support peacebuilding. I can’t help but to thank the amazing team that received me and patiently shared their knowledge, allowing an easy adaptation to such an amazing work environment. I have been working in many different fronts, which gives me an overview of real coordination within the UN system. Specifically, with the UNDP, I am assisting the work being done to enhance capacity of the National Police Commission, as well as other relevant projects involving Gender Based Violence. With the Peacebuilding Fund, I am looking forward to join a field visit to Jaffna in mid-July, to better understand the projects and programs funded by the UN, engaging war affected communities at the local level.

Also, I had the opportunity to join a debriefing promoted by the UN MAPS Mission about Sri Lanka (Mainstreaming, Acceleration and Policy Support)[3]. And most recently I attended the Workshop “Comparative Peacebuilding in Asia”, which received the former President of Sri Lanka Madam Chandrika Kumaratunga as guest speaker, a reference in Peacebuilding and Reconciliation in South Asia. The workshop promoted productive discussions featuring “Liberal and Illiberal Transitions from Ethnic Conflict and Authoritarianism” in the context of Peacebuilding in Asia[4].

What an amazing and intense experience!

MY ENGAGEMENT WITH ROTARY CLUBS IN COLOMBO

Another remarkable opportunity relates to engaging with the Rotary Club in Sri Lanka. As soon as I arrived, I was warmly welcomed by a generous and attentive community, which helped me in finding accommodation and getting settled right away. I joined events promoted by Rotary District 3220 (Sri Lanka and Maldives), where I had the opportunity to meet many Rotarians. I was also invited as a guest speaker to the Rotary Club – Colombo[5], which gave me the opportunity to talk about the Rotary Peace Fellowship, while they were in the process of choosing their candidates, and the partnership between Rotary and The Global Peace Index.

Similarly, I was invited to speak to students from the Elizabeth Moir International School[6] about being a female international Police Officer promoting peaceful ways to conflict resolution. It was such an amazing chance to break paradigms, showing the potential of women empowerment and a different perception of Community Policing to young minds growing in a socially divided society.

The Rotary community in Sri Lanka is a reference towards action in development and significant support to war affected communities. There are many ongoing programs and projects, and more partnerships with international Rotary Clubs could enhance their scope.

Once more, I am amazed with the impact Rotary has around the world, and how this powerful network is always striving to do good and promote peace.

I feel very privileged to be part of the Rotary family. Thank you all for this amazing opportunity!

 

REFERENCES

Cummings, Joe et. al. (2006). Lonely Planet: Sri Lanka. Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd: USA, 10th Edition.

UNDP Sri Lanka. (n.d). About Sri Lanka. Retrieved from: http://www.lk.undp.org/content
/srilanka/en/home/countryinfo.html

UNDP. (2016). Sri Lanka Human Development Report 2015. Retrieved from: file:///C:/Users
/User/Downloads/Sri%20Lanka%20Explanatory%20Note.pdf

Vision of Humanity. (2017). Global Peace Index. Retrieved from: http://visionofhumanity.org
/indexes/global-peace-index/

 

[1] Vesak is the name used for the 2nd month in Sri Lankan traditional Moon calendar (Lunar calendar) which corresponds with the month of May in the Gregorian calendar (Solar calendar). The Buddhist community celebrate the Vesak to honor three important occasions of the life of the Buddha. It was on the full moon day in the month of Vesak that Prince Siddhartha was born, became enlightened and attained Mahaparinibbāna or nirvana-after-death. More information’s can be found at: http://www.unvesak2017.org/?page_id=795

[2] More information about the UNESCO world heritage sites in Sri Lanka can be found at: http://whc.unesco.org
/en/statesparties/lk
and http://www.walkerstours.com/explore-sri-lanka/attractions/unesco-world-heritage-sites.html

[3] More information about the UN MAPS can be found at: https://www.un.org/ecosoc/sites/www.un.org.ecosoc
/files/files/en/qcpr/doco-summary-brief-on-maps-march2016.pdf

[4] More information about the Workshop “Comparative Peacebuilding in Asia” can be found at: http://gtr.rcuk.ac.uk
/projects?ref=ES%2FP006280%2F1

[5] More information about the Rotary Club Colombo can be found at: http://www.rotarycolombo.org/

[6] More information about Elizabeth Moir International School can be found at: http://elizabethmoirschool.com/

 

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