As a youth, Dulan de Silva dreamt of being a socialist and even getting into robes. Notwithstanding these beliefs, he loved pop music and Elvis (Presley). But his passion appeared to be one of involvement in social activity. His father backed him to the hilt but had one word of advice: “You could do anything [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Dulan de Silva’s life of socialism and poverty-consciousness

Microfinance pioneer reflects on his beginnings

As a youth, Dulan de Silva dreamt of being a socialist and even getting into robes. Notwithstanding these beliefs, he loved pop music and Elvis (Presley).

But his passion appeared to be one of involvement in social activity. His father backed him to the hilt but had one word of advice: “You could do anything that you want as long as you have a qualification”.

Sound words of wisdom indeed, and today, after a long and arduous three decades of activity in social activity and socialism (to a shorter extent); Mr. de Silva heads Berendina, the country’s largest not-for-profit organisation which focuses on micro finance.

Dulan de Silva

Beredina is chaired by Mr. de Silva with Anura Atapattu and Jagath Godakanda, both micro finance specialists, as the other two directors. All three are part time consultants to the organisation’s parent, Netherlands-based Berendina Stiching, and not paid salaries by the local organisation.

“What is still your biggest goal in life,” the Business Times asked Mr. de Silva. “Nirvana (goal of the Buddhist path),” he says, not forgetting a vision he had as a 19 year-old youth, over 40 years ago.

During a weekday conversation over coffee at a Colombo coffee shop, Mr. De Silva recalled his beginnings, discussing his life at the Bambalapitiya Flats, then a vibrant place, in the 1960-70s. “I was carefree as a young schoolboy and for some reason – I don’t know why – I wanted to get into poverty reduction,” he said.

The young de Silva read a lot, schooled at Royal College but was not too interested in studies. Drawn to socialism, he joined the LSSP youth league (during the heyday of intellects like Dr. N.M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. de Silva).

“I was an introvert. While everyone else was asked by their parents to be a doctor or engineer, I had a different purpose (in life),” he recalled, saying there was no external (parents) influence to be ‘this or that’ (professional).Brought up in a Buddhist family background, he found a lot of comfort from reading and was intrigued by the many poverty issues that he came across. As a 19-year old, he harboured thoughts of being a monk. So he went to Dodanduwa Island monastery in the south intending to start with meditation, but was dissuaded by the senior monk who said he should first follow the process of joining a temple.

With his father’s words (‘you got to qualify to be somebody’) ringing in his ears, Mr. de Silva drifted into accountancy, studying at the Polytechnic Institute at Wellawatte and after that joined accountancy firm, B.R. de Silva.With strong socialist beliefs, Mr. de Silva wanted a government job, joining Consoloexpo (the state trading organisation where now powerful businessman Harry Jayewardena and his, subsequent business partners Zacki Alif and Raj Obeysekera worked in the Tea Department before leaving to set up Stassens). After a roller-coaster ride at this state agency, Mr. de Silva did many things – spending a year in Oman, moving to the US to complete a Masters degree in Business Administration (busting up all his savings), and returning to join the Mahaweli Authority – at the height of the Mahaweli project – as Systems Coordinator. After a while he returned to work in Oman in the finance field and in 1986 joined Sarvodaya where he helped to start SEEDS, the first and largest microfinance organization at the time.“SEEDS was formed at the right time and the right place, as a micro finance company. We had the largest portfolio of Rs. 3 billion and over 300,000 clients,” he said, sipping coffee while settling down for a memory lane-conversation.

He left Sarvodaya over some disagreement in 1993 and then worked in Pakistan at IUCN as Programme Director and in 1989 began undertaking international consultancies. Mr. de Silva says he has handled 200 international consultancies in 16 countries on micro finance, new business development, NGO management and skills training, among others.

Beredina began in 1992 with the organization launching a Rs. 1 million project and then expanding to provide grants, livelihood support and interest-free loans, initially

In 1993-94, Beredina gave loans at 5 per cent interest, a charge to just cover costs. “We would go straight to the village and homes and offer our services,” he recalled, stopping for a moment to reflect a bit on the past.

It took just one week to process loan requests which ranged from Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 100,000. There were also Rs. 5000 and below loans for emergency assistance. Loans were for income generation/building assets like homes/water/power

“Our scheme was based on credit plus. We didn’t only give a loan; we provided skills and other support. Loan recipients were also provided with free health which paid for hospitalisation,” he said.

Asked how Beredina is different from other microfinance organisations and has made a success of it, Mr. de Silva says; “We don’t focus on social mobilisation or group formation; we focus on individual empowerment”.

Having come a long way – over 40 years in active service – what are the issues facing micro finance in Sri Lanka, a critical sector for thousands of small and medium-scale enterprises, the Business Times asked Mr. de Silva: “Well … one of the biggest problems is that Sri Lankan authorities still don’t view microfinance as a tool for the poor to be lifted out of poverty (through entrepreneurship). These are all collateral free, small loans,” he notes.

This is unlike in India where microfinance is heavily supported by the Government and similarly in Bangladesh, home of Nobel Prize laureate Mohamed Yunus through his path-breaking Grameem concept.

“We need laws/regulations to govern microfinance and this discussion has been going on for the past five years. Such an Act would help microfinance organisations to collect savings and borrow foreign loans,” he said, hoping that such regulations – a need given that Sri Lanka’s economy has been built on small enterprise – would eventually be promulgated.

Beredina has a staff of 290 and works in eight districts.
– (Feizal)

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