This amazing conference shows the diversity of Rotary and the needs we must work to address. We have so many people here today, to share with us their own expertise and experience on so many critical and timely subjects. The breadth of topics in the next two days is so extensive I cannot possibly comment on them all, so I will simply begin by sharing my own experience on the importance of peace, gained over the course of my country’s 25 year-long civil war.
Even though the hostilities ended more than ten years ago, that war is in many ways still with us. We are still living with the effects of having lost so many of our best minds, people who left Sri Lanka for countries where they could live in peace. We are still dealing with land mines, which move and shift every summer when the rains come. We still have tens of thousands of people living without documents, people born in areas where the Government had no control, or born of refugee parents, living illegally abroad.
We are still living with the financial impact, in the families that have lost breadwinners, in the infrastructure that was never built, in the critical resources that were diverted for so many years toward the fighting. And the war is still living within us — in the trauma, in the many memories that none of us will ever be able to forget.
My two children grew up entirely during this war. Their childhoods were punctuated by bombings, the way other childhoods were punctuated by school outings. When my daughter thinks about her years in primary school, she probably divides them into the years before the building next door to her school was bombed, and after. Even today, when any of us see an abandoned bag on a park bench, the first instinct is to give it a wide berth, to walk as far as possible around it.
And that is what life was like for all of us in Sri Lanka, for many, many years. If you ask anyone outside of Sri Lanka, what they know of Sri Lanka, if they know one thing, it’s that we had a war. If they know two things, it’s the war and the tsunami, which washed away much of the coast around the island on the day after Christmas in 2004.
Building schools after Tsunami
After the tsunami came, despite the war, despite all of the challenges we were already facing at that time, we in Rotary felt that we had to react and do something significant. We didn’t want to just donate bandages or bottles of water. We wanted to do something to really help rebuild the country and build its future. And so we conceived this plan of building 25 schools … schools that were absolutely best in class, evenly distributed, and covered the country in a way that all communities were equally served.
But of course we faced tremendous challenges before and during construction. Areas under rebel control were mined. Some of the schools got taken over as refugee camps and families fleeing the violence moved into these buildings under construction.
And then we had unexpected problems that affected us, the Rotarians, directly and part of it was due to the transparency that we employed in all our accounting. We published on our website every dollar of our donations and expenses for our donors to monitor. And that meant that people who we’d rather not look at it, also viewed these details.
At a certain point the contractors of 3–4 of the schools came to us and said: “Look, it’s very nice that you are being so transparent here but you are causing us a problem.” Because in those militant controlled areas, any time you do any contracting, you have to pay the militants a fee for every transaction. The contractors told us, we are being approached and told to pay 10 per cent of the fees you are paying us, to these people. Even though our donors were willing, we refused to do this, saying we cannot use donated money to pay bribes.
Well a few days later, my office telephone, and that too my direct line, rang. On the other end was a voice, quite polite, saying, “Mr Ravindran, you are the person who is obstructing the payment of these fees.” And I said, “No, it isn’t me, it’s the committee that decided this. It’s donated money, we can’t be paying bribes with it, etc.” He said, “No, this isn’t a bribe, this is a service charge.”
I said, “You can call it what you like but we cannot pay it, if this is a problem then we will simply pull out of the project.” He said, “No no, we don’t want you to do that. We want you to build the schools. But you need to pay this charge.”
I said no again, and then he said, “Mr. Ravindran, we know you travel a lot. Please know that we can get you anywhere you travel.” Now I am not a fool. I knew exactly what he meant. I am also not Rambo or John Wayne. I was a middle-aged Rotarian with a couple of kids, and because of this war that we were in, I was sitting at a desk in my office, getting my life threatened.
I would be a liar if I said I wasn’t scared. I was scared like hell. But without even thinking about it I said, “We are not paying you anything. And you should know that I am a Trustee of The Rotary Foundation. It is in every part of the world, we have influence in every country, and if you come after me, if you touch one hair on my head, your funding will be cut off in every part of the world where you function. Your money will dry up from everywhere, overnight. And that is the price that you will pay.” And I put the phone down.
I was shaking so hard that I could not even pick up the cup of tea on my desk. I would have spilled it all over the place. Of course I was bluffing. I knew that Rotary was not going to come after the Tamil Tigers because of me. But I didn’t know if they knew it.
Fortunately for me, it seems that they did not. We were left alone thereafter and we successfully completed the project. And today, those schools graduate 14,000 children every single year. They are some of the best government schools in all of Sri Lanka. They educate Tamil, Sinhalese … Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim children. And perhaps, that is the best thing that any of us can do to build a peaceful country; build it ourselves.
If we have learned one thing from the bloody century behind us, it is that if we still hope for peace — and we do — we cannot hope that others will build it for us. We cannot wait for governments, for the United Nations, or for cooler heads to prevail. We cannot expect peace to be handed to us, from above. We must build the foundations for it, from below.
And that is what we have always endeavoured to do, in Rotary. We have been guided by the principle that when given the chance to do so, people can and will work for the common good; that even the most intractable conflicts can be resolved when people have more to lose by fighting, than by working together. And so we in Rotary work to help those who need it, whoever they are; to remove the suffering that causes violence; to work together for the common good; to do our best to see that there is no one in the world with nothing to lose.