Ananda Galappatti is reforming the psychosocial field in Sri Lanka, replacing restrictive structures and conventional organizational approaches with innovative and responsive solutions, and building coalitions and intelligent networks to improve the lives of people under mental stress.
The New Idea
Ananda, a medical anthropologist, initiated The Good Practice Group (GPG) and an online Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Services (MHPSS) Network to incubate, harness and direct innovative practices and strategic interventions for the mental health and psychosocial support sector. His programs encourage civic engagement in order to promote empathetic and effective psychosocial services to survivors of war, natural disaster, and adversity in Sri Lanka and globally. Both GPG and MHPSS Network are based on the idea that collaboration and solidarity among ethical and creative individuals can significantly shape or influence social and institutional realities in ways that improve people’s lives.
Ananda’s approach works in the interstices between formal institutional structures, but also seeks to transform or shape them. At the heart of these processes is a reliance on teams of effective, ethical, and creative practitioners. The effectiveness of his approach lies not in what activity is being done, but rather in how and why it is being done. Ananda’s design of GPG sidesteps conventional project-focused approaches to development and humanitarian work. GPG deploys teams of volunteer MHPSS professionals to support government and not-for-profit support services in a range of areas, often through open-ended and unconventional cooperative arrangements with service providers and community stakeholders.
On the other hand, the online platform (www.mhpss.net) Ananda has played a central role in shaping engages formal and risk-averse institutional stakeholders (like UN agencies) in an effort to host a multiplicity of real and virtual networks of practitioners. MHPSS Network allows for connections between distinct “distributed” networks of practitioners wherever they see a strategic advantage in exchange or collaboration, whilst structurally safeguarding their diversity. The MHPSS Network, once well-established and populated, can be used as a tool to drive actions, innovation, and knowledge creation in the field locally and globally.
Over the past two decades, the field of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support has emerged as a key dimension of global humanitarian and development work during and after emergencies. This has also been the case in Asia (particularly after the 2004 tsunami), where MHPSS interventions in a number of countries were developed in response to natural and man-made disasters. On the ground experience and investment in local skill-building in Asia has generated considerable local capacity, with a small but growing number of “home-grown” specialists mediating, adapting, and sharing knowledge for local use. However, the information flow has been predominantly from knowledge centers in the global North, with models and intervention designs often “parachuted” into emergency zones. Building appropriate and effective MHPSS during emergencies and transitioning these to long-term services in a development context requires convergence and coordination of the actions of diverse players at international, national, and local levels. Conventional linear approaches to project-based interventions, coordination of services and policymaking often struggle to engage with the complexity and fluidity of unstable conflict or post-disaster environments, which often results in a failure to deliver or sustain services. There is a pressing need to equip and empower local workers (both specialists and grass-roots practitioners alike) to systematize, deepen and share practical knowledge and good practices based on their considerable first-hand experience and long-term work, and to legitimize these within the global field.
The past ten years in Sri Lanka, in the context of large-scale and protracted civil war, in addition to the 2004 tsunami, has seen remarkable growth in the MHPSS sector. However, few services were able to respond to existing needs effectively. In particular, many practitioners have faced extreme difficulty in making meaningful interventions within the brutalized communities and politically complex humanitarian contexts in the Eastern and Northern conflict zones. In the post-war context, there are considerable challenges in ensuring that reconstruction and development work yields benefits to vulnerable families devastated and exhausted by decades of war. Practitioners themselves also often feel isolated and overwhelmed, and require both personal and professional support to continue to provide effective services. Along with building-up and sustaining crucial human resources, there is a financial need to secure important community services in the face of dwindling funding.
Ananda, as a young psychosocial worker and trainer saw the young field of psychosocial interventions failing to meet the needs of its clients. At 21, while working as a volunteer in the conflict-scarred districts of Vavuniya and Anuradhapura, helping the survivors of torture and political violence, Ananda saw interventions that compartmentalized psychological symptoms and practical difficulties, and missed engaging with the experiences of the particular survivor or the structural causes of their suffering. He also saw the effectiveness of services and providers undermined by bureaucratic and insensitive organizational processes; affecting the population. Ananda grew disillusioned with the reality he saw, and imagined ways that services might be better.
In 1999, at the age of 24, Ananda began to change the direction of the field by initiating the Psychosocial Support Program (PSP) with the help of a well-regarded psychologist, Gameela Samarasinghe. His initial efforts were in Vavuniya in the war-torn North of Sri Lanka. Ananda worked closely with Ashoka Fellow Pon Singham to select promising young workers to deal with the psychosocial impact of war, especially multiple and long drawn displacement and mass scale disappearances. Under this initiative, the recruits were trained intensively for nine months with six months on-the-job placement with non-profit organizations in the North and eighteen months of follow-up supervision to become frontline psychosocial service providers. The outcome was eighteen young professionally trained psychosocial workers who could place the affected community’s mental health at the center of their humanitarian and development work. Many of them are still the leading counselors in their areas, working with health services and community organizations.
Successful as this first independent initiative was, Ananda paid attention to its limitations, and completely revised the model of training and support for the next phase of work in Eastern and Southern Sri Lanka—increasing sustainability, improving training relevance, and drastically reducing cost. Ananda also studied the ineffective practices of other groups in the field, and started to evolve models for sectoral capacity-building, responding flexibly to specific needs, and institutional design that avoided common pitfalls. He built cross-sectoral projects that brought together the most promising trainers in the sector to learn informally from one another; after the Indian Ocean tsunami, he quickly pulled together a system involving the Red Cross, local police, and a group of counselors to support and follow-up with family members as they looked for their loved ones among horrific photos of hundreds of casualties; he developed organizational structures that were increasingly minimalist and low cost, yet were able to engage even larger constituencies in cooperative action.
Over the next twelve years Ananda initiated many programs to influence the practice of mental health and psychosocial interventions. All were client-centered and based on firm principles that empower both service providers and clients. Ananda achieved this by using unexpected opportunities and creating spaces to bring practitioners together in ways that decentralized and destabilized hierarchical structures and power relations. Ananda’s work is based on four key principles: The interventions should involve strategic actions or models that can contribute to reform of mental health and social support systems in Sri Lanka or the field globally; they must address problems that have consequences for service users and issues that really matter to them; interventions must seek to engage people at a personal level; and the work must be honest and true in its aims. Ananda’s process begins by positioning himself independently but staying connected to as broad a range of stakeholders as possible. Then he develops a sophisticated understanding of the positioning of all stakeholders. Next he pulls together and works with the people who have legitimacy with key stakeholders and possess technical competence, personal integrity and a knack for building social capital. Ananda looks for those with creativity and capacity—“people who can make new things.” Then, he engages these selected people carefully around a shared interest.
These principles and processes inform the process in his two main current initiatives, the GPG and the online MHPSS Network, as well as in other work he is developing.
In 2010 Ananda founded GPG with a group of long-time collaborators as a platform for strategic interventions in the field of MHPSS—in Sri Lanka and beyond. With a business model that involves GPG associates investing their own earnings into the voluntary work of GPG, it seeks to encourage civic and professional engagement at an individual and a collective/institutional level in building services and capacities in the MHPSS sector. The initiatives GPG undertakes may be incredibly localized or global in scale, but it strives to apply the same ethos regardless.
Ananda is adamant that GPG should remain a dynamic and nimble incubator for new solutions, and should avoid becoming sclerotic or self-interested. The model he’s pursuing is one of expanding solutions through network effects, and not through growing GPG (with currently only one full-time paid employee) into a larger organization. Where institutional scale or sustainability of services is required, GPG seeks to either shape existing structures for the purpose or establish independently governed entities to continue the work. GPG as a self-effacing catalytic platform for change will not seek to own or maintain control over these. Ananda feels the main benefit of this would be GPG retaining the capacity to play a transcendent role in relation to changing circumstances and needs in the field. Another strategy for securing this transcendence is the principle of GPG financing its own work through contributions from its own associates. Within a year of starting operations, GPG had become financially viable whilst not accepting grant financing. Instead, through short-term contract work (5 jobs in 2010/2011) on which GPG associates voluntarily gave significant discounts on their fees (only once their own income needs had been sufficiently met), GPG was able to undertake over thirty self-financed interventions, using a variety of voluntary and in-kind contributions from within its network of collaborators. Operating through unconventional arrangements and cultivating goodwill and trust amongst collaborators, GPG bypasses bureaucratic barriers and neutralizes institutional resistance that would often cripple other efforts. Its low-cost approaches to intervention also mean that failure or set-backs don’t present major risks to GPG, allowing to it to be bold and optimistic about its work.
Ananda, together with British psychologist Alison Strang and other international colleagues, also founded the MHPSS Network, an interactive online platform that uses technology to strengthen linkages among the mental health psychosocial practitioners working in areas of disaster, conflict and chronic adversity. Its intention is to learn and share good practices and conceptualize creative solutions to pending psychosocial issues in disaster management. It is a stepping stone to enable communication and is an open network. In conflict or post natural disaster situations, most practitioners can’t afford to travel to other post-conflict sites to encounter new approaches, but they can receive support and share learning through the platform. Ananda’s goal is greater democratization of knowledge production and access in the MHPSS field through the network. The first (test) version of the MHPSS online Network has been running since December 2009, had gained nearly 1,000 members globally (with no formal publicity) within a year, and has served as a focal point for MHPSS responses in major emergencies like Haiti and the Arab Spring.
The MHPSS Network uses a minimalist institutional structure and a flexible set of processes to bring about institutional and sectoral changes. It functions as a complementary alternative to big formal structures like UN interagency structures that are often extremely hard for local practitioners to engage. Ananda often found himself one of only a few representatives from the South in global conferences and planning meetings which were intended to influence the psychosocial field. The vertical linkage he creates between the local to the global is rather rare and his initiatives are based on strengthening these linkages and making space for greater global sharing of leadership in the field. For example in both his initiatives, the GPG and the MHPSS Network, he advocates to have things done differently from the usual centralized and elite structures. In the development of the MHPSS Network Ananda has strongly advocated for it being decentralized and distributed; having regional hosts from the field rather than a central point in New York or Geneva mediating the interactions of practitioners with one another. Ananda used his Ramon Magsaysay for Emergent Leaders award to fund the first MHPSS Network host in Sri Lanka. The network platform is now being developed further with the help of Ashoka Fellow Sanjana Hattotuwa. There are now several regional hosts who respond to the needs of its global membership, and, most importantly, it has created a decentralized organic platform in which people can group and organize themselves. The new improved version of the platform came online in May 2011. This online platform has enormous potential for foregrounding frontline priorities, especially in low- and middle-income countries, enriching the global field’s dialogue in a novel and profound way.
Ananda has also been involved in revamping and revising a number of academic and vocational courses in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. For example, he has been involved in developing curriculum for the Postgraduate Diploma and Master’s Degree in Counseling and Psychosocial Support at the University of Colombo and the Child Protection Diploma at the Open University of Sri Lanka. He also co-founded Intervention, an International Journal of Mental Health, Psychosocial Work and Counseling in Areas of Armed Conflict (2003). This was the first international journal dedicated to the field of MHPSS in conflict settings. Ananda remains a member of its editorial board (www.inteventionjournal.com) and is closely involved in protecting the journal’s vision of bridging North-South and academic-practitioner divides.
Ananda was born in England to a Sri Lankan couple working on their Ph.D.s at the University of Cambridge. Ananda’s parents returned to Sri Lanka and joined the University of Peradeniya as academics. Ananda spent his early childhood on the campus, and later lived with his family in the capital Colombo, and in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Bangladesh. Completing high school in Dhaka, he did his undergraduate education at the University of Cambridge and obtained a master’s degree in Medical Anthropology at University College London. Ananda’s experiences of moving between countries and cultures were formative, and when he returned to Sri Lanka at the age of 21, he was able to easily connect with the diverse experiences on the conflict-torn island. As an insider-outsider who stood apart from the ethnic and political ideologies that divided Sri Lanka, Ananda has worked within its many communities with relative ease.
The major “turning point” in Ananda’s life came in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami when he helped his colleague Ganesan, a psychiatrist, in the war and disaster-affected coastal district of Batticaloa. This event, a disaster of unforeseen magnitude, made his thought process move to reforming the psychosocial model in Sri Lanka. In the midst of this national humanitarian crisis, Ananda and Ganesan founded the Mangrove Network—an unusual informal structure that coordinated and improved the capacity of mental health services and organizations to provide effective psychosocial care. Ananda was at the forefront of this effort and brought together almost all the organizations that were providing psychosocial services, including the government, community organizations, and UN agencies. At one time more than seventy organizations were part of the Mangrove Network. It was an extremely low cost operation that had impact on policy in Sri Lanka and even informed the global Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines for MHPSS in emergencies. This initiative demonstrated Ananda’s service delivery capability and catapulted the scope of his work beyond Sri Lanka.
Currently, Ananda is finishing his dissertation for a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology and International Health & Development at the University of Edinburgh and Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. Ananda is an affiliated Fellow of the Social Policy Analysis & Research Centre at University of Colombo. He is also a member of the Mental Health and Psychosocial Working Group of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Ananda received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2008 under the category of Emergent Leadership in recognition of his personal commitment to, and accomplishment in, helping survivors of war and natural disasters in Sri Lanka.
Ananda is also developing other initiatives, such as Minmini News, a local SMS-based local language news network for women in the Batticaloa district—a model that also has potential for scaling throughout Sri Lanka and beyond.
Ananda has three young daughters, and is married to Sarala Emmanuel, a development practitioner specializing in gender and socioeconomic security. They live in Batticaloa.