Interview with Manu Gupta and Varghese Antony
Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS)
Manu Gupta (Co-Founder) and Varghese Antony (Chief Operating Officer) work at the Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS). SEEDS is an Indian-based not-for profit that has one ultimate goal: to protect the lives and livelihoods of people exposed to disasters. Manu has 25 years-experience in the sector spanning national and regional advocacy, community-led efforts in recovery and risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Varghese joined SEEDS in 2011 and has spent over 20 years in the humanitarian sector working in organisations including the Indo Global Society Service Society (IGSSS), Project Concern International (PCI), and Deepalaya.
SEEDS is an award-winning not-for-profit organisation that has operated since 1994 and now has 122 staff. They work all across India, and have also provided technical assistance in Nepal, Bangladesh and South-East Asia. Through their work they enable community resilience through practical solutions in the areas of disaster readiness, response, and rehabilitation. SEEDS has worked extensively on every major disaster in the Indian subcontinent. It has reached out to families affected by disasters and climate stresses; strengthened and rebuilt schools and homes; and has put its faith in skill building, planning and communications to foster long-term resilience.
Last month, In June four humanitarian organisations from India joined the Start Network, and SEEDS is one of them. Manu and Varghese took some time out to speak to us about why SEEDS decided to join.
How did you first hear about the Start Network?
We knew about Start right at the beginning because of the initial work happening towards the World Humanitarian Summit. This is when we came to know about the concept of a pooled funding mechanism and the push towards localization. This also included having meetings with Start leadership around this time. A lot of the consultations taking place towards the Summit related to the objectives and strategic direction that Start Network was planning to take and so there was a lot of traction. Our original impression was that it was more for international organisations and less for local organisations. We, therefore, waited for an opportunity to arise for when we could become members.
What did you learn through your participation in the consortium that ran the DEPP Innovation Lab in Bangladesh?
We were technical assistance providers and helped to incubate the lab in Bangladesh. We looked at one particular neighbourhood in Bangladesh and looked at the interface of health and habitat in vulnerable conditions during humanitarian situations. We looked at vulnerabilities of low-income settlements with regards to fire and floods and then shared our learnings.
Working as part of the DEPP Innovation Lab in Bangladesh was a tremendous learning experience. Credit should be given to the process laid out by the Start Network which enabled us to turn innovations into possible business enterprises for local innovators. The idea for the seed funding for these local innovators was very unique. I thought the programme was very complete in itself.
Can you tell us why you wanted to join with the Start Network?
The founding objectives of the Start Network very much aligns with our thinking about pooled funding mechanisms versus traditional systems of givers and receivers where there are contractual obligations. The Start funding objective challenges the dominant narrative of North-South equations, in which the North decides what the South should do. We have moved away from sub-contracting model into a full funding mechanism, although this is still work in progress.
What changes do you hope to make in your first year of joining?
SEEDS has been very much part of discussion around a national pool mechanism for India and that is where we feel we should contribute in order to make it a reality. At the same time we are looking at how to make this a more democratic space where there is equal participation and benefits that are felt by local members. Another thing we believe is important to address is how do you start transferring power and decision-making at the front lines – particularly from national to sub-national level (at the grassroots). These are the things we will look up to Start and its members for guidance as its still in its infancy. Localization is still very much at a regional or international level issue and hasn’t really percolated down. I think that Start will be a good way of taking this to the national and local level.
How would you like to see the India hub evolve over the next few years?
It is difficult to predict how it will go because in a democratic setup it will be the members who decide how the hub will shape itself. I think the hub will have its own unique characteristics of being in India where there are also resources available from businesses where there is a mandate for large industrial houses to apportion a part of their net profit for humanitarian funding. We therefore want to discover how to create more value out of the Start Fund by putting into place some of the international and universally accepted principles of action i.e. standards around accountability and quality, which are still very much unknown in the sector in India. Start Network can provide that additional value that other sources of funds normally demand.
What does localisation mean to you?
This question could take a long time to respond too, however in short localization for me is about local leadership. It’s about the power and decision-making ability provided at the front lines. These could be to individuals, to organisations or it could be to local governments. However, I think we are still far far away from there.
What is the thing you want people to know about SEEDS?
SEEDS has existed for 26 years and it evolved out of a college canteen. This means that there is always something new brewing within SEEDS and this has defined the character of the organization even though we now have 122 people and we are spread across the entire country. We are always curious, we are always wanting to learn and experiment with new ideas. We want to find new ways of serving those affected by the climate crisis and those affected within the humanitarian context.