SAPP Blog Forum: Q&A with Jay Sehgal of IRRAD
When I was at a recent conference on India and development at the University of Iowa (which I reported on here), I had the pleasure of meeting Jay Sehgal of the Sehgal Family Foundation and the Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD). I was so impressed with his presentation about the work IRRAD is doing on sustainability and agriculture that I invited him to participate in a blog forum here at SAPP. I’m delighted that he is here to share some thoughts with our readers from his experience.
Tell us a little about IRRAD to start with. First off, how was it founded?
The Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD) is an initiative of the Sehgal Family Foundation, based in Des Moines, IA. IRRAD, headquartered in Gurgaon, India, was founded in 1998 by Dr. Suri Sehgal, who left India after college to earn a PhD In plant genetics from Harvard. Dr. Sehgal is a renowned agricultural scientist who worked for Pioneer seed company in Des Moines until 1988, after which he set up his own seed businesses in India and other countries. In 1998, he sold his businesses to Bayer and put a substantial portion of the proceeds in a trust to do work in India in the areas of rural development, crop improvement, and biodiversity and conservation. IRRAD was formally established a few years later.
What is IRRAD’s mission?
IRRAD develops and implements sustainable, replicable models in the areas of water management, hygiene & sanitation, income enhancement (primarily small-scale agriculture), capacity building, and rural governance to improve current conditions and future prospects for India’s rural communities. IRRAD also conducts rural research as a premier knowledge institute for rural development and poverty reduction in India.
And, what is its budget? This is always interesting to us so that readers understand the scale of work happening in India.
We run an annual operating budget, without capital investments, of about $2 million. In addition to its core funding from the Sehgal Family Foundation in the USA, IRRAD has won government grants and partnered with private foundations and companies in India. Our partners have included Mosaic fertilizer on soil health; the Department of Agriculture, Haryana, on soil mapping; Coca-Cola India Foundation on water augmentation; UNDP India on livelihoods development; and KMG Foundation on education.
Why are you all so committed to being entirely secular? Why do you think it is important to be vocal about that decision?
For various reasons, we have taken a conscious decision to be a secular and apolitical organization. Nearly 800 million people in India live in the villages. Our key intent is to make a positive impact in the lives of India’s rural poor. To successfully accomplish this on a broad scale, we believe that one must remain neutral in terms of religion, ethnicity, politics, etc. If people know that you represent one particular religion or point of view, they may have reservations and not want to fully support your goals. We felt that such a limitation might inhibit our effectiveness in certain communities. For example, when we started our work in the villages, some people thought that we were coming to convert them to another religion or to dictate our beliefs to them. To break down this barrier, we decided to make sure people understood that we are a secular organization and we do not represent any one religion.
Can you tell us a little bit about IRRAD’s strategy and the transition from being a donor civil society organization to now taking on a more hands-on approach? You had described this transition at the workshop we attended at the University of Iowa, and I wanted to learn a bit more about it.
What I had mentioned was that early on, the foundation operated like any other donor civil-society organization (CSO), willing to fund a project that had clear goals, deliverables and timelines. After visiting a few villages in Mewat [Haryana], where we observed a gloomy picture of big families and few resources, we decided to take a hands-on role rather than remain a donor CSO. Along with being an implementing organization for the past ten years, we have also funded small projects to build partnerships and to learn and share our knowledge with others; but our primary roles are in grassroots development and rural research, not grant-making.
We are now at a stage where we are looking to expand or scale up our models. We are looking for suitable partners in the areas in which we work. We will build the capacities of our partners in order to effectively implement our models; and if we are successful in raising funds, we will also consider providing financial support to partners, but we generally do not fund other organizations.
One thing that impressed me about your presentation was the fact that IRRAD is willing to make mid-course corrections in its strategy and programming as it assesses impact and sustainability. As we discussed, it’s quite rare to find foundations that do this, and it seems like IRRAD is a great example for the South Asian community (and beyond). Could you tell us about how you assess impact and change direction?
Over the past ten years, IRRAD has expanded its scope of activities and enhanced its efforts towards rural development. Learning from its experience working with the communities of Mewat—a very poor, agriculture-based district in Haryana—IRRAD has refined its approach during its first decade and evolved into a highly productive and respected institution.
During the early days of the foundation, as an implementing CSO, we emphasized small family size and increased income through greater agricultural productivity and connectivity to the market. We quickly learned, however, that development work requires a lot of patience, and that changing the people’s mind-set is not easy. We experienced slow progress in those first few years, and it became clear that the priorities of the communities were different than our priorities for them.
After much thought, we developed a vision that we call “Integrated, Sustainable Village Development” (ISVD). ISVD is a multi-disciplinary approach to improving the quality of life in the villages, based on mobilizing the community and building sustainable village-level institutions. It targets grassroots actions in water management, income enhancement (primarily agricultural), family life (life skills) education, sanitation & hygiene, and preventive health. We felt it important to have a model that is modular, so each of these four interconnected programs is also a distinct component that is replicable, scalable, and sustainable.
ISVD is an elegant construct that leads to real improvements in rural communities, but it also has drawbacks. As a service-delivery model, ISVD can be scaled up only with massive support from the government or other donor organizations; otherwise its impact is likely to remain limited to a small pocket in Mewat. Furthermore, we felt that it is indeed the government’s responsibility to deliver key services, especially in the areas of health and education. Unfortunately, most of the government institutions in the villages do not function adequately. There is a disconnect between what is on paper and what actually happens in the villages, an on-the-books reality versus a lived reality. All too often the rural schools don’t teach and the clinics don’t treat. Acknowledging the limits of ISVD, we realized we would need to tackle rural development not only from the bottom up, but also from the top down. We must close the loop between policy at the top and its implementation at the bottom if we are to make faster progress and a bigger impact. Around this time, landmark legislation was being enacted in India to provide new constitutional rights to the people, and this encouraged us to make another shift in our strategy.
In 2005, we conceptualized the framework for IRRAD, which the Foundation formally established in 2008. IRRAD comprises four operational centers (Natural Resource, Capacity Building, Policy, Governance & Advocacy, and Rural Research) that create awareness among communities about ways to expand their opportunities, enrich their lives, and brighten their future. The four centers of IRRAD have individually and collectively achieved great success, and the impact is being felt across Mewat.
What is a “rights-based approach” to development and how does IRRAD’s strategy employ this approach?
Lacking the resources to support a long-term service-delivery approach, we shifted our strategy and adopted what is known as a rights-based approach (RBA) in 2008-2009. RBA considers overcoming poverty to be a matter of human rights, and it emphasizes empowerment and accountability over charity, which fits nicely with our view that people must take control of their own development to achieve lasting change.
The shift to RBA was not a purely financial decision, however; it would not have made nearly as much sense without groundbreaking legislation—for example, the Right to Information Act (2005), the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2005), and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009)—that gives RBA much-needed legal heft.
During this pivotal period in IRRAD’s history, we learned several more important lessons:
- First, small may be beautiful, but big leads to meaningful change; scaling up is a must if we are to make a significant impact.
- Second, small innovations can have a big impact, and those that are replicable and scalable need to be demonstrated and promoted on a large scale.
- Sustainability can be achieved by empowering villagers to take ownership of their own development by building the capacities of key community institutions.