In Conversation with Professor Hitesh Bhatt:
Relevance of impact methodologies in
development sector projects.
- Prof. Hitesh Bhatt, Director, IRMABack to main blog page
As Director of India’s leading institution for rural management and as a prominent academic, please comment on the evolving trends in educating the next generation of leaders, especially as it relates to the application of digital technologies in the rural sector.
To answer this question, I would like to take you through the 40-year journey of IRMA. IRMA started because there was a need to place professional managers in dairy cooperatives, who weren’t readily available from regular B-Schools like the IIMs. Dr. Verghese Kurien, having failed to get the IIM-A to establish such a program, wanted to start his own institution. However, he did not have any experience in building a management school. So, he consulted with people, including his cousin Mr. Ravi Matthai, who was the first director of IIM-A. He helped Dr. Kurien in establishing IRMA and found two renowned faculty members in Prof. Michael Halse and Prof. Kamla Chowdhry. They put together the curriculum in line with a PhD program.
The second thing they needed was to get the right students. Having no facilities such as the internet to attract attention at the time, Dr. Kurien laid out two ways to attract students. Firstly, providing a stipend of Rs. 600 per month and secondly, guaranteeing a job after graduation. This provided great financial incentive as Rs. 600 a month in 1980 was a lot. For some context, after graduating from IIT Delhi in 1977,. I got a high-paying job which gave Rs 750 per month, and after completing my graduation from Georgia Tech University in the USA, I got a job worth Rs. 900 a month in 1979. Coming back, having secured the necessary infrastructure, the faculty and students, Dr. Kurien turned to the curriculum.
The curriculum of IRMA was made in a manner that it evolved every 5 years, adjusting to industry needs and market dynamics. For pure managerial skills, it had a set of core subjects and for the optional subjects, it looked at skills required in the market. After establishing the curriculum, Dr. Kurien focused on the infrastructure of IRMA.
Thus, we see that Dr. Kurien’s faculty came first, followed by the students, the curriculum and then the infrastructure. Today, schools focus first on infrastructure. This is because these schools are all about attraction and not real values.
However, it must be noted that while IRMA was doing very well before COVID, the pandemic has severely impacted us. We have faced great pressure and were forced to switch to video conferencing. Thanks to the students of all our programmes for accepting the changes and supporting the institution during such time.
Do you think the planning and implementation of development projects in India are data-driven to the extent they should be? What is the pace at which policy is being driven by data-based research in India, such as stochastic modelling, a dominant trend across the world?
Interventions in the developmental world or at the government level - state or central - are often contextual. There is a context and according to that there is an intervention. However, for many years a lot of these interventions have not led to effective outcomes.
For example, let’s take the problem of people having to walk several kilometres to access water. We have been talking about this problem since the first 5-year plan. The intervention which came at that time was to make wells. The solution seemed great, but we needed to verify whether it actually resulted in people having to walk a lesser distance, something we failed to do, resulting in the problem never being resolved.
Recently, I heard the Prime Minister announce that “we want water in every tap of every household”. Basically, zero distance travelled. This is a more effective plan, and just imagine if we had done this from the very beginning. Instead, we have numerous wells which don’t even function now. I have seen this first hand in a district during a field visit in 1997, where a well was a mere 1-foot pit. The farmer told me that the BDO took most of the money commissioned for the well, giving the farmer a fraction, never actually building the well. This is a testament to the literature about project management, which highlights that 80% of the projects that are placed either in the corporate world or developmental world fail to deliver. A majority of the time this is because the need assessment is done poorly or the M&E is not done right.
The problem with projects is that they do not follow an evidence-based approach. If the project is more data driven then it would always be a successful project.
In your opinion, how comprehensive is the Logical Framework in assessing the impact of a project? Is there a way in which the framework needs amendments to incorporate (a) the contribution of unrelated factors and (b) unanticipated impacts of project activities?
I came across the LFA in 2010 and I was fascinated. It was introduced by USAID in late 60s and has several variations such as the RBMS (Result Based Monitoring System) and ZOPP (Zielorientierte Projektplanung) or GOPP (Goal Oriented Project Planning).
What is the Log Frame Approach (LFA)? It is a tool which tells the person at the designing stage the narrative summary, the interventions/projects in that cell, and the immediate results. If this has been done well, then there is a good chance that the intervention can lead to successful outcomes. The Log frame’s 2nd column shows the indicators one should be looking at. For every result, it illustrates what the indicator should be. Suppose I want potable water, then the indicator would be a laboratory test that verifies the report. Log frame brings in some kind of discipline, relating the results and outcomes, to some tangible indicator. The most fascinating column in the LFA is the assumptions column. Any policy intervention carries with itself certain implicit assumptions about the project and the people you are trying to help. It is critical to verify these assumptions as it could otherwise lead to poor outcomes.
Coming back to part (a) of the question, there are unanticipated factors such as COVID which can always arise. To address this, we must have a participative way of making the log sheet. By being participative, you can get more perspectives and resolve more potential issues.
As for part (b) of the question, we have been seeing these unanticipated impacts play out and are trying to account for them. A classic example is Verdentum. Increasingly with mobile-based technology, farmers are becoming well off. Today, if a farmer has 3-4 farms, then with a mobile phone given to a person working at each farm, he can track progress much better. Tomorrow using these gains, the farmer can connect with the satellite and know which crop should be grown. This will lead to greater productivity, farmers becoming richer, and this will lead to children having greater aspirations and eventually not having any interest in farming, causing them to leave the farm. Addressing such unanticipated outcomes is critical for long-term success.
Companies like AMUL and Verdentum are trying to make significant changes in the lives of farmers to try and stop such migration. A way of doing this is seen in the example of a village called Verna, where the people have worked with local politicians to bring prosperity to the village and established ancillary industries and colleges, which keep the younger generations in the village. Therefore, the money stays there along with the people. Thus, with people, politicians and development organizations working together, a possible solution can be created.
Please note: What I’m saying is my own perspective, not an IRMA Director’s perspective.
How important is embracing SROI (Social Return on Investment) or a similar return on investment framework? Are you happy with the pace at which organizations are embracing the concept of SROI?
Unfortunately, we are not changing with time. Even after 50 years, very few organizations working in the development sector use LFA. SROI - a much newer phenomenon, similarly while being very relevant, is not valued.
Take activities like CSR. 2% of the profit of companies has to be used for CSR. However, while some companies use the money in a good way, others do not. Even among the companies that genuinely want to spend CSR money on beneficiaries, several spend on projects which do not bring social return. Ideally, if there are two projects and the company knows that the SROI on project A is more than B then they will definitely spend money on Project A. This should be standard practice but unfortunately is not.
I think companies like Verdentum, institutions like IRMA or government organizations like NITI Aayog should spend time on training CSR officials. If CSR officials of large organizations are trained properly, leading them to value concepts like LFA as SROI, then I think they would spend money on technology, as technology can be used to effect great change. For example, if they spend money on technology, then in two years’ time, productivity will increase, crops will change, causing more prosperity and eventually changing the lives of farmers. Tools like SROI have value and must be promoted.
What changes need to come about, in terms of policy or otherwise, to increase the use of technology in the social sector. Could you please provide us with some examples?
The policy part is difficult for me, but I can tell you from my experience that it is people like Dr. Vijay, Mr. Rohit and our students from IRMA who bring in new technology. For example, let’s talk about Dhwani RIS - under the project, there were 3 students who went for a field visit and did one simple thing: They connected pregnant women from the village to the anganwadi. Now, the anganwadi women could send texts to women to inform them about their check-up, delivery date, vaccination, etc. It started with a simple application on the ordinary mobile phone, but had a wonderful impact.
To create real change, you must look at the benefit provided to the person at the bottom of the pyramid. Today, for example, if we can connect farmers to the market when they are trading goods, if we can connect farmers with the satellite so that they can know about rainfall patterns, then even with such simple tools we can create change. This is the power of technology which must be taken forward. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs never went to any policy making body, they made policy makers come to them, and showed how technology can help uplift people. This is the position which prominent players like Dr. Vijay and Mr. Rohit can take for society and I hope this happens very soon.
Professor Hitesh Bhatt holds a degree of B.Tech from IIT Delhi and M.S. in Industrial Management from Georgia Tech, Atlanta, USA. He started his career with Reliance Textile Industries Limited in 1979 and has a combined experience of 40 years - of which 8 years is in senior positions of CEO/Country Head of large organisations in India and Tanzania. Apart from Reliance, he has worked in Mafatlal group of mills, Sunflag group of textile and garment factories in Tanzania, and finally a joint venture company (Indo-Bhutanese-South Korean) in Sanand, Gujarat. During this period, he set up of 2 large textile mills and revived another textile & garment factory (employing over 2500 persons) from "near closure" to a position of envy in East Africa.
He started his academic career in 1995 with IRMA as an Associate Professor and since then has been involved in teaching, training and consulting in diverse areas. In the interim, he also worked as Professor & Head of Centre for Management Studies at Dharmsinh Desai Univesrity in Nadiad, Gujarat. He has trained different cadres of professionals in a variety of organisations - Government, Non-Government, Cooperatives, Dairy Unions, Industrial Units, Educational Institutions and Corporate. He has delivered talks in a number of organisations both in India and overseas on diverse topics. His current areas of interest are Project Management, Quality Management, Operations Management, Individual & Organisational Effectiveness and developing soft skills for employees in an organisation. He was the Director of IRMA from 2017-2020.