Mr. Ashwajit Singh, Founder and Managing Director at IPE Global, in a candid conversation with All Things Talent, talks about some of the biggest initiatives and core values at IPE Global, transparency in the workplace and how gender audit can improve practice on gender equality. He also shares his insights on corporate social responsibility in India, innovative financing for development and approaches to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Mr Ashwajit Singh is the Founder and Managing Director at IPE Global, the largest development sector management consultancy firm in South Asia. He has over 3o years of extensive experience in development consultancy and advisory services. Mr Ashwajit Singh has provided strong leadership and strategic direction to IPE as the Managing Director. He specialises in the core areas of Corporate and Business Strategy, Efficiency Enhancement, Municipal Finance and Management, Policy Framework and Institutional Strengthening. He has a rich experience of working with diverse teams across geographies-Africa, Asia & Europe. Ashwajit is also the Chairman of Triple Line Consulting (an IPE Global Group company), a UK based international development consulting firm and Director of Ajooni Impact Investment Advisor Private Limited – a social impact fund. He is a qualified Chartered Accountant, Company Secretary (Gold Medallist), Certified Internal Auditor certificate holder, inlaks Scholar and an alumnus of the London School of Economics.
Q. Looking back at your career to date, you are a veteran with nearly 3 decades of rich and diverse global experience of working with teams in over 100 countries. What were the key elements in your journey which helped you soar professionally? Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?
A. I believe that no company can be successful without paying attention to the well-being of its people — and people can’t be successful without feeling good every day. Having the right skills on board, focus on the company vision, employee engagement and scalable business model has been the key pillars of our growth since the past two decades. Starting with a team of five to a current 1000 plus workforce, the journey has been both exciting and challenging. I still remember December 1998 when and I was exchanging a series of emails with Enterprise LSE (Consulting arm of London School of Economics) wherein we were discussing areas that needed expertise in times to come. And one such area where we felt there was a huge gap in terms of governance and policy framework was the development sector. Wanting to bridge the gap between policy and implementation, we looked at providing end-to-end expertise and consultancy services to stakeholders: right from formulating policies to handholding and implementing them. I always wanted to do something to improve the lives of people across the world, therefore, I set up my own enterprise “IPE Global” which became a formal entity on 21st December 1998. It has been a 20 year plus journey today and though there have been many people who inspired me throughout my career, there has been no particular role model. Despite coming from a service background, I always wanted to go on my own; do something for society and give back to people.
Q. What are some of the biggest initiatives you are currently working on at IPE Global? How do you ensure that these initiatives align with the strategic goals of the company?
A. The IPE Global Group is the largest development sector consultancy firm in South Asia. Headquartered in New Delhi, India with seven international offices in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines and the United Kingdom with offices across 11 states in India, IPE Global offers a range of integrated, innovative and high-quality consulting services across several sectors and practices. These include Health, Nutrition & WASH, Social Economic Empowerment, Urban & Infrastructure Growth and Education & Skills Development to name a few.
Wanting to bridge the gap between policy and implementation, we looked at providing end- to-end expertise and consultancy services to stakeholders: right from formulating policies to hand-holding and implementing them. I always wanted to do something to improve the lives of people across the world, therefore, I set up my
own enterprise “IPE Global” which became a formal entity on 21st December 1998.
Having impacted over 300 million people through over 850 projects, IPE Global has many innovative and high social impact assignments. What differentiates us is our collaborative approach to work, efficient development initiatives across different continents and contributing to sustainable development with twin objectives of economic growth and social equity. Some of our current works include:
- Technical support on a city and regional interventions in Myanmar for inclusive economic growth and job creation. The project interventions will help city economies to become more productive, deliver access to reliable, affordable, renewable power for businesses and households, and strengthen investment in infrastructure services.
- Supporting Government of India in Planning, Design and Implementation of 5 Smart City projects which includes the development of infrastructure across the project cities by incorporating Smart Urban Services (24×7 water supply, 100% sewerage, roads, heritage etc.); Embedded Smart Solutions (Wifi Hotspots, kiosks and energy-efficient lighting etc.)
- Consulting Services for Design and Delivery of Professional Development Training Program for Teachers of Secondary/Higher Secondary Schools, Meghalaya, India. The project looks at enhancing the state capacity for sustained teacher development aimed to lead student success and their employability.
- Preventing adolescent pregnancy in Rajasthan by combining system level-interventions with on-ground actions to change social practices around early marriage and pregnancy through UDAAN supported by the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) the UK. The program will directly benefit around 240,000 adolescent girls in Udaipur and Dhaulpur and about 900,000 indirectly across Rajasthan with pre-metric scholarships for continuity of their education, leading to delayed marriage.
- VRIDDHI for scaling up high impact RMNCH+A interventions, a USAID supported the project. Over 450000 mothers and newborns covered under the Care around Birth approach; 150000 plus adolescents reached by strengthening Adolescent Friendly Health Clinics (AFHC) in Phase 1 of the project from 2014-2018.
Besides, other key past projects worthy of mention are:
- Odisha Girls’ Incentive Program (OGIP) – A conditional cash transfer of scholarships program to promote education in the eastern state. The project covered 9500 recognized High Schools across 30 districts of Odisha benefitting over 1.06 million boys and girls through scholarships. It also led to an increase in secondary school enrollment of SC and ST students by almost 14%, increasing the enrolment from 4.41 lakhs in the base year, 2012-13, to 5.02 lakhs in 2015-16.
Preparation of Concept Development Plans and Detailed Master Plans for the holistic development of Package I and Package III islands, Andamans & Nicobar and Lakshadweep supported by Niti Aayog, Government of India.
Social Mobilization Network (SMNet) program that was established in Uttar Pradesh in March 2001. One of the largest ever polio eradication programs in India, nearly 170 million children under the age of five at a national level and 20 million children in Uttar Pradesh were reached out with what is popularly known as “do boond zindagi ke.” Campaign.
Ethiopia Safe Space Program contributed to improved personal, social, health, safety, education and financial outcomes for 2,000 adolescent girls in Amhara and Oromia regions of Ethiopia.
Odisha Modernising Economy, Governance and Administration (OMEGA) to improve the performance of the Government of Odisha’s socio-economic and governance schemes and programs.
Q. What are some of the core values at IPE Global that are the guiding principles behind the company’s phenomenal growth, helping it become the largest development sector consultancy firm in South Asia?
A. At IPE Global we believe in a collaborative approach to address the global challenges of development. Our work ethics rests on five-core values – ‘Integrity, Innovation, Passion, Perseverance & Learning’ which are the driving force behind the organisation. We are an employee-centric organisation with a diverse and multidisciplinary workforce.
Q. More CEOs and leaders are getting dismissed for ethical lapses than for financial performance. Does this surprise you? Does this necessarily translate to an increase in corporate misbehaviour or the companies are holding executives up to higher ethical standards?
A. No, it doesn’t really surprise me. As per a recent report, 39% of chief executives were forced out due to ethical lapses or misconduct – a record of sorts in 2018. With changing times, there is now increased transparency in the workplace; countless online news outlets wanting stories; social media boom where anything and everything can get out at the click of a button! The #MeToo movement is a case in point. Therefore, it is imperative for organisations and leaders, to build effective checks and balances; create effective communication channels that create trust between leaders and employees with a proper feedback redressal system. We at IPE Global have a zero-tolerance policy against any misconduct and believe in complete adherence to all policies of corporate adherence. We believe in the highest standard of corporate governance.
Q. In Union Budget 2019 a social stock exchange has been proposed that will allow the listing of social enterprises and voluntary organisations. In your opinion, how will this move help those organisations who are working for social welfare objectives and want to raise funds?
A. Social Stock Exchange proposed in the India Union Budget 2019 can act as a catalyst in channelising more funds into the social sector space. The SSE could either follow the Singapore model to provide a listing of social enterprises or the UK/Brazil model of promoting a platform for leveraging funds for social projects. While we wait for more details on SSE, the government needs to look at how this could also be linked to CSR funding as companies in India are expected to put 2% of profit into CSR. We look forward to a set of SEBI guidelines for SSE that cover sectors which are a priority for the government and are aligned to their overall development policies. Globally, there is a huge amount of funding available in the ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) space. This could be a positive step towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals 2030.
Q. Traditional development assistance and government finances are not enough to fund the scale of the developmental challenge facing the globe. How can innovative financing for development initiatives aim to narrow the gap between the resources needed and the resources available?
A. Innovative financing for development drives efficiency and performance accountability of social enterprises by linking payments to the achievement of specific milestones. It can leverage the private sector in a sustainable manner that bolsters scarce public resources and leads to inclusive economic growth. PAHAL (Partnerships for Affordable Healthcare Access and Longevity) is USAID and IPE’s flagship innovative financing platform to promote health financing models and provides catalytic support to social enterprises (IBMs) for improving access to affordable and quality healthcare solutions for the urban poor communities, with a with a focus on Tuberculosis, Maternal and Child Health and WASH. Some of the financial initiatives being planned include pay for performance Tuberculosis Financing structure.
Q. Furthermore, how can the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) built on the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) offer a blueprint for innovative, inclusive development?
A. Leaving no one behind. By adopting the 2030 Global Agenda, world leaders unanimously committed towards the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015. The SDGs build on the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that preceded them and aim to complete what they did not achieve. The bar has been raised and a collective approach towards people, planet and prosperity can help reach the targets. In this context, there needs to be an emphasis on:
* National ownership where governments layout their national targets/policies in line with the priorities reflected in the Global Agenda.
* Addressing inequalities. As per a recently released UN Women Report, Turning promises into action: Gender equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the global gender pay gap stands at 23%. Women are more likely to be poor, unemployed, and doing unpaid work. Voices of minorities, the specially-abled groups, the displaced communities and others should be heard in any form of the decision-making process. Strategies to address inequalities can include proactive labour market policies and equitable access to natural and productive resources.
* Collaborative connectedness within the society at large. For example, a country’s ability to fight hunger is linked to the state of its infrastructure, public health systems, income levels and so on.
* Mobilising finance for investment in sustainable and resilient infrastructure. Adoption of inclusive business approaches, philanthropic giving, corporate social responsibility practices, and impact investing can lead the way.
Thus, there is a need for a universal call for a bold approach to achieve the SDGs for a more just and equitable world tomorrow.
Q. Despite D&I efforts, gender disparity at the workplace remains an issue in India. In your opinion, how can a gender audit at work help drive organisational change and improve practice on gender equality?
A. Gender equality is a human right. Women and men have different needs and priorities, but women and men should experience equal conditions in availing the fundamental freedoms in political, economic, social, cultural and civil spheres. Gender equal workplaces increase job satisfaction, augment productivity, promote participation, attract and retain talent. Today, there is a strong global momentum for gender parity. The formal workspaces can play a critical role. A gender audit at work can be an effective tool to ensure #BalanceforBetter. Women are essential stakeholders in the development process – serving as workers, producers, caregivers, and consumers — yet they are not immune to the negative fallout of gender biases. Owing to the multi-layered and multi-dimensional impact of gender bias on women’s agency, there is a need to have systems of concurrent appraisals that are non-threatening and that offer opportunity of organisational introspection and reform. IPE Global is perhaps one of the few companies to have got a gender audit conducted. We have also developed a tool for gender audit at workplaces.
A tested Gender Audit Tool-Kit that can be used by organisations to:
*Appraise their processes and policies.
*Evaluate whether they ensure equality of status and opportunity to women.
*Safeguard women against discrimination, violence, indignity, exploitation, and harassment.
Q. Speaking of gender equality, what is the difference between gender equity and gender equality? How does equity lead to equality and why does gender equity affect all of us as a society?
A. Gender equality is a concept with transformative connotations, covering women’s empowerment, non-discrimination and equal rights regardless of gender. It embraces a multi-dimensional and intersectional view on inequalities between women and men, girls and boys. It points towards a change of gender-based power relations in all sectors of society, private as well as public. Gender equity is realizing the different needs of women and men, girls and boys and putting their preferences and interests into consideration in access to opportunities and resources. It puts into consideration the reality of women and men’s lives and ensures they have equal opportunities. It then leads to Gender equality which translates into opportunities that are available for both women and men to have access to and control of social, economic and political resources. At IPE Global we launched the #MakeWayforHer campaign in 2017 that advocates and engages people to help break perceptions and build a more gender-inclusive world. The initiative highlights the need to address gender gaps in the formal workspace, home and society at large.
Q.Today, megatrends like mobile, e-commerce, and big data are replaced by new technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence, robotics and Internet of Things (IoT). In your opinion, in this age of constant disruption how pertinent is it for a leader to reinvent and transform continuously in the face of challenges?
A. Blockchain enables interaction with trust; artificial intelligence provides new insights for informed decision making; the Internet of Things brings in connectivity between people and things; sharing transforms ownership and business models, and data makes things more transparent. With each disruption comes in an opportunity to learn and know more. Having completed Blockchain Strategy Program from Oxford (2018) followed by Owner/President Management Program from Harvard Business School (2019), I believe that these technologies enable the leader to constantly disrupt his/her role to transform and stimulate the organisation towards positive change. It helps create forward-thinking leaders at all levels who remain agile and adaptable to disruptions and provide a competitive edge to the organisation.
Refreshingly frank and straight forward answers to issues raised. Three decades of development experience distilled into ten paragraphs. Enjoyed the interview!