By Laura Urrutia

When it comes to leadership in the relief sector, few people can claim the experience of Manu Gupta, who over 28 years has helped more than six million people rebuild their lives after being hit by disasters in India and neighbouring countries.

So when Gupta says there is an urgent need to focus on proactively building resilience in vulnerable communities, via a platform-based approach that can deliver results at huge scale, the entire sector takes notice.

Gupta is an Ashoka Fellow and the co-founder of SEEDS (Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society)  – an initiative that is dedicated to protecting lives and livelihoods with community-led efforts to build resilience that has been awarded both in India and internationally. In 2022 SEEDS received the global UN Sasakawa prize that recognises excellence in reducing disaster risk, and in 2021, the highest national award by the central government of India, ‘Subhash Chandra Bose Aapda Prabandhan Puraskar Award’, conferred for the excellent work done by individuals and institutions in the field of Disaster Management.

Gupta was among the speakers at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP27 in Egypt, where governments took the ground-breaking decision to establish new funding arrangements and technical assistance to help developing countries in responding to loss and damage due to the adverse effects of climate change.

“The dialogue that is happening globally is about net zero, how to reduce carbon emissions,” Gupta says, referring to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible. “What we are trying to put across is that while that is an important discussion point, now there are people suffering because the accumulated carbon is already causing droughts, cyclones, heat waves, fires, land-slides… It’s happening all across the world.

“In our country, India, almost every state has a district that is suffering huge losses due to this. This fact has helped us to shape our strategy in SEEDS.”

Aware of the massive challenge ahead in India, where it is estimated that 315 million people in the most vulnerable areas will suffer losses due to climate change by 2030, Gupta looked for ways to scale up impact and learned more about the power of technology and innovative strategies during his two-year accelerator  program led by ASPIRe, an initiative from Ashoka focused on using platform thinking supported by technology to drive systemic impact.

“For more than two-and-a-half decades we’ve been chasing disasters, looking how you can create resilience, and lately what we find is that, relatively speaking, our work has become more insignificant, considering the way climate disasters are increasing, both in terms of intensity and frequency,” explains Gupta.

“The ASPIRe process has guided us in this journey to revisit our 10-year strategy. SEEDS has moved from being an implementer to taking an enabling role, basically looking into solving problems at scale, something we, as social entrepreneurs, find   challenging. We believe that if we can shift the intervention frame from a relief intervention after a disaster, to a pro-active one, spending way more in prevention and adaptation, we will be able to create that adaptability for communities.

“The current  focus is that when there’s a disaster, there’s an outpouring of public sympathy as people rush out to help and gather resources. Some amount goes into recovery and rebuilding until the next disaster happens and then, the whole thing starts again. It’s a recurring phenomenon. Our work in over 35 emergencies in the last two decades indicates that normally only 20-30% of recovery needs of disaster affected people are met. Affected people are forced to take desperate measures such as taking high interest loans, forced displacement, and human trafficking, to name a few.

“To what extent can humanity keep doing that? How do we shift from survivability to helping communities adapt better to climate change? Every dollar that is put in prevention, it can save four dollars in relief. This means investing more on resilience building and to reduce their debt, so they are able to cut their losses, survive better and in the process if they make good informed choices, they will be able to even thrive. There are opportunities, we’ve seen that.”

It’s a case of turning communities into a key stakeholder in the resilience and relief response ecosystem. One that is listened to, plays an active role and has the ability to reflect and take decisions, as opposed to simply being recipients of aid.

“We are trying to create a more disruptive model which encourages communities to adopt resilience-building practices in the relief and restoration phases, so they break out of the vicious cycle and in the event of a disaster, it doesn’t become a calamity for them because they are resilient enough to withstand the impact of the next one,” adds the co-founder of SEEDS.

Gupta puts it simply: “We’ve seen how choosing a different material or structure to build houses, cultivating alternative crops or training at schools and communities on safety plans, could save thousands of lives and improve the livelihood of vulnerable people.”

Sharing valuable data and knowledge with all stakeholders to help them make better decisions and anticipate and solve problems effectively is another key principle that leads to system change and impact at scale, according to ASPIRe’s latest research on leveraging platforms for the good of all.

Inspired by this guidance, SEEDS’ new model envisages the creation of an open data platform that enables communities to share their personal information on damage, losses and needs with governments, humanitarian agencies and private institutions.

The platform will lead to much better orchestration and match-making of multiple aid givers, on one side, and affected communities on the other side, a set-up that will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of aid distribution among communities.

The process of implementing the platform is already taking off, as the Indian Government recently agreed on testing in three states (Odisha, Uttarakhand and Kerala) SEEDS prototype of a new loss assessment system that could replace the existing one, which is government-led and often leads to delayed or partial assistance.

A new model where communities record their own damage, loss and needs assessments will allow communities to reflect ‘felt losses’ instead of ‘perceived losses’ as determined by external parties.

These assets and losses will be stored as e-wallets on a common public data platform that will allow not only governments, but also non-government organisations and humanitarian agencies to assess much more efficiently the overall losses, the assistance needed, as well as to respond and design the recovery efforts in a coordinated manner.

“What this platform does is processing this information providing context-based solutions in the most efficient way and also in a coordinated manner. That is the real benefit that communities enjoy in this kind of scenarios,” Gupta points out.

At a later phase, the pilot will be tested in 22 more states before being implemented by 2025 in 225 of the most climate vulnerable areas with a population of 315 million people, but to achieve that milestone SEEDS will need the support of organisations that work close to these communities.

“These local relief giving organisations will need to adapt too, so they become resilience building organisations,” he explains. “They will have the incentive of entering the platform and be connected to a larger pool of resources and above all, they will have a more sustained engagement with their communities, and not just during the disaster.”

This new platform will distribute the ability to solve of each stakeholder (communities, Government, agencies, organisations), a move that will accelerate change in the relief sector in India and will provide a scale impact solution for vulnerable communities hit by disasters caused by global warming.

“Our goal is to gradually transfer the ownership of the platform to the Government by 2030,” Gupta concludes. “Without that, the platform would be very difficult to sustain and in my experience, it’s something that governments would like to take ownership of.”

Gupta’s leadership in the relief system is now becoming a reality and in the years to come it’s set to lead to better outcomes that will improve the lives of millions of people.




Leveraging Platforms for the Good of All is a research paper that analyses SEEDS along with 13 cutting edge platforms led by Ashoka Fellows and distills design principles of platforms for good.