By Maria Bystedt, Strategy Lead, H&M Foundation
When we launched Saamuhika Shakti in 2019, we were driven by a purpose and a question : to answer why creating a holistic impact in communities continued to remain challenging and what radical changes are needed to correct that.
For Saamuhika Shakti to achieve its high-level goal of improving the quality of life of waste pickers and enable them with the agency to lead more secure and dignified lives, we had to learn to shift our thinking from addressing challenges serially in silos, to looking at comprehensive methodologies and using collaboration as a way to move the needle towards progress — because systems change is too complex for any one actor to tackle alone.
We brought in 10 partners, all experts within their field, to tackle different challenges faced by waste pickers, with the objective of addressing several concerns together — not just water or education or work safety or earning capacity or housing & social security — but all of these. To provide waste pickers holistic solutions.
We found the Collective Impact approach — a highly structured method to build a collective of community members, organizations, and institutions that advance equity by learning and working together — catered to all that we wanted to achieve, and provided the collaborative framework needed to overcome complex socio-economic problems.
As we successfully close the first phase of Saamuhika Shakti, and march strongly into the second phase this January 2024, we’re proud to report that our partners in Bengaluru, India, have not only demonstrated that collaboration is possible, but have also showed that by working together, more is possible than the sum of its parts.
However, we didn’t start this way.
Our aim to shift power relations, create inclusive societies, and ensure equity for the long term required patience, adaptability, and continuous communication, as it is not easy to completely reimagine how different actors collaborate, that too in a system where too many organizations are used to working in isolation from one another.
The work was not without challenges. Right off the bat, COVID19 pandemic hit the globe and Saamuhika Shakti partners had to re-tool programs to reach the community and do the work under restrictive conditions. Along the journey, experiences from the ground required us to iterate the program design to be more effective.
Once the waste-picking community’s needs were identified and partners had started working within their areas of expertise, we noticed we had missed something: that waste pickers lived across Bengaluru’s vast expanse and that our partners were spreading themselves out in different areas of the city, which means we were potentially missing out on the holistic impact we wanted to achieve by reaching the same individuals with multiple interventions. We had not communicated our vision clearly and had to go back to the drawing board with our partners. What worked was that all of us acknowledged that we were creating a completely new path and there would be bumps along the way.
Going back to the drawing board helped, we put in place mechanisms to ensure at least three of our 5 on-ground partners worked together in a given area and with the same families. Partners, too, understood that to do so, they would need each other’s help - for instance, one of them already working in a community on social security could help introduce two others, working on education and water.
Four years into the project, collaboration has deepened significantly. Partners began reaching out to each other - referring participants to each others’ interventions, working on activities together, and sharing knowledge, resources, and infrastructure.
Community-driven change and local ownership have also been central to Saamuhika Shakti since its inception. The idea is that the design of such a program should not be led by the funders but by the primary actors with the lived experience of the problems being addressed.
All the collaborations across stakeholders and sectors were designed to address basic needs that were identified and prioritised by the waste-picking community such as education, health, safety, and access to fundamental rights, as well as increasing economic opportunities.
Effective and sustainable systems change can only happen when the people impacted by the change are included and inequities addressed openly and proactively. We aim to further consolidate this ground-up method of designing and co-creating with the community during the second phase.
In the first phase, monthly community meetings called Namma Jagali, or “our space” were initiated in waste-picker localities by partner Hasiru Dala. These meetings are attended by the residents, most of them waste pickers, to surface their main issues - most often these are about lack of water and sanitation, proper housing, and education for their children.
In Phase 2, we want to rely even more on Namma Jagali to consolidate the community ownership of Saamuhika Shakti. Doing so helps the program in three ways: first, it acts as a feedback loop for our partners, holding us accountable and alerting us whenever we need to change or adapt our approach; second, it helps the community get even more involved in ensuring Saamuhika Shakti’s interventions are catering to them; and finally, the community-centeredness helps to ensure Saamuhika Shakti doesn’t stray from its original purpose of serving waste pickers.
Collaboration is another aspect of our work that we expect to strengthen in the next phase. In the past four years, the depth of trust between partners and the intensity of our collaboration has increased so much that by the end of the first phase, when partners met to chart out and co-create Phase 2, they suggested areas of collaboration — things they could work on together from the beginning to ensure mistakes of Phase 1 were not repeated.
They also agreed to co-create a set of goals on which they would be evaluated and monitored together. These collaborative KPIs are, we believe, innovative and never-before-seen in the sector. They take collaboration to new heights because it is about our partners incentivising each other to work together at the program level, on the ground!
In the next phase, we also hope to increase our focus on textile waste, and by doing so, help monetise another waste stream that will create jobs and generate more income for waste pickers. We are looking at upskilling waste pickers to become textile waste entrepreneurs, or sorters in the sector, and then linking them to markets.
Saamuhika Shakti’s first phase has brought with it immense learning, and its impact reinforces our belief in a coordinated systems change approach. It has also taught us that pioneering Collective Impact means we must acknowledge that there will always be blind spots and that we may make mistakes along the way. But with our partners so focused on the overarching goals, and who treasure the community they work with, we march into Phase 2 confidently and optimistically!