Shifting the Power to the Local Community: Saamuhika Shakti in Bengaluru, India

Since 2019, the H&M Foundation has been supporting Saamuhika Shakti, a collective impact (CI) initiative to improve the lives of waste pickers in Bengaluru. Over many years, H&M Foundation (H&MF) has been working to accelerate systems change, support inclusive societies, and fast-track development towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. H&MF typically funded bilateral projects focused on singular themes. But since 2019, H&MF has been aspiring to catalyse even more holistic change, shifting from being theme-based to being community-based and equity-centred. This involves tackling multiple issues at a time, building cross-sectoral collaborations, and enabling local ownership. And so, H&MF wished to try out CI as a method, in a context where it had never been used before.

Getting Started

H&MF was interested in bringing a social perspective to the circular economy within urban India, where informal waste pickers, who are an integral part of the waste management value chain, are particularly marginalised. H&MF chose to explore the potential for a CI initiative in Bengaluru, which generates around 4,500 tonnes of waste every day and has around 20,000 waste pickers.

As a first step, in the first half of 2019, the nonprofit consulting group FSG conducted a study to understand the context of waste picker families in Bengaluru. This involved ethnographic research with waste pickers and knowledge-sharing workshops with development actors across sectors. The study revealed several key challenges being faced by waste pickers, including low and unstable incomes, and limited access to essential needs like housing, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), and education for children[1]. Women in waste picker households faced further challenges, including sexual harassment and domestic abuse. It was clear that any meaningful change would require a diverse and interconnected set of interventions, further reinforcing the need for CI.

Through the second half of 2019, H&MF and FSG steered towards a CI group; a group of committed partners came together, and based on the research conducted, agreed on a common agenda. The implementing partners include Hasiru Dala, BBC Media Action, CARE, Sambhav Foundation, Save the Children, Social Alpha and WaterAid. The/Nudge Institute set up an independent backbone team, based in Bengaluru. Most partnerships were formalised in February 2020, and Saamuhika Shakti was officially launched later that year. Additionally, 3ie was on-boarded as an external evaluation agency, to help assess if and how the initiative’s CI approach actually benefits waste picker households.

Learnings So Far

The last two years have offered tremendous learning for all of us working on the Saamuhika Shakti initiative. Prior to this initiative, while Indian development actors were increasing collaborative action, many of us were not accustomed to the extent, or form, of partnership really required for CI. Not all of us had worked with waste pickers, or on the identified challenges. Further, we were unsure of how to find the right balance between enabling waste picker households to benefit from multiple interventions, while not trying to take on too much, too quickly.

In the early days of the initiative, all partners leveraged each other’s connections to engage directly with the waste picker community, to further understand their lives and livelihoods, and build trust. We spent a lot of time to build trust with each other as partners too, before the environment was sufficiently open for us to share our aspirations and anxieties candidly. Our trust-building started with divergent yet open discussions on a common agenda and solidified as we worked together on the ground and understood each of our strengths and apprehensions better. And H&MF had to be more flexible with timelines and processes than they were accustomed to, to provide the necessary scaffolding for all of this to come together.

Since the start, Saamuhika Shakti partners have had the voice of waste pickers at the centre of their work, and have been responsive to the community’s needs throughout implementation. The partners have also adopted a gender-focused approach. For example, CARE is building women waste picker support groups to create enabling environments, and is also sensitising male waste pickers to support women and girls. Male waste pickers who appropriately influence their male peers are praised and recognised. Hasiru Dala runs leadership development programmes for women of the waste picker community so that they can go on to become agents of change. Overall, while the pandemic has hampered progress, by December 2021 Saamuhika Shakti had enabled 2,069 women from waste picker communities to get livelihoods training, 1,821 waste pickers to get life-skills training, 2,258 waste picker family members to access social security, engaged with 655 waste pickers on financial literacy courses, and helped 1733 children to access out-of-school learning.

Looking back on the last two years, Saamuhika Shakti partners agree that CI helped them work more efficiently, allowing them to leverage each other’s strengths and build trust with the community. CI also provided a sharper and more informed pathway to impact, in a manner that could not have been possible within the same timeframe, if working in isolation. H&MF sees CI as a necessary approach to move away from siloed projects to catalyse equity-centric systems change, and is excited about playing the role of a strategic facilitator, shifting agency to local actors. H&MF has recently kicked off yet another CI project in Bangladesh, to improve the livelihoods of women garment workers. Over the next two years, we look forward to sharing more of our learnings on how CI is being applied in this context, and more stories of impact.

Learn More at the Action Summit

We will conduct a short talk on our journey so far during this year’s Collective Impact Action Summit – we hope you come join us!

[1] Refer to the Outcome Mapping tool on the Saamuhika Shakti website for more information on key challenges and related interventions


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