Strategies & lessons while localising the SDGs: Experiences from India

‘Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world’ – Howard Zinn

This quote aptly explains the Society for Health Alternatives’ (SAHAJ) emphasis on bringing global to local through different processes of ‘localising SDGs’. Since 2017, SAHAJ[1] has been working towards achieving the targets from SDG 3 and SDG 5 in selected states in India and at the national level[2]. We have been working with civil society organisations, and networks and coalitions in Gujarat, Assam and Punjab on specific targets from SDG 3 and SDG 5. The work is aimed at ‘localising SDGs’.

SAHAJ was supported by EvalGender+ to build local, national and regional capacities and coordinate responses on monitoring and evaluating gendered SDGs; to leverage non-traditional stakeholders (health activist coalitions) to address gendered evaluation, and to create synergies with diverse stakeholders. This is a documentation of the strategies used for ‘Localising SDGs’ and the lessons learnt that emerged from the EvalGender+ effort.

Localising SDGs

Localising SDGs has been defined as “the process of defining, implementing and monitoring strategies at the local level for achieving global, national and subnational sustainable development targets. It involves various concrete mechanisms, tools, innovations, platforms and processes to effectively translate the development agenda into results at the local level” (GTF et al., 2014: 5).

While working on localising SDGs with a focus on SDG 3 and SDG 5, we have considered readiness of the system to incorporate the SDGs framework, the health systems settings and the structure of SDGs planning and implementation in the state as the criteria for selection. Given the varied social, economic and political conditions in each of the states where we are working, it became necessary to adopt different strategies in each of these states.

Collaborations with local civil society organisations was a key feature of this project.  It was seen that the level of involvement of the civil society organizations or networks in the state level decision making process has a great impact on the actual implementation of the SDGs. With this understanding, we started a process of localising SDGs.

Localising SDGs for us in the current context means:

  • to enable local communities to monitor implementation of schemes and programmes floated in their name;
  • to help CSOs to document their work with the local and marginalised groups in ways that can generate evidence for the SDGs commitment to ‘Leave No One Behind’; and
  • to facilitate, enable and strengthen local organisations so that they can become part of district level and state level fora and ensure that the voices of marginalised groups are heard, and their issues are included in planning at all levels

Some strategies for localising SDGs evolved as our work in the states progressed. These strategies were then systematically adopted in further work. This document is an attempt to record these strategies.

Strategy 1: Contextualizing SDGs

As mentioned earlier, our definition of localising SDGs includes ‘understanding, engaging and monitoring’ at the grass roots level. The global agenda of SDGs need to be teased out for making them relevant at the local level, within the context of the work of the local organizations.

Also, a lack of awareness about SDGs and its framework was observed at the local level. Our efforts thus focused on simplifying SDGs and situate theme within the local level work. In all the trainings and workshops, the participants cite examples from their work and try to find links with the SDG indicators. This helps in understanding the framework in a more organic way

For example, some of the workshop participants in Assam were working on disabilities and children. During the workshop, through practical examples from their experience, they came up with a framework that linked several issues from different SDGs – health, education, gender equality and decent work. A group of training participants working in urban areas of Ahmedabad linked the indicators for SDG 11 (Safe Cities) with several other SDGs through their work: Poverty, health, education and decent work.

Strategy 2: Building evidence from the local level

The macro picture for a particular issue was generated from the secondary data sources like reports of the official surveys and studies (like National Family Health Survey and National Sample Survey) fact sheets and indices produced at the global (the EM2030 SDG Gender Index) and national level (NITI Aayog’s SDG Index).

The state level analysis of the data gathered through the national surveys depict an overall picture of the state and the broad direction in which it is going with respect to a particular indicator or set of indicators. While working at the state or district level, a need was felt to complement these data sets with the examples from the communities, case studies, micro level studies by local organizations and such.

For example, the state report cards ‘Monitoring the Progress of Sustainable Development Goals: Situation Analysis for Selected Targets from SDG 3 and SDG 5’ in each of the selected states, were generated through a series of consultations with the civil society organizations working in different parts of the state with different communities. The reports included a sub-section on ‘evidence from primary data’ for all its sections. Case studies or experiences from the most marginalised groups were included in the ‘Leave No One Behind’ section of the reports of each state.

Strategy 3: Collaborations

SAHAJ has a history of engaging with different networks and coalitions in its work within Gujarat. We have also been active in the People’s Health Movement and CommonHealth – a Coalition on Reproductive Health and Safe Abortion in India. These relationships proved especially useful while working on SDGs and gender in states where we had not worked directly before. In all of the states we have worked in collaboration with networks of rights based civil society organizations. In Gujarat and Punjab, we have partnered with the state chapters of Jan Swasthya Abhiyaan (JSA) (People’s Health Movement in India). In Madhya Pradesh, along with the state JSA chapter, SAHAJ worked with a Coalition for Maternal Health Rights. In all of these states, partners of CommonHealth are also active in these SDGs monitoring initiatives. Working with these coalitions helped in building evidence from the ground.

Strategy 4: Bringing diverse stakeholders together

Through the meetings/consultations with the local civil society organizations and also through more in-depth direct work at the district level, we could get different stakeholders together. In states like Assam and Punjab, we have been able to get CSOs, community-based organizations, policy makers and decision makers, bureaucrats, representatives from academic institutes, UN agencies and other organizations working closely with the state governments on SDGs together on a same platform to discuss the progress of the states towards achieving SDGs.

Strategy 5: Adapting the approach locally

The fifth strategy is linked with the previous strategy of contextualizing. Although the overall area of work is selected based on SAHAJ’s prior experience and expertise, the actual state and district level activities were finalized in discussion with the local organizations at the beginning of the project cycle, keeping in view their ongoing activities . These were reviewed and adapted mid project as well.

For example,  a district partner organization in Assam had  interest and prior experience in working on the issue of maternal health and maternal deaths in their area. Thus, a small study is designed along with the state partner organization to strengthen the maternal health service provision in this district.

The above mentioned strategies on their own and with each other have proved to be effective in SAHAJ’s work with local organizations and communities in different states of India. These helped to build a connect from global to local in the context of SDGs, truly ‘localising’ SDGs

Lessons learnt

Through these processes of localising SDGs, the following lessons stand out as major learnings:

  • There is a great interest among the local civil society organisations to understand the global processes and their relation to the ground realities but there is a dearth of structures and mechanisms for these grass roots voices to reach the decision makers at the national level. Intermediary organizations like SAHAJ, who are currently using the SDGs framework in their work, can bridge this gap. They can help in translating the government’s efforts for monitoring the SDGs for the local organizations and vice versa.
  • There is a limited understanding among the state and district officials about the global processes such as SDGs but there is willingness to engage with resource groups like SAHAJ to build their own understanding.
  • There is a lack of data and evidence around gender. Also, there is uncertainty as to what is legitimate evidence; how can the quantitative data be complemented with qualitative data and use of case studies as a legitimate source of data. There should be more efforts for generating credible local level data for usage at the policy level.
  • Along with gender disaggregated data, data pertaining to groups that are ‘left behind’, the most marginalised social groups, is also lacking from the official records. The gaps in current evidence for these groups can be filled through in depth qualitative studies, stories and voices from the field. There needs to be a system level willingness to incorporate these studies for policy level analysis.
  • A more formal engagement of the civil society representatives with the government machinery on the issues of planning, implementation as well as monitoring could help better in progress towards achieving SDGs.

[1] SAHAJ (Society for Health Alternatives), registered in 1984, envisions a society with social justice, peace and equal opportunities for all. We focus on children, adolescents, and women in two specific sectors – health and education. We strive to make a practical difference in the lives of marginalized women and girls through direct action in the communities and through action research and policy dialogues. SAHAJ believes in developing programs based on the expressed needs of the communities and being led by the communities. For greater impact at the state and national level, we collaborate with like-minded organizations to form coalitions.

[2] This work is part of SAHAJ’s project named ‘Evidence based Civil Society Action for Gender Equality and SDGs’ supported by Equal Measures 2030 (EM2030).

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