Positive Deviance – identifying existing solutions, making use of local wisdom

26 Apr 2017

 There are certain individuals and groups in every community who employ ‘deviant’ but successful strategies to solve certain problems more effectively than their peers in the same circumstances.

What if the solutions to many long-entrenched and complex development problems did not require major resources from outside but could be found, funded and implemented by local communities themselves? Could the untypical but successful behaviour of certain individuals or groups be the key to finding solutions to some of these problems?

These questions were recently addressed at a series of Positive Deviance workshops organized by UNDP in Skopje to help build the capacities of CSOs and local municipalities directly involved in managing the migrant crisis and its aftermath.

The workshops aimed at enabling the participants to apply an alternative approach, called Positive Deviance, to initiate bottom-up changes through simple and sustainable solutions to problems associated with the massive influx of migrants and refugees over the past two years.

‘Positive Deviance’ is an approach to behavioural and social change based on the premise that there are certain individuals and groups in every community who employ ‘deviant’ but successful strategies to solve certain problems more effectively than their peers in the same circumstances.

The approach was first developed in the 1990s by Jerry and Monique Sternin while they were working for Save the Children to address the problem of malnutrition in Vietnam. They discovered that certain villagers were managing to raise well-nourished children by employing uncommon strategies, by washing their children's hands before meals, and feeding them three to four times a day instead of the usual two meals. Based on this discovery, the Sternins developed an innovative nutrition programme. Instead of simply telling villagers what to do differently, the programme focused on helping participants to ‘act’ their way into a new way of thinking.

The Positive Deviance approach has since been implemented to overcome the problems of vulnerable groups in many parts of the world, including both economically developed and underdeveloped countries, in sectors such as education and healthcare.

The initial workshops organised by UNDP led the participants through the first two stages of the Positive Deviance process:

1.    defining problems that can be solved with the approach
2.    determining common behaviour in order to identify deviant behaviours

Following the workshop, the participants were required to apply these stages to the problem of mutual hostility between migrants and the local population.

Many migrants were mistrustful due to the scams and mistreatment they had suffered along their route. Many local people believed the migrants were draining the country’s resources, and they were also disturbed by the amount of waste created because of the enormous number of migrants crossing the country.

This mistrust resulted in a number of physical altercations, and in some cases the local population even blocked roads to prevent food supplies from being delivered to the camps. These hostilities further led migrants to mistrust the volunteers seeking to address the problems.

The participants who carried out interviews in the first two stages of the process discovered that one local NGO had developed an efficient way to improve communications and overcome mistrust between the volunteers and the migrants by persuading the transit centres to employ local people, thereby improving the livelihood of the local population and reducing their intolerance of the migrants.  

At the same time, initiatives were also taken to create regular contacts and ease communications between the two groups by organising shared meals.  The number of hostile incidents decreased significantly even before the closure of borders along the route.  

The second round of workshops explored the examples of Positive Deviance identified by the interviewers and investigated how they had managed to discover these examples. The people identified as ‘positive deviants’ were invited to discuss their experience with the participants and to take part in a simulation of interviewing for positive deviance.  

The final workshops focussed on the ‘dissemination phase’ of the Positive Deviance process, introducing participants to techniques with which positive deviants can train their peers.  

UNDP now aims to incorporate the approach in other projects to stimulate a grass-roots change in public attitudes, enabling the people most affected to come up with solutions, thereby ensuring their applicability and sustainability.

We would be happy to hear from anyone who has tried a similar approach.


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