The power of positive deviants: A promising new tactic for changing communities from the inside
Definition (Via Positive Deviance.org)
Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges.
The Positive Deviance approach is an asset-based, problem-solving, and community-driven approach that enables the community to discover these successful behaviors and strategies and develop a plan of action to promote their adoption by all concerned.
Introduction (Via Boston)
In 2001, Muhammad Shafique arrived in the Haripur District in Pakistan, a region known for its traditionalism and wariness of outsiders. As part of a team from Save the Children, Shafique was seeking to improve outcomes for newborns. Immediate breast-feeding is recommended for babies, but infants in the region were typically fed ghutti, an herbal mixture, before nursing. By tradition, the umbilical cord was cut with a bamboo stick, which put babies at risk for tetanus. And fathers were seldom involved in pregnancy and delivery. These and other factors had contributed to high rates of infant illness and mortality.
In similar places, aid groups had tried to tackle this problem by training midwives or distributing information to mothers at health clinics. But Shafique and his colleagues took another approach. They talked at length with the villagers, and soon discovered that these customs, while prevalent, were not universal. A few mothers breast-fed their newborns before giving them ghutti, calling their milk “the first gift of God for my child.” One father had bought a clean razor blade, which he asked the attendant to use instead of a bamboo stick to cut the cord. Several men had taken steps to provide their pregnant wives with extra food and had saved money in case of emergency.
In general, the children of these parents were flourishing. At a series of well-attended meetings, the Save the Children staffers shared these success stories, describing how unorthodox practices within the community were producing healthy babies. Others began to adopt these strategies. Six months after Save the Children left, men from the villages reported that no newborns had died since the group’s departure.
According to Shafique, the husbands said to themselves, “If he can do it, why can’t I?…The solution to the problem lies within the community. There are people who have the same resources, but they’re doing something differently.”
Most Important Concepts (Via Boston)
This initiative is an example of “positive deviance,” an approach to behavioral and social change. Instead of imposing solutions from without, the method identifies outliers in a community who, despite having no special advantages, are doing exceptionally well. By respecting local ingenuity, proponents say, the approach galvanizes community members and is often more effective and sustainable than imported blueprints.
The concept was first applied to reduce malnutrition in the early 1990s in Vietnam. Since then, programs in developing countries have used it widely for the same purpose. But more recently, it has been invoked in a broader range of contexts, beyond public health, and in rich countries, including the United States. Organizations are now turning to positive deviance to address a dizzying variety of challenges, from female genital cutting and human trafficking in Asia and Africa, to school dropouts and diabetes in the United States. The business world has also begun to take an interest in using the tactic to maximize performance.