Identifying rebels with a cause (and effect)

1st December 2015

The Developmental Leadership Program will host its 2016 Annual Conference at La Trobe University in Melbourne on 8 February. Its theme is ‘Power, Politics and Positive Deviance’.

It is pretty obvious why a DLP conference would focus on power and politics, but why positive deviance? And what is it anyway?

Perhaps the best known text on this topic is The Power of Positive Deviance by Richard Pascale with Jerry and Monique Sternin. The concept of positive deviance is based, they explain, 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.’

"Given a world preoccupied with ‘what’s wrong’ and ‘what’s missing’ … the counterintuitive emphasis on ‘what’s working against all odds’ is a breath of fresh air."

They use a number of case studies to illustrate the idea and the processes that underpin it. These include addressing malnutrition in Vietnam, Female Genital Mutilation in Ethiopia, and reducing infections in hospitals.

The concept is based on the evolutionary principles of adaptation, and was inspired by the work of Margaret Zeitlin and others on child nutrition. In the last few years, a number of authors working on aid and development issues have also picked up on this notion. Ben Ramalingam, in Aid on the Edge of Chaos, devotes several pages of a chapter on adaptive strategies to the topic of positive deviance. Matt Andrews has used it in Explaining Positive Deviance in Public Sector Reforms in Development, in which he seeks to explain the strategies associated with ‘abnormally successful interventions’ in a field where success has generally been limited.

This is how Pascale et al. summarise the arguments put forward by those who champion a positive deviance approach.

  • “Given a world (and media) largely preoccupied with ‘what’s wrong’ and ‘what’s missing’ … the counterintuitive emphasis on ‘what’s working against all odds’ is a breath of fresh air. The approach is a tonic for the change-weary.”
  • “The Way to Change a Community (Is Not to Engage in Community Change).”  Positive deviance approaches mimic natural processes that exploit the natural variation in any given context to select successful strategies which, by definition, are feasible because they already exist. For instance, the case study of attempts to reduce child mortality in Pakistan shows how “[f]ocusing on concrete activities …allowed supporting behaviours, networks and roles to emerge naturally and invisibly. Transformation occurred precisely because it wasn’t the intended objective.”
  • The faraway stick does not kill the snake – proverb of the Mocua tribe of Mozambique. Engaging the community of interest (in other words, those affected by a particular issue or concern) creates the prerequisites for success in both identifying positive deviants and, more importantly, effectively sharing knowledge of how this variation emerged through a social learning process. Pascale et al. note the importance here of ‘social proof’: evidence that fellow community members in similar circumstances are succeeding against the odds. In these circumstances the role of ‘outsiders’ is to help facilitate that problem-solving process, not provide ‘answers’ from elsewhere.
  • It’s easier to act your way to a new way of thinking, than think your way to a new way of acting.” A focus on practice, which can in turn shift attitudes and behaviours, reverses orthodox understandings and sequencing of social change. Positive deviance arguably has more in common with Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock’s argument that institutions are created through the successful historical practice of solving problems, not the other way round.

DLP’s own research has often used the notion of positive deviance. Sarah Phillips’ research on Oman and Somaliland explores areas of relative stability in regions where near neighbours are experiencing turmoil, and asks “how historical experiences do or don’t chime with contemporary donor practices”.

Kate Maclean has analysed how Medellin in Colombia went from being the ‘murder capital of the world’ to being the Urban Land Institute's 'Innovative City of the Year':  unpacking how power, politics, and coalitions of political actors were galvanised by crisis.

David Hudson and Niheer Dasandi are currently researching the politics of sustained episodes of inequality reduction. Which countries have witnessed the most interesting or important episodes of redistribution? What were the politics behind these episodes?

'We hope the framework of positive deviance will inspire debate about how change in the international development sector comes about. Do the mavericks, the rule breakers and iconoclasts have most to teach us?'

The 2016 DLP conference will explore and share examples of positive deviance that have helped progressively shift power relations and politics, both in Australia and in the Asia-Pacific. We hope to reach some conclusions about the policy and practice implications for international development agencies, national governments and civil society actors.

At the same time we hope that the framework of positive deviance will inspire debate about how change in the international development sector comes about. Do the mavericks, the rule breakers and iconoclasts have most to teach us? Or, as Michael Woolcock has recently noted in his commentary on the Justice for the Poor program at the World Bank , should we merely ask “… that the scholarship—the theory and methods—that has long addressed issues pertaining to institutional change be taken seriously”?

Come and find out: register for the conference.

 

Image: Statue of Charles La Trobe, La Trobe University Campus, Melbourne, which, says sculptor Charles Robb, embodies the principle that universities should turn ideas on their heads. (Photo: Phil Lees, Flickr)

 

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Chris Roche

Chris Roche

Chris is Associate Professor and Chair in International Development at La Trobe University in Melbourne, where he is also Director of the Institute for Human Security and Social Change. He is DLP's Senior Research Partner, and he has over 25 years’ experience working for international NGOs as a project manager, evaluator, policy researcher and director.

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