The practicalities of change - positive deviance and land reform in Vanuatu

13th April 2016

This guest post by Anna Naupa draws on her Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture, presented at the DLP Annual Conference 2016: Power, Politics and Positive Deviance. It is the perspective of Anna Naupa and not that of any organisation with which she is, or has been, affiliated.

I don’t have a rebellious bone in my body – after all, I’ve been a bureaucrat for many years. But when thinking about this year’s DLP conference theme of 'positive deviance', I recalled Adrian Leftwich’s point that it’s not the rules [or the institutions] that matter, as much as the way the actors play with the rules.

I have always considered my first encounter with the work of Adrian and Steve Hogg (AusAID), back in 2007, as a turning point in my career. At the time, I was the wearer of many hats in my role as an AusAID officer. I am ni-Vanuatu – born and raised there; I am a mixed-race woman, and I am also a member of the urban, educated 'elite'. I had trained as an anthropologist but I understood the agency bureaucracy; and I had wide social and political connections, particularly in relation to custom land governance.

Being acutely aware of all these relational spaces was, to my mind, simply part of Vanuatu life. But when I became involved in a Drivers of Change analysis in Vanuatu in 2007, the first of its kind within AusAID and influenced greatly by Adrian and Steve Hogg, I realised that this awareness could also be applied to how we navigate the power dynamics in development work.

We used the Drivers of Change analytical tool to unpack the politics around Vanuatu’s hot development issues at the time, and to identify the elites, coalitions and champions for change whose support was vital for success. This analysis in turn informed all of our development programming work through AusAID in Vanuatu.

And when I think back to what this meant in concrete terms, I start with myself. As Chris Roche and David Hudson have suggestedknowledge of our own agency – and its limits – is a particularly crucial aspect of any political and power mapping. 

So when I list the many hats I wear in this story, I include the fact that I was (and am) a champion for the protection of land rights, including recognition of women’s rights to land.

Land reform was and still is one of Vanuatu's hottest development issues

Land reform was and still is one of Vanuatu’s hottest development issues. Indigenous land rights have been at the heart of Vanuatu’s constitution since it gained independence 35 years ago; Vanuatu has a unique system of dual land governance administered by both customary leaders and the state. However, by the early 2000s alleged corruption, weak policy and eroding cultural institutions had become an increasing source of tension between and within clans, communities, government administrators, and local and international actors in the private sector.

Land disputes overburdened the legal system and were seen to influence political stability, hampering equitable economic growth. There was limited political will to tackle any of this head on.

In short, it was a mess, a ‘noisy issue’, the kind of problem that all of us in development are familiar with. The noise may be media hype, fraught politics, miscommunication, competing interests and actors, hidden agendas, or all of these – a lot of noise to make sense of.

Political economy analysis using the Drivers of Change tool helped us map the various change agents in Vanuatu’s national development landscape, and helped us at AusAID know how to engage as an external actor. To pinpoint the fundamental development challenge, we needed to sift through the rhetoric and the agendas and understand the motivations of institutions, coalitions and individuals:

  • The Church was vocal about the social issues;  
  • The government and private sector wanted to focus on the economic issues;
  • The holders of customary power, the chiefs, wanted to mitigate conflict and maintain their role and voice over land matters;
  • The wider public, non-state actors, politicians and media equally had a lot to say, particularly about transparency and accountability.

AusAID, despite its institutional baggage and mistrust caused by Australia’s own historical record on indigenous land rights, was able to build credibility as an external actor/donor. It did this partly by showing its willingness to invest in the multiple conversations about land in Vanuatu, and by regularly bringing together all the different change agents.

It also gained trust by supporting safe spaces to test ideas. For example, women’s rights to land had traditionally always been secondary considerations. Through a trial gender officer placement with the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs, pockets of conversation around group rights to land in the context of planned broader legislative reforms led to the emergence of a group of chiefs who became champions for women’s rights to land. This was something that women champions alone would not have achieved – a good example of how important it is to know the limitations of one’s own agency.

Investing in safe spaces to test ideas is an important aspect of creating the space for the different actors to identify where their values and visions for change converge and agree a change narrative. Deciding together on a narrative for the reform can help build a critical mass of support.

We will never be able to deviate from technically solid, yet politically weak, programs or solutions unless we can increase the appetite for risk and pilot different ideas.

But the opportunity to provide the space for ‘safe fails’ correlates greatly with the appetite for risk. We will never be able to deviate from technically solid, yet politically weak, programs or solutions unless we can increase the appetite for risk and pilot different ideas.

Adrian Leftwich was a thought-leader on how politics is about more than incentives and interests; it is about the power of ideas and human agency. Positive deviance is about giving these powerful ideas a platform for testing.

Who were the positive deviants in this story? I think two organisations qualify for the title, even though neither would perhaps be expected to feature high on a list of mavericks – AusAID, being willing to work slowly and incrementally to help build a reform coalition; and the traditionalist Malvatumauri Council of Chiefs, particularly for their buy-in to the advancement of gender issues. Both were able to ask and answer the question all actors in development should be asking, as individuals, organisations or coalitions: what can we do differently? How can we be positively deviant within the power structures that we engage with?

Land politics have changed yet again in Vanuatu and efforts are underway to ‘reform the reforms’. The actors have changed – AusAID is no more – and the power dynamics have shifted. Vanuatu has a new government. Political agility is a fact of life in Vanuatu – and everywhere else. This is the political process, and the cycle continues.

We need to be investing in regular analysis to help understand the shifting political dimensions of progressive change in our contexts and in supporting spaces for innovation.

Our challenge as individuals is to seek out the different ideas, and do whatever we can to build the appetite of those around us to try something a little different – to be a champion and agent of change in our institutions.

Image: A bus near Port Vila in Vanuatu (Phillip Capper)

To hear more of Anna’s reflections on change processes, watch her full presentation (28 mins):


See more conference resources, including a discussion between Anna Naupa and Nic Maclellan on Regionalism, Coalition Building and the Pacific.



Anna Gibert

13th April 2016 at 13:13

Great article, Anna - this is the sort of thinking that needs to be guiding how development assistance is 'done' - thank you for sharing

Leave a comment

The views expressed in Opinions posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of DLP, the Australian Government or DLP's partner organisations.



Anna Naupa

Anna Naupa

Anna Naupa has more than 10 years' experience in Vanuatu and across the Pacific region as a governance and land specialist, and as a communications for development and gender equality advocate. She is currently Regional and International Issues Adviser at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. In previous roles, she helped bring gender to the forefront of land issues in Vanuatu. From 2009-2013, she was one of only three women appointed to the Vanuatu Land Governance Committee.

Read more

Related items

The curious case of Indian autocracy and what it tells us about 'thinking and working politically'

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of a national emergency in India, which led to an 18-month period of autocracy. Civil rights were suspended, political opponents and journalists were arrested without the right to trial, censorship was imposed, elections were cancelled, non-Congress state governments were dismissed, the constitution changed.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi25th June 2015

Political analysis as the practical art of the possible

Bringing politics back into PEA - a new paper with Adrian Leftwich

Opinion by David Hudson24th July 2014

Our money, our projects: demand-driven community development through Australia's Central Land Council

We came to the DLP conference on ‘power, politics and positive deviance’ to talk about emerging lessons from the Central Land Council’s community development program. The program works to maintain Aboriginal identity, language, culture and connection to country; and to strengthen Aboriginal people’s participation in mainstream Australia by improving their health, education and employment outcomes.

Opinion by David Ross15th April 2016

Politicians and administrators: conflict, collusion or collaboration?

How do relations between political and administrative leaders affect reform?

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi23rd October 2014

Medellin - more than a miracle

Bad news sells. And for news editors looking for horror stories to recycle, Colombia's second largest city used to be a reliable source.

Opinion by Cheryl Stonehouse4th March 2014

Anthropology and elites: 'Studying up', politically

Some strikingly parallel questions are being asked in my own discipline of anthropology and by those examining how donors and practitioners can think and work politically with developing communities.

Opinion by Paul Robert Gilbert10th March 2016

Development cooperation and fighting corruption: thinking differently

Everyone associates Brazil with football and the World Cup. Brazilians pouring out onto the street last summer to protest the competition being hosted in their country was last thing many of us expected to see.

Opinion by Heather Marquette24th June 2015

'Sticky’ change: What international development can learn from adaptive management

One of the most significant failings of international political assistance has been the tendency to focus too much on institutional structure and process, and not enough on culture and behaviour.

Opinion by Greg Power2nd December 2016

What do we do on Monday? Political settlements in theory and practice

The political settlements framework can seem a distraction to some practitioners, many of whom have been thinking and working politically about development for a number of years. They find the term difficult to define with any precision and, in any case, quite unnecessary. In the real world, progress towards better understanding of and engagement with the political conditions which help and hinder development has been ticking along nicely, independently of the academic debates.

Opinion by Edward Laws15th July 2015

Fragmentation of the Thinking and Working Politically agenda: Should we worry?

Recently, I’ve read many articles and heard from many colleagues who are concerned about the apparent competition between the Doing Development Differently (DDD) network and the Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) community of practice.

Opinion by Thomas Parks29th August 2016

The road to transparency in resource-rich Myanmar

A large oil painting hangs in the formal reception room of Myanmar’s Ministry of Mines. A powerful and confident 19th century Burmese senior civil servant shows a pot full of rubies to a covetous foreign trader. Glowing at the centre of the pot is the Padamyar Ngamauk or the ‘royal ruby’—the massive and flawless ruby that was the pride of the royal treasury.

Opinion by Taylor Brown1st April 2016
Opinion by Orlanda Ward7th March 2017

Climate change and adaptation in the Pacific Islands: watering down women's security?

Beyond 'adaptability'? In this guest post, Nicole George highlights the work of women leaders who are challenging a narrow adaptation agenda.

Opinion by Nicole George7th March 2014

Don't give up on government

The World Bank launched its flagship World Development Report (WDR) this week, which boldly redefines how governance and policy interact to yield good or bad development outcomes. People are rightly praising the report for rejecting best practicesembracing adaptation and endorsing a focus on politics.

Opinion by Dan Hymowitz3rd February 2017

How does politically informed programming shape development outcomes?

Many well-intentioned development programmes founder in the face of resistance from entrenched elites who feel threatened by a potential loss of power and resources. Resources intended for the poor and disadvantaged benefit the rich and powerful. In response, development practitioners and academics have become keenly interested in the political factors that shape development outcomes over the past ten years.

Opinion by Mark Robinson29th January 2016

#Feminism: Digital technologies and feminist activism in Fiji

Guest post on Devpolicy on DLP work with research partners at University of the South Pacific

Opinion by Tait Brimacombe14th March 2017

Neither 'good guys' nor 'bad guys': Positive engagement with armed groups

The final post in our short series on 'Power, Politics and Positive Deviance', the theme of our 2016 Annual Conference at La Trobe University, Melbourne, on Monday (8 February).

Opinion by Suda Perera5th February 2016

Peace processes after civil war: choosing the right tools for the job

Why, despite the best of intentions and the investment of significant resources, do peace processes so often fail to lead to a stable and lasting peace after civil war?

Opinion by Jasmine-Kim Westendorf18th April 2016

Innovation: transactional or transformative?

Innovation has become a popular word in international development. In Australia today, Bjorn Lomborg helped to formally open DFAT’s development innovation hub innovationXchange, which is designed to ‘identify, trial and scale up successful approaches’. Other donors, including the US and the UK, are also promoting innovation through initiatives like the Development Innovation Ventures programme.

Opinion by Chris Roche23rd March 2015

Creative expression and women's empowerment in the Pacific

Art and creative expression have become an activist tool and alternative form of advocacy for young women in Fiji.

Through photography, theatre, dance and song, young women are finding new avenues for public expression. These innovative avenues for making their voices heard have great power in a context where women’s mobility and visibility is often constrained by socio-cultural norms.

Opinion by Tait Brimacombe19th March 2015

Development - getting our story straight

As a narrative specialist, I listen to the stories people tell about their work and their organisations. I help them find out whether their audiences are hearing what they want them to hear, or whether they need to tell the story differently or even find a new story to tell. And I think the development narrative is facing a big challenge just now – what we say we do often doesn’t reflect what we actually do.

Opinion by Alex Frankel20th April 2016
Opinion by Heather Marquette10th November 2014

From functional governance to sustainable peace: Making the space to reflect, learn and adapt

Last month, UNDP co-hosted a Global Meeting in Jordan on supporting core government functions in fragile and conflict-affected settings. It brought together over 60 colleagues and practitioners from the UN system, World Bank, donors, and government representatives from around the world.

Opinion by Aditi Haté 22nd February 2017

Politics, risk and development: three takeaways

Last week was a big one for the Australasian development community, particularly for those interested in the politics of development. The Australasian Aid Conference at the Australian National University (10-11 February) included a packed session on 'Putting political thinking into development practice'. And DLP’s Annual Conference at La Trobe University focused  on Power, Politics and Positive Deviance.

Opinion by Chris Roche19th February 2016

Security and justice – the mismatch between policy and practice

What hinders more politically nuanced security and justice programming?

Opinion by Shivit Bakrania21st July 2014

Political settlements: people and the landscapes of power

The problem with politics is that it involves people, and people do strange things. When development actors engage with power they often prefer to iron out the unpredictability of real politics in favour of the much neater lines of trends and social groups. We revere drivers of change studies because we can cope with the long-term, identity-based analysis of `deep’ politics. 

Opinion by Alan Whaites24th July 2015

Uncounted: has the post-2015 data revolution failed already?

Counting matters. As the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report puts it: What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted…. [I]f metrics of performance are flawed, so too may be inferences we draw.

Opinion by Alex Cobham12th May 2015

Adding gender and power to the TWP agenda

Thinking and Working Politically presents development to us as an endeavour embedded within power structures. This is so important.

It helps us see clearly that we need to understand domestic politics to deliver development outcomes. Who are the players? Who makes decisions? Who will stand to lose from a proposal and how can they block progress?

Opinion by Sally Moyle6th August 2015

Gender analysis, and thinking and working politically – bridging the gap

Guest post on Devpolicy  introducing panels at this week's Australasian Aid Conference

Opinion by Chris Roche14th February 2017
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal24th November 2014

Fiji's Roshika Deo - outlier, positive deviant or simply feisty feminist?

Guest blogger Priya Chattier speaks at DLP's 2016 Annual Conference at La Trobe University in Melbourne on Monday 8 February. Her post here begins a short series on the conference theme: Power, politics and positive deviance.

Opinion by Priya Chattier 1st February 2016

What is transformative leadership?

Guest post in University World News

Opinion by Chris Roche15th April 2016

Do donors have realistic expectations of their staff when it comes to 'thinking and working politically'?

Is learning to ‘think politically’ like learning a new language? 

Opinion by Heather Marquette9th June 2014

DLP political settlements workshop: reflections

Serendipity, perhaps. I joined the Political Settlements Research Programme at the beginning of June; my first formal engagement was on June 17, at the Political Settlements Workshop organised by the Developmental Leadership Program. It was quite an induction day.

Opinion by Astrid Jamar22nd July 2015

From objects of care to controllers of lives: governance, development and disability inclusion

Over the past decade or so, Australia’s efforts to support disability-inclusive development have begun to move from a charity approach to a rights-based approach. We now recognise that positive changes for people with disabilities are best brought about by – oddly enough – people with disabilities.

Opinion by Luke Arnold25th May 2016

Positive deviance and Myanmar's telecoms revolution

In Myanmar, as recently as 2012, a mobile phone SIM card cost more than USD 1,500. Yet by June 2015 more than half of the country's population had a card and a handset to go with it.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi3rd February 2016

Identifying rebels with a cause (and effect)

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’.

Opinion by Chris Roche1st December 2015

International donors - aiding or abetting?

In September 2012, lawyers representing an Ethiopian farmer announced that they planned to sue the UK government for its role in human rights violations in Ethiopia. The farmer, named in court papers as “Mr O”, alleged that the Ethiopian government’s “villagisation” programme had involved the forced resettlement of thousands of families including his own.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi10th September 2015

Resources and reflections on gender and thinking and working politically

Next week's meeting of the Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice will focus on gender at an opportune time. It follows a spate of interesting papers, blog posts and talks about the relationship between 'thinking and working politically' and gender issues. 

Opinion by Chris Roche12th June 2015

The practicalities of change - positive deviance and land reform in Vanuatu

This guest post by Anna Naupa draws on her Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture, presented at the DLP Annual Conference 2016: Power, Politics and Positive Deviance. It is the perspective of Anna Naupa and not that of any organisation with which she is, or has been, affiliated.

Opinion by Anna Naupa13th April 2016

Cancer and the links between medicine and development

Guest post for From Poverty to Power

Opinion by Chris Roche15th April 2015

The challenge of realising Pacific democracies' development potential

One of the most important issues facing Pacific democracies is how to realise democracy’s promise to support inclusive development. I have been struck by the many common challenges that emerging democracies face, regardless of region, as outlined in Alina Rocha Menocal’s discussion on the complex relationship between democracy, state-building and development. However, I think her insights also bring to the fore some of the unique problems that the Pacific region faces.

Opinion by Julien Barbara8th July 2016
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal29th March 2016

Gender and power: six links and one big opportunity

Donors have recently made great efforts to understand power in partner countries. Yet they have largely ignored one of the most pervasive power relations – gender.

Opinion by Diana Koester21st May 2015

The International Budget Partnership: Reflecting on two decades of campaigning for fiscal governance reform

New Year 2017 brings with it the 20th anniversary of the International Budget Partnership (IBP). Since its foundation, IBP has supported efforts around the world to make budget processes more transparent, participatory and accountable so that public resources are used to address poverty. During our milestone anniversary year, we will reflect on what we have learned and where we are headed.

Opinion by Brendan Halloran20th December 2016