Positive Deviants and Their Role in Development

I feel like I am taking a bit of a risk here using the word “deviant” since it might just result in a rash of, shall we say, off-color comments to the blog.  However, I find the concept of the positive deviant fascinating, so I figure it’s worth the risk.

I first heard the phrase on our trip back to Kampala from Lira.  Before leaving, we headed out to a PTC (Primary Teachers’ College) near Lira.  As we drove towards the PTC, we saw several small solar panels at various businesses on the road.  Sabine made a comment about positive deviants being present in the community.  Needless to say, elaboration of that comment was in order for me.

So, what exactly is a positive deviant? According to the website of the Positive Deviance Initiative, and I quote from http://www.positivedeviance.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.

Simply put, positive deviants present a very context sensitive existence proof that things can improve.  These individuals and groups demonstrate a better way through their behavior.

In Kordito, Sabine visited a manyatta while Terra and I visited a primary school.  We had heard a lot of resistance to constructing latrines, primarily because of the lack of materials locally coupled with the lack of security, making procuring materials remotely dangerous. However, Sabine found a positive deviant, a woman who proudly showed off the latrine she’d built with local materials based on the instructions that she’d received.

A lot of resources in development programs go towards “sensitization” and “messaging”, although I think “education” might be a less buzzword-like word for it.  Topics might include such things as the importance of hand washing, or even the importance of using a toilet or latrine.  Both of these activities have increased in importance here recently, as the result of a new outbreak of cholera in Uganda.  In fact, even Kampala was put on a cholera alert due to concerns with flooding.  However, the list of topics likely also includes the importance of pre-natal care, the signs of malnutrition, reproductive health, the evils of child labor, the importance of primary education, and the list goes on.  Now imagine sitting through these sessions.  How much more impactful might they be if you had a real world example, showing how this could actually work in your own village, and in your own context.  Enter the positive deviant (PD).

Clearly a PD is a powerful tool for increasing the adoption of desirable behavior.  The PD serves two roles in this context.  First, the PD demonstrates that the desired behavior is possible to achieve in the local context, including any resource limitations.  This existence proof moves a training exercise from simply one of “telling someone how to do something” to also being able to “show how someone else actually did it”.

Perhaps even more importantly as time goes on, the PD provides an on-going demonstration of the value of the desired behavior as well as the costs of maintaining that behavior.  In the case of the woman and the latrine, that household should experience lower levels of diseases like cholera, and those surrounding her will also see the proof that maintaining the latrine is feasible, again in the local context.

Ok, marvelous, PDs provide a tremendous uplift for adoption of desirable behaviors.  How do I get one?  Herein, of course, lies the problem.  The quote above from the Positive Deviance Initiative asserts that potential PDs exist in every community.  The logician in me is uncomfortable with most statements that say “all” or “every” or “none”, since aberrations clearly exist, but I digress.  I do think that there are strategies for finding potential PDs.  Once identified, these individuals can hopefully be encouraged through perhaps more targeted education, so that they will ultimately provide the basis for a more effective program rollout through their story.

The PD approach as outlined at the Positive Deviance Initiative website is slightly different than what is discussed here, in that they go a step further.  Rather than using the PDs to demonstrate the behavior desired by the development partner, they look to have the PDs determine for themselves what constitutes the desired behavior given the issue being tackled and the local context.  Clearly this provides an even more powerful example to the community, in that the solution is not externally developed or imposed, but created within the community.  I suspect, however, that there are individuals capable of being PDs in the sense of implementing techniques that are brought to them who perhaps aren’t yet ready to develop them on their own.  Thus, the first set of PDs is larger than the latter, although hopefully membership in the first group more readily leads to membership in the latter group.

There’s clearly a lot more to this subject, and again I don’t claim to be an expert.  Indeed, there are certificate programs and online courses on this topic.  However, as someone who has for a long time been a big fan of the existence proof, I find the concept of PDs intriguing.  Alas, it just means that I have more things to study.  It’s a good thing I didn’t actually believe my list of things to read, study and learn more about would decrease on my sabbatical, although I did have that admittedly faint hope.

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