Should Positive Deviance be my next Big Thing?

September 27, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been mulling this over for a while now, and thought I’d consult the FP2P hivemind, following a few initial conversations, including one earlier this week with Oxfam’s Irene Guijt and some PD fans at the Said Business School (here’s their rather good report of a PD conference back in 2010, from which I nicked the box comparing PD with the ‘standard model’).

First some background: The starting point of PD is to ‘look for outliers who succeed against the odds’ – the families that don’t cut their daughters in Egypt, or the kids that are not malnourished in Vietnam’s poorest villages. On any issue, there is always a distribution of results, and PD involves identifying and investigating the positive outliers, and seeing if/how the lessons of how they did better than the rest can be spread. In the famous case in Vietnam, identifying slightly different feeding practices in outlier households led to big nutritional improvements for millions of kids.

This differs from the ‘standard model’ of aid in two big ways: it focuses on success, not failure/problems – places where the system has thrown up solutions to a given problem – and it replaces, or at least minimises, the role of ‘external interventions’ such as aid projects. Bye bye White Saviour complex/salvation by outsiders. For that alone, I love it!

So is this something I should work on? There’s not much point in just writing a book about PD – it would be pretty impossible to improve on the wonderful Power of Positive Deviance. Instead, what I have in mind is some kind of attempt, by Oxfam or a group of organizations, to put PD into practice and see what happens.

In many ways, this would be a natural extension of systems thinking and adaptive management: outsiders keen to promote positive change hold back from jumping in with their projects and devote time and resources to identifying the positive outliers on whatever issue they are interested in.

Then what? PD purists argue for ‘social learning’: the role of outsiders is only as facilitators, helping local people identify the outliers and learn from them. That bumps up against the political economy of the aid business – there’s no projects, nothing to raise money for, it’s just about supporting the few rare souls that have those subtle skills of facilitation.

That may help explain why Positive Deviance is not itself a Positive Deviant – there is a Positive Deviance Initiative, linked to Tufts University, which is dedicated to spreading the PD message, (eg via this handy biannual newsletter, but it really hasn’t caught on, at least not in the aid business. If any organizations have put it into practice, I would love to hear about it.

So rather than see PD as a complete alternative, might it be better to use it to improve current practices? Eg using PD as a way to incubate new ideas (thanks Irene for that idea!) or a form of due diligence – any organization embarking on new work, whether in terms of theme or location, should start off with PD to see what is already working and why, no matter how limited the successful example is.

This suggestion may horrify the PD enthusiasts, who fear that ‘projectizing’ PD would destroy its true nature, and I have some sympathy with that, but how else can we bring such a brilliant idea into the mainstream?

When I’ve discussed PD with Oxfam colleagues, they’ve raised some other important concerns:

  • Isn’t PD essentially accepting the status quo (albeit the best bit of it)? Rather than transform society, we are going to spot families that feed their kids a bit better and spread the word. Does that come at the expense of more radical, structural change?
  • How to stop PD becoming a new fashion, with people sprinkling it over their documents but not really changing how they work? Already I’m seeing the term cropping up in more and more conversations and documents (a bit like ‘adaptive management’!)
  • A lot of people seem to think they’re doing it already. After all, a lot of the restaurant conversations in aid circles starts with ‘I saw this amazing thing happening in this village/organization’. What’s the difference between that and PD?
  • Does PD really only work with a large ‘n’ – a big population where you can identify a clear distribution and its outliers? Does that mean it can’t be used with small ‘n’ problems like advocacy?

I’m struggling here, and it’s a big decision for me – whether to spend a lot of time on this, or do something else. Would really welcome your thoughts.

Previous posts on Positive Deviance:

Spotting PD in Kenyan primary schools

Book Review: The Power of Positive Deviance

Applying PD to PNG (Papua New Guinea)

Researching PD within a big Oxfam Savings project

And here’s Monique Sternin, one of the founders of the PD movement:

September 27, 2018
Duncan Green