Why Positive Deviance could be the answer to working in complex, messy places like Papua New Guinea

November 27, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Final post on PNG trip, after overview and paean to roads and leadership.

Field trips operate on several different mental levels. Superficially, you are seeing new communities and programmes, and learning about the country. But there is also a

Fathers of the nation? Rugby league is one of the few sources of translocal identity in PNG

Fathers of the nation? Rugby league is one of the few sources of translocal identity in PNG

constant process of interpretation, where you compare what you are seeing with what you have been reading back home or seen elsewhere, and see what resonates.

In PNG, it was positive deviance. Everything in the country is messy – delivering health or education, politics, public finances and aid, for starters. In such complex systems, it may not be possible to work out what kind of aid programme or other intervention is likely to succeed – any number of unintended consequences and unforeseen problems could sabotage your great plans.

So why not start somewhere else entirely. Accept that whether on health, education, nutrition or governance, there is a wide spectrum of success and failure in what is already happening in PNG. So study that spectrum, identify the most successful 5 or 10% of cases, then go and study them to see if there are lessons there for aid donors.

In a way that’s what we do already, in the shape of all that aid gossip and exchange of ideas and experiences in the bars and restaurants, as well as seminars and meetings. But it’s ad hoc, and could be missing lots of the positive outliers, so why not systematize it a bit?

As usual when I think I’ve had a good idea, it turns out that Chris Roche got there about a decade ago. Chris discusses positive deviance in a 2008 paper on PNG and other Pacific islands (Chris Roche 2008 paper). Chris focussed in particular on Bruce Harris’ call for aid to put much more emphasis on ‘translocalism’ – building links beyond village and clan level, in order to build trust beyond their immediate neighbours, an essential first step in nation-building. He argues that it is particularly useful in identifying and recognizing the importance of the ‘thousand points of light’ of successful local initiatives that are going on all the time, but which either fail to register with donors or get loved to death.

‘Ignoring local ‘success’ – or dismissing it as marginal – and in particular ignoring initiatives that deliberately seek to work across clan and tribal boundaries at a ‘trans-local’ level,  has three main effects a) it fails to provide incentives for those initiatives which are actually making a real difference to people’s lives now and could do more,  secondly b) it fails to reward precisely the kinds of processes that  might help to place the kinds of different demands on the system that are needed, and c) it fails to build an evidence base of what is working and why that might be shared,  and in so doing promote more effective practice and to adjust policy so that this is better supported.  Is it a coincidence that many of these successes are so often run by women, and ignored by men?’

Positive Deviance Easter IslandChris argues that the aid business struggles with this because ‘There is a tendency to focus on deficits and weaknesses because:

  1. development theory and capacity building often focus on ‘gaps’;
  2. incentives to worry about constraints and risks;
  3. there is an engineering approach to ‘fixing’ problems;
  4. strength seen as a fortunate condition that can stand on its own;
  5. donor legitimacy often based on overcoming local weaknesses.

Moreover, in its obsession with ‘going to scale’, the aid business too easily dismisses the small stuff (Chris ends his paper with a great Dalai Lama proverb  –  “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you have never spent the night in a tent with a mosquito”).

The role of outsiders involves identifying the small spores of development and translocalism, and then acting to create an enabling environment for them to multiply – he likens this to creating the conditions for moulds to reproduce and spread. This could include ‘immersion exchanges’ to take potential mould-spreaders to see some successful experiences on the ground, and really get to understand them by spending a decent amount of time there (something that also might help with the uphill effort of getting people in organizations like Oxfam to try out new stuff in their own work).

I think the positive deviance approach has huge potential – suppose our first action when contemplating any campaign, country or programme was to identify and learn from the successful outliers? It could transform everything about the way we work. If someone wants to set up a Positive Deviance Institute, Chris is keen and I’d probably join, even if it was just to have that on my business card.

In Australia, such ideas are encapsulated in the ‘Strength-based Approach to Development’, which sounds like something I should take a look at.

By the way, it turns out Francis Fukuyama got there first – here’s a brilliant paper on the need to build the nation before you can start thinking about state-building in PNG, based on his 2007 visit (thanks to Laurence Chandy for sending it over).

Update: UNDP today published its Human Development Report on PNG, which focuses on the extractives sector, which in PNG has a history of exploitation, conflict and instability, as well as contributing to the recent growth surge (GDP growth of over 20% is expected for 2015, following the start of production from the massive PNG Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project). Not sure how well these attempts to cram 100+ page reports into a single picture work, but here’s their monumental Exec Sum infographic.


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November 27, 2014
Duncan Green