Positive Deviance and the Promise of Bottom-Up Development

Sunday's Boston Globe had an Ideas piece on "postitive deviance," a concept that has changed the way some in the global development field have been doing business.  What is positive deviance? I thought you'd never ask:

[Positive deviance is] an approach to behavioral and social change. Instead of imposing solutions from without, the method identifies outliers in a community who, despite having no special advantages, are doing exceptionally well. By respecting local ingenuity, proponents say, the approach galvanizes community members and is often more effective and sustainable than imported blueprints.

Got it? No? Ok, here's an example from the article:

In Vietnam, [Monique and Jerry Sternin of Save the Children] would identify children who had somehow managed to be well nourished. Then they would try to figure out what those families were doing right. During this process, which Monique Sternin refers to as a “treasure hunt,” the Sternins went to the families’ homes, looked closely for clues, and asked many questions. One home did not even have full walls, but it housed healthy children. Seeing a crab crawling out of a basket, Sternin said, as she recently recalled, “Oh! What about that? Do you by any chance feed your children crab?” Reluctantly, the father admitted that yes, he scavenged for shrimp and crabs while he was farming in the rice paddies.

Crab“These are protein bombs,” says Dirk Schroeder, a professor of global health at Emory University who later conducted a study showing the project’s effectiveness. “When parents were first asked, they were really embarrassed about it. It was considered a low-class food, rather than buying Nestle baby food in a jar. In fact, it was a perfect thing to do.” This Vietnamese father was one of the “positive deviants” identified by the Sternins.

Basically, "positive deviance" (a concept pioneered at my dear alma mater) is about identifying local, home-grown solutions to problems, and helping publicize and propagate those solutions among people facing similar challenges. This may seem like a total no-brainer, but the development/aid community has long been dominated by forces with a strong inclination toward flashy, top-down, imported solutions that, for any of a variety of reasons, don't end up working the way they're supposed to.

Now, despite a few examples given in the article, it's not abundantly clear to me how the agencies go about publicizing the deviance of the positive deviants. The whole concept of development agencies playing the role of local PR agents is a little weird, and seems as though it takes the agencies outside their wheelhouse. But any approach that emphasizes bottom-up solutions is an improvement.

Why am I writing about this here? Because the ideas and values behind positive deviance are similar to what, in my mind, makes mobile technology such a powerful tool for development. Much as people like Sternins were focused on finding ways that poor people could make their own lives better, the promise of a mobile phone lies in its ability to empower the user, to democratize information, and to facilitate a bottom-up style of development that relies not on imposed solutions but on homegrown initiative, innovation, and exchange.