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Positive deviance: spotting the hidden innovations in development work

February 8, 2011
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I just learned some new jargon – always a heady sensation. Positive deviance. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? And it describes something really interesting and, I suspect, quite important.

A colleague at Oxfam America, Roanne Edwards, filled me in – she has been to Mali to look at OA’s massive Saving for Change (SfC) project, which reaches 300,000 women and has spread to several other countries. Here’s how it works:

SfC mali 2‘In partnership with Plan Mali, the Strømme Foundation and 12 local NGO implementing partners, SfC animators work in villages to organize women into savings groups of 20-25 members. These women meet weekly and regularly save an amount – the equivalent of 20 cents, for example – that is determined collectively. Once this money has formed a large enough pool, the women lend it to each other to expand or start businesses, or to pay for food, a medical emergency, schooling or other needs. The loans are repaid with interest, which increases the size of the fund. At the end of the year, the fund is divided and each woman gets her savings back with the accumulated interest.’

All good stuff, and as you would expect with such a large project, lots of monitoring and evaluation has been undertaken. The interesting addition is what Roanne was asked to do – identify the extreme aspects, both positive and negative. Why? ‘Atypically successful groups can provide insight into what could be possible for typical groups with additional guidance.’ So as well as worrying about averages, look at the outliers.

Her report on the exercise ‘is a qualitative study of 30 SfC groups, either atypically successful or unsuccessful. The former are engaged in collective social projects that benefit their village, large-scale collective investments and entrepreneurial activities that, in certain cases, take the SfC model to a new level. This study also evaluates groups that have experienced unusual and sometimes extreme challenges, which have resulted in the loss of members, the failure of projects or the shutting down of their groups, temporarily or permanently. The final section focuses on completely uncharted territory: the newly discovered children’s groups and their possible role in the larger SfC context.’

Here are some of her findings:

‘13 groups have pursued collective activities as part of their participation in SfC…. one group successfully advocated SfC mali 2for the building of a maternity clinic with a major donor to a local NGO. Subsequently, the nine village SfC groups organized themselves into teams to pump and transport water to the construction site each day. As the president of one group remarked, belonging to SfC “made it very easy to constitute the work groups because we were used to working together in SfC.”’

‘The village midwife in the village of Dogobala has used her SfC loans to build a successful medicines and medical supplies business and has empowered her group to advocate with local government representatives for beds and a baby weighing scale for the village maternity. Members’ views on girls’ education are very progressive and family planning is already a part of the group’s curriculum.’

Success or failure turned out to depend to quite a large extent on the support or hostility of husbands and village chiefs.

But for me the most interesting findings came when Roanne started to look for what people had kept hidden from the project, because it ‘wasn’t in the Plan’. She found out, quite by chance, that one community had established a children’s group, so she started to ask around:

‘Following the discovery of a children’s group, the author inquired at each subsequent interview with an adult SfC group whether or not the village had a children’s group. The five groups in this study were either replicated by SfC members or created spontaneously by children of SfC members. Two of the groups are structured like the adult groups, with weekly meetings, contributions and late and unjustified absence fines. While some of the older girls are taking loans for their own commercial activities, the majority of girls are taking loans for their mothers or, in some cases, their fathers or grandmothers, who provide their weekly contribution money…… once the first children’s groups were discovered and the technical agents reassured that the groups’ existence was worthy of research, technical agents in nearly all the districts visited admitted that they had seen children’s groups.’

The children’s groups may be good (creating new generations of leaders, scaling up the savings effort) or bad (undermining girls education), but the point is that they were previously hidden from evaluators and bosses, and were only uncovered by building trust, and doing some respectful digging. I suspect that many of the innovative aspects of development projects take place under the radar in this way, and so great opportunities for learning and innovation are lost. Stepping back, it acknowledges that evolutionary processes are at work all around us – random mutation, selection and then amplification of successful mutations. Positive deviance spots those positive mutations early, and helps them flourish.

Roanne’s paper has not yet been published, but you can get an advance copy here. For more on the idea of positive deviance approaches, see here.

And here’s a youtube on the SfC scheme, (but why do NGO voiceovers so often sound like they’ve had a combo lobotomy/sense of humour bypass?)

8 comments

  1. Remember ‘room for manoeuvre’? It was talked about a lot about twenty years ago – and summed up a similar idea – that people are their own best architects of development and the best projects allow them to take the money or other resources and run with it… all very interesting Duncan. Worried about the implications of debt for children though – the gender and development literature talks about women taking money for their husbands’ use and being responsible for a loan they can’t themselves repay. But judging from the very impressive account you give of this particular initiative – not least the resources and attention that have gone into really good evaluation and impact assessment – let’s hope that this critique doesn’t apply!

  2. Yes the Saving for Change program is effective, but a great deal of the success of the program, in Mali at least, must be attributed to the Tontines – informal women’s savings groups. The SfC program has built on a pre-existing practice that is widespread among Mali’s women. However Oxfam America’s website doesn’t mention tontines at all. Roxanne’s paper does mention them, but does not explain the term and does not distinguish the customary practice from the SfC groups.

  3. Hi Duncan

    1. I guess you might have come across this website by now: http://www.positivedeviance.org/projects/organizations.html

    2. Re “The interesting addition is what Roanne was asked to do – identify the extreme aspects, both positive and negative. Why? ‘Atypically successful groups can provide insight into what could be possible for typical groups with additional guidance.’ So as well as worrying about averages, look at the outliers.”
    This is exactly what the Most Significant Change technique is supposed to be all about, in theory. In practice, for some reason, people who use MSC do not seem to be generating the interesting findings that might be expected from such searches. Why so? is the question I think I should be asking more often, including via the MSC email list. I suspect there is a pervasive bias towards confirmation of one’s existing views operating when people do search for “significant changes” Maybe the core phrase needs changing, to something that more explicitly differs from the norm (actual or desired)

    3. You may know that MSC was based on a set of ideas called “evolutionary epistemology”, essentially the same as what you have explained above

  4. Hi Duncan
    I worked with SAve the children in Indoneisa and Positive Devaince was being used in nutrition programmes very successful. Sometimes the “deviance” by one member in a village was the reason why the children in that family were healthier or weighed more – sometimes the difference was something that seemed insignificant but reaped huge benefits eg a mother might use the freshwater shrimp found in rice fields as part of the meal instead of selling it at the market or might use iodised salt instead of non-iodised. Nevertheless, I wish we could use a better name than “deviance”!!
    And on a serious note, behaviour change is laudible but the bigger issues of poverty and food insecurity dont go away.

  5. Welcome to the world of Positive Deviance!.
    Oxfam experiment with looking at outliers (negative and positive) withint the large SFC program is commandable.
    May I suggest that having the least successful groups in a district discover what the most successful saving groups do despite fscing same or worse challenges (PD Inquiries) would yield far reaching results !.
    Congratulations on discovering innovation among the groups..In PD we say the community is the Gru. Go and learn from them..Monique

  6. Discovery is a really exciting and fundamental part of Positive Deviance – it’s amazing what you find and what is hidden from the experts in agencies. We are working with communities in the UK, applying PD to issues such as teen pregnancy, domestic abuse and healthy eating in BME communities – it’s fascinating to see the community itself find its own sustainable solutions. Good luck, Jane

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