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Tackling poverty and injustice by influencing behaviours and practices: what works?

January 25, 2018
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Ruth Mayne, Oxfam’s senior researcher on influencing, introduces a new discussion paper on behaviour and practiceRuth Mayne portrait change, written with Melanie Kesmaecker-Wissing, Lucy Knight and Jola Miziniak. This was first posted on Oxfam’s Views and Voices site.

Behaviour change strategies can play a vital role in combating poverty, injustice and environmental problems, whether by helping end gender-based violence, improving health and hygiene behaviours, reducing resource-intensive consumption patterns or helping mobilise people to take action.

But do we really understand how to achieve behaviour and practice change? Our new discussion paper seeks to enhance the design of change strategies by drawing on learning from theory and practice. It focuses mainly on deep-seated and habitual gender, WASH (“Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), health, and environmental behaviours, but also contains insights for policy influencing, public mobilisation and consumer behaviours. It outlines:

  • The range of influences that can shape people’s behaviours at individual, group, societal and system levels;
  • The associated change interventions that can be used to address them with illustrative practical case studies.
  • The key steps necessary for planning and designing behavioural change interventions

Individual influences

Some economic theory assumes that people are rational, self-interested and autonomous, influenced mainly by their internal decision making processes. This approach emphasises the role of information and financial incentives in influencing people’s choices. Both play a useful role, but tend to have modest impacts on habitual or deep seated behaviours due to the range of other influences shaping them.



In contrast to this narrow view of human behaviour, psychological and behavioural theories show that people often act in unconscious, irrational, altruistic and cooperative ways and take mental ‘shortcuts’ – unconscious habits, values, frames, emotions and personal agency. Mothers’ emotions about nurturing their children were, for example, found to be a powerful motivator for promoting handwashing with soap in an Oxfam project in Nepal.

Therefore, to be effective change interventions also need to carefully frame narratives and information, strengthen agency and/or use prompts and environmental cues to ‘nudge’ people towards better habits.  For example, a big breakthrough for the gay marriage campaign in the US occurred when it shifted the framing of its messaging from equal rights to love and commitment.

Interpersonal and group influences

Socio-psychological and social learning theory highlights that people are social beings and therefore strongly influenced by their perceptions of and interactions with other people, particularly peers or role models, as well as by groups and institutions. Evidence shows that group interactive action and learning activities are effective ways of changing behaviours, as they create safe informal spaces where people can pioneer, model and learn new behaviours with others. Global Action Plan’s Eco teams are one example, but similar approaches have also been used in gender and WASH. Even just simply communicating that other people are behaving in certain ways – social norm appeals – can be powerful. One experiment increased the recycling rates of hotel towels by adding a message to their signs saying that most other guests recycled.

Structural influences

But addressing individual and group influences can only achieve so much. There may also be structural constraints affecting people’s behaviours, such as power relations (including vested interests), government policy, cultural or religious beliefs, infrastructures or services. Improving public health or hygiene behaviours, for example, depends in part on people’s access to safe water, adequate sanitation, health services and medicines.

A South African health campaign, LoveLife, realised that HIV/AIDs among youth was driven more by

From the Lovelife site

From the Lovelife site

disenfranchisement due to high unemployment, gender inequality and low self-esteem, than by any lack of awareness of health risks. It successfully increased youth use of condoms and reduced the number of their sexual partners by involving them in health, education and employment programmes, along with festivals, sports and other recreational activities.

Contributing to wider system change

There is some evidence that multi-pronged and multi-level strategies are most effective at addressing deep seated and routine behaviours. Some Oxfam country programmes, for example, use a combination of influencing tactics to tackle violence against women and girls, which may include a mix of: changing attitudes and beliefs and social norms; supporting women’s rights organizations; changing government policies and practice; empowering women economically; and/or enabling access to support services.

While few CSOs are able to carry out multi-pronged/level interventions on their own, they can help contribute to widespread behaviour change by (a) modelling and spreading new behaviours and behaviour change strategies to others and/or (b) influencing other actors – such as governments and faith institutions – to adopt, support, promote and complement them, including when appropriate with legislation.

Alternatively, CSOs can identify and tackle key system influences. For example, the ‘Cool Biz’ campaign – introduced in Japan in the summer of 2005 –reduced the use of office air conditioning, and hence carbon emissions, by changing clothing customs rather than via individually focused environmental awareness raising. The campaign got government staff, including the prime minister, to model a new casual dress code at work. As the dress code didn’t involve a suit or tie offices were able to turn down the air conditioning, hence lowering carbon emissions.

If you have experience of behavioural and practice strategies that have and haven’t worked we’d love to hear from you in the comments section below. Also, look out for more posts in this blog series on influencing.

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