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Positive deviance

Positive deviance is an asset based approach to community development. It involves finding people within a particular community whose uncommon behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources. The Positive Deviance Initiative has already had remarkable results in health and nutrition in Egypt, Argentina, Mali and Vietnam.

Positive deviance utilises the resources of the community in order to solve problems, modify behaviour and develop social capital. While the positive deviance approach was first used in the fields of health and nutrition, the practice has spread throughout the world and to issues as wide-ranging as development, education, trafficking and female genital mutilation.

There are a myriad examples of positive behavioural changes related to child mortality and malnutrition in developing countries through the use of hearths. Hearth interventions identify and demonstrate behaviours that result in positive outcomes. For example, mothers whose children have better than average health despite poor conditions have been used to create a series of conversations or sessions with other mothers intended to model behaviour and encourage positive feedback that can lead to increased confidence and belief in self-ability, positively affecting outcomes.

Positive deviance research begins with the selection of the community and the identification of ‘positive deviants’ through a Positive Deviance Inquiry (PDI) intended to mobilise communities through active participation, reflection and planning. The goal of the positive deviance inquiry is to change behaviour through the transfer of skills by encouraging target audiences to model positive deviance practices. The positive deviance inquiry can be completed in several different ways, and there are a number of field guides and case studies that provide in-depth and detailed methodologies for doing so.

Essentially, once a problem is identified, members of the community that exhibit positive deviant behaviour can be identified. It is also necessary to adopt a common language with which to discuss community problems, and carefully communicate the goals of the project to the community in advance. Once the inquiry has been completed and the positive deviants identified, an intervention can be designed to address the problem utilizing the results from the inquiry.

(See David R Marsh, Dirk G Schroeder, Kirk A Dearden, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin, ‘The Power of Positive Deviance’, British Medical Journal, vol. 329, pp1177-1179, 2004)