Positive Deviance

I learned a new phrase today: positive deviance. In 1990 Jerry and Monique Sternin traveled to Vietnam to see if they could help the 65% of malnourished <5 year olds. At the time, government and UN agencies were donating nutritional supplements–but they never seemed to help. So, the Sternins sought out “very, very poor” families whose children were doing well. They discovered that the parents of these children were supplementing their meals with tiny shrimps, crabs, and snails from the rice paddies and sweet potato greens. This was not a common practice in the area because these (easily available) foods were not considered safe for children. The Sternins worked with these positive deviants to develop cooking classes. Soon, 80% of the first program’s 1000 children were adequately nourished and the program was expanding to 14 other villages. By looking at local solutions, the Sternins were able to develop a program that was cheap and required little outside support to maintain long term (i.e. “sustainable”).

This is an example of what Standford calls “Design Thinking”. In their own words:

Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as being functional, and to express ourselves in media other than words or symbols. Nobody wants to run an organization on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky. Design thinking, the integrated approach at the core of the design process, provides a third way.

Isn’t that interesting? NGOs, activists, Emergency Managers–maybe even your own boss–are tempted to import solutions from other contexts and often they just don’t work. This provides a way of thinking honestly about your current context and finding sustainable solutions which won’t dry up with the funding.

Is this something you’ve tried? Tell us about it below!


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