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5 Key words from #ASBCConference

“AYOOOO! Ayo yo yo yo!”

This was the call-and-response chant that rang through an event that promised “Disruptive SBC strategies for the future of Africa.” Disruptive it certainly was, in more ways than one.

I recently gave a talk at the Africa Social Behaviour Change Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, on how technology can encourage habit-formation. The event brought together individuals from health, government, technological and private sectors. Over 25 African countries were represented and came together with a common goal: to learn, share and discuss behaviour change strategies in Africa, and how their application can be used to improve lives.

Over the 3 conference days, there were a few key words that came up repeatedly and stood out to me as key concepts punctuating the conference.

1. Disruption

It was decided that the conference would be a disruptive one, with people spontaneously interjecting with call-and-response chants, and plenary sessions alternating with dramatic performances, singing and dancing.

These disruptions mirrored what industry experts and practitioners aim to do when undertaking behaviour change work; that is, to disrupt the way things are being done, in order to make space for a potentially better way.

2. Triangulation

“One thing all governments in Africa have in common is that they all promise the eradication of poverty, ignorance and disease. What they don’t realise, is that these three things are connected.” – Prof. Khama Rogo.

An individual’s health does not occur or exist in a vacuum to other aspects of their life. Someone might be sick (health), but not realise that their symptoms could pertain to something serious because they’ve never been educated to know this (ignorance).

A woman could be feeling sick (health), but could lack the resources to travel to a healthcare facility (poverty), or perhaps her husband does not allow her to travel to the healthcare facility (poverty and social norms).

So we see that many aspects of a person’s life are intrinsically interconnected. We cannot simply address one aspect of their lives and expect behaviour change to happen. It has to be holistic, and with minimal barriers.

3. Multi-sectoral

How does an individual organisation provide a holistic solution with minimal barriers? The answer is: not effectively.

If you are an educational or research institution, it’s highly likely that you are not always equipped with the technology or infrastructure to disseminate your educational content. If you’re a corporate organisation looking to develop the communities that you are selling products to (which, by the way, you should be), where do you even begin to crack open the bureaucratic nut that is social development? If you are a technology company, where are you getting content, concepts and funding from?

This is where a multi-sectoral approach to development is so important and pursuing behaviour change interventions is no different. Multi-sectoral partnerships with various stakeholders, each with their individual strengths and areas of expertise, stand a good chance of achieving truly holistic solutions for the people they are looking to serve.

4. Sustainability

A teacher’s job is to make sure that their learners no longer need them. Similarly, any intervention that you are setting up, should be done with the intention of sustainability right from the start. The initial design and diagnosis stage should have a sustainability plan outlined. These plans will inevitably change as your project is piloted, but having the plan in place will help the team to keep focused on sustainability throughout the project.

When organisations roll out project after project without planning for how the community, project or intervention will sustain itself once it ends, it runs the risk of eroding trust, not to mention possibly causing more harm than good.

5. User-centred

Speaking of doing more harm than good, what good is an intervention that takes people so far out of their natural setting that it brings them discomfort or even danger?

At the conference, a panel speaker related a story about a project that was encouraging Maasai women to have their babies at the local healthcare facility, instead of at home, which is the traditional practice. This was in an effort to give them access to beneficial modern technologies that would help to decrease maternal mortality.

What they found was that while births would run smoothly at the facilities, mothers suffered in postnatal care because the facilities were significantly colder than their homes, which are situated in rural areas, and made of mud and other heat-retaining substances. This meant that the health of mother and baby did not fare as well as healthcare workers would have liked.

To mitigate this, the programme set up houses similar to the ones the mothers were used to in the vicinity of the healthcare facility, where they could go to recover from birth and nurse their babies. Through this process, the mothers would receive the benefit of modern birthing technologies in the facility, but would then be able to recover in an environment that was less of a departure from their natural setting.

This is a good example of ensuring that your product or project is centred around the needs of those you are looking to help. Doctors and nurses take an oath to “do no harm”, but if you are undertaking an effort to improve people’s lives, whether you are a technology company or a corporation, the concept of doing no harm should ring true as well.

In summary

If you are a practitioner in the development space, none of the concepts outlined by these keywords will be new to you. However, it is important to emphasise that where behaviour change is the goal, the responsibility of those creating interventions is great.

“If we want people to change their behaviour, we have to give them a reason to do so. development can only be successful if people in communities accept certain behaviours and take them on.” – Patrick Wilson, USAID.