Why Positive Deviance could be the answer to working in complex, messy places like Papua New Guinea

Final post on PNG trip, after overview and paean to roads and leadership.

Field trips operate on several different mental levels. Superficially, you are seeing new communities and programmes, and learning about the country. But there is also a

Fathers of the nation? Rugby league is one of the few sources of translocal identity in PNG
Fathers of the nation? Rugby league is one of the few sources of translocal identity in PNG

constant process of interpretation, where you compare what you are seeing with what you have been reading back home or seen elsewhere, and see what resonates.

In PNG, it was positive deviance. Everything in the country is messy – delivering health or education, politics, public finances and aid, for starters. In such complex systems, it may not be possible to work out what kind of aid programme or other intervention is likely to succeed – any number of unintended consequences and unforeseen problems could sabotage your great plans.

So why not start somewhere else entirely. Accept that whether on health, education, nutrition or governance, there is a wide spectrum of success and failure in what is already happening in PNG. So study that spectrum, identify the most successful 5 or 10% of cases, then go and study them to see if there are lessons there for aid donors.

In a way that’s what we do already, in the shape of all that aid gossip and exchange of ideas and experiences in the bars and restaurants, as well as seminars and meetings. But it’s ad hoc, and could be missing lots of the positive outliers, so why not systematize it a bit?

As usual when I think I’ve had a good idea, it turns out that Chris Roche got there about a decade ago. Chris discusses positive deviance in a 2008 paper on PNG and other Pacific islands (Chris Roche 2008 paper). Chris focussed in particular on Bruce Harris’ call for aid to put much more emphasis on ‘translocalism’ – building links beyond village and clan level, in order to build trust beyond their immediate neighbours, an essential first step in nation-building. He argues that it is particularly useful in identifying and recognizing the importance of the ‘thousand points of light’ of successful local initiatives that are going on all the time, but which either fail to register with donors or get loved to death.

‘Ignoring local ‘success’ – or dismissing it as marginal – and in particular ignoring initiatives that deliberately seek to work across clan and tribal boundaries at a ‘trans-local’ level,  has three main effects a) it fails to provide incentives for those initiatives which are actually making a real difference to people’s lives now and could do more,  secondly b) it fails to reward precisely the kinds of processes that  might help to place the kinds of different demands on the system that are needed, and c) it fails to build an evidence base of what is working and why that might be shared,  and in so doing promote more effective practice and to adjust policy so that this is better supported.  Is it a coincidence that many of these successes are so often run by women, and ignored by men?’

Positive Deviance Easter IslandChris argues that the aid business struggles with this because ‘There is a tendency to focus on deficits and weaknesses because:

  1. development theory and capacity building often focus on ‘gaps’;
  2. incentives to worry about constraints and risks;
  3. there is an engineering approach to ‘fixing’ problems;
  4. strength seen as a fortunate condition that can stand on its own;
  5. donor legitimacy often based on overcoming local weaknesses.

Moreover, in its obsession with ‘going to scale’, the aid business too easily dismisses the small stuff (Chris ends his paper with a great Dalai Lama proverb  –  “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you have never spent the night in a tent with a mosquito”).

The role of outsiders involves identifying the small spores of development and translocalism, and then acting to create an enabling environment for them to multiply – he likens this to creating the conditions for moulds to reproduce and spread. This could include ‘immersion exchanges’ to take potential mould-spreaders to see some successful experiences on the ground, and really get to understand them by spending a decent amount of time there (something that also might help with the uphill effort of getting people in organizations like Oxfam to try out new stuff in their own work).

I think the positive deviance approach has huge potential – suppose our first action when contemplating any campaign, country or programme was to identify and learn from the successful outliers? It could transform everything about the way we work. If someone wants to set up a Positive Deviance Institute, Chris is keen and I’d probably join, even if it was just to have that on my business card.

In Australia, such ideas are encapsulated in the ‘Strength-based Approach to Development’, which sounds like something I should take a look at.

By the way, it turns out Francis Fukuyama got there first – here’s a brilliant paper on the need to build the nation before you can start thinking about state-building in PNG, based on his 2007 visit (thanks to Laurence Chandy for sending it over).

Update: UNDP today published its Human Development Report on PNG, which focuses on the extractives sector, which in PNG has a history of exploitation, conflict and instability, as well as contributing to the recent growth surge (GDP growth of over 20% is expected for 2015, following the start of production from the massive PNG Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project). Not sure how well these attempts to cram 100+ page reports into a single picture work, but here’s their monumental Exec Sum infographic.


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9 Responses to “Why Positive Deviance could be the answer to working in complex, messy places like Papua New Guinea”
  1. Claudia Melim-McLeod

    By coincidence, I am in PNG and attended the NHDR launch today. I have been to more report launching events than I can remember and for the first time I was positively surprised. The event was highly interactive, interesting videos were shown and combined with workshop-like activities to get the interest of the audience. The UN Resident Coordinator delivered a straight to the point, refreshingly candid yet inspiring speech. It was a pleasure to see UNDP at its best. Kudos to Roy Trivedy and his team.

  2. Roland Lubett

    The Rhodes and Dureau paper tried to shift the entire AusAID approach – not before time. I was cheerfully teaching problem-based methods to planners and fieldworkers up and down the Pacific, PNG included, before I saw the error of my ways.
    Positive deviance is just one of a family of strength-based approaches, many of which have been around for quite a while. The problem may be one of terminology: one approach is known as Asset-Based Community Development or ABCD, another as Appreciative Inquiry, but they share many common elements. The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach, much beloved of DfID, could fall into the category too.

  3. Dieter Zinnbauer

    Great post! Your envisioned institute exists: http://www.positivedeviance.org/!
    We have been inspired by this approach a couple of years’ back and put together a little research project in collaboration with the late Adrian Leftwich’s DLP. The idea was to dig into several years of large scale household surveys from our Global Corruption Barometer to identify positive outliers: institutions/services in a particular country that are performing significantly better in terms of corruption experience and/or perception than their peers elsewhere, or better than their broader institutional environment or that have improved surprisingly a lot over time.
    Some results here http://www.dlprog.org/news/islands-of-integrity-identifying-positive-outliers.php
    We still hope to do the in-depth follow-up research on the identified outliers at some point, if money and time permits…

  4. Elena McCollim

    Great post, thanks Duncan. Sounds in many ways analogous to resilience, from the field of conflict-resolution and peacebuilding. I’d be interested in seeing information that you or your readers may have linking the two concepts.

  5. Alison Mathie

    All your posts from PNG have been excellent — fresh eyes are the keenest of observers! Spent 8 years in PNG in the late 70s and 1980s and returned a few years back for the first visit in 25 years. The local government challenges are enormous. In fact our return visit showed improved health (mission assisted health care) but dismal local economic growth because roads weren’t maintained and advice to local farmers about investing in cardomom proved disastrous. Having now been at the Coady Institute in Canada, promoting and deepening an Asset Based Approach for over 15 years, I have been keenly interested in its application in PNG under the broad umbrella of strength-based approaches — Chris Dureau’s team, for example. There are many reasons why it resonates with people in PNG, and perhaps it can help to mitigate some of the dysfunctional aspects of sudden and rapid change as well as re-energise environmentally sustainable rural economic development, olgeta wan wan ples. For more on our ABCD work: (http://www.coady.stfx.ca/themes/abcd/).

  6. Tess Newton Cain

    Thanks for this Duncan, it resonates strongly with various conversations I have had in various places, some of them with Chris when he was here in Vanuatu and also with the PLP people. And the Devpacific Dialogues that we have here in Vanuatu tie in with this – as they provide opportunities for people to come together around a topic of interest and share ideas based on experience and learning from government, civil society, academia, donor community, private sector.
    However, I am highly doubtful that DFAT as currently formulated would know where to even start with such an approach, assuming they even wanted to. I spent an entire day with them a month or so ago at a ‘get everyone together to discuss the Pacific aid programme’ and it was possibly the most depressing 7 hours of my life.
    And in PNG, it is hard to believe that they have the capacity to adopt an approach such as this in light of their withdrawal of sponsorship of the Crocodile Prize, which is an annual competition for PNG writers with the winning entries compiled into an anthology which can then be made available to schools, libraries, etc.

  7. Roy Trivedy

    Hi Duncan,

    Great to read all three posts from Papua New Guinea and your visit to Australia. On PNG your observations are accurate and insightful. One thing however that wasn’t highlighted very clearly however is that despite the country’s underperformance over several decades on most development indicators (as shown by its 2013 HDI ranking 156/187 countries), PNG is one of the few countries in the world that still has most of its forestry, marine and environmental resources in tact. This opens some possibilities for the country to chart a different development path from most industrialised countries, including many of its neighbours. The Government has a Strategy for Responsible Sustainable Development (2014). Making the right policy choices and implementing these in a timely manner, could enable the country to make considerable progress towards its goal of responsible, sustainable development. The international community especially PNG’s ‘development partners’ have an important role to play in helping national, provincial and local leaders to make the right choices and to assist in implementing the required changes. If PNG fails to make the necessary changes, it will also reflect badly on its ‘development partners’. We need to get this right … and the clock is ticking. Roy

    • Duncan Green

      Excellent addition Roy, but I’m sure you wd agree that unless the politics and governance is sorted, this wonderful natural endowment could just become another resource curse

  8. Roy Trivedy

    Fully agree, Duncan. And you are right that it is difficult to have confidence about that, based on the past track record. The stakes are high, very important period for citizens of PNG.