Mobilisation workshop in Timor-Leste

Behaviour change is a popular topic in international aid and development, and is a topic that gets the geek in me endlessly fascinated. Behaviour change work (done well) encompasses so many aspects of our work: institutional theory, communications, community engagement, systems theory, governance, and so much more. For those of us working to change particular practices at the community level – whether it’s advocacy for women’s rights, or public health, or improving agricultural practices – behaviour change is an essential part of our work.

But problems come in when the rich, cross-disciplinary field of behaviour change is simply allocated to the communications department. It should be understood as encompassing so much more, cutting across program development & technical delivery, driving research agendas, and leading to more nuanced feedback loops via monitoring data to tweak program decision-making and improve results over time.

Now, don’t get me wrong – communications is soooo important to our work! Very often in our field, communications are not given nearly enough respect, and talented communications specialists are not given enough strategic or creative freedom to really show what they can do.

But my point is this: if we think of behaviour change as a ‘communications thing’, then we reduce it to information dissemination. And as any political scientist (or parent, for that matter!) can tell us, behaviour does not change just because of the words that we use. Behaviour changes because of a complex combination of factors, including legislative, institutional, social, cultural, economic, political, and other.

Sometimes the way in which a person, family or community changes is predictable, as people respond logically to what is happening around them (a model preferred by rational choice theorists.) Sometimes, it’s completely unpredictable—either because we’ve identified the wrong driving factors, or simply because human beings are inherently messy creatures.

Yet other times, the changes that we have successfully driven lead to what institutional theorists call ‘negative externalities’—in layman terms, side-effects. So while we might have curtailed one negative behaviour, we also created a new set of problems…

We need to stop simplifying how we think about behaviour change. And the way to do this is to take a holistic approach, and being prepared to test things, learn from our ‘failures’ (something that we hate to talk about), and adapt our programming accordingly.

Behaviour change involves communications, including clearly defining the issue, knowing your audience & what they respond to, and developing smart, strategic messaging.

It involves good research, identifying those community members who are already half-way there, and figuring out the barriers that are stopping people from engaging in more positive behaviour.

It also involves flexible programming, so we can adjust what we’re doing as we learn more.

Hopefully you can see where I’m going here…

It involves doing all of these things together – in other words, it involves good community engagement. It involves starting from people’s lived experience, and then slowly and painstakingly building up a program that gives good information to people (and in the right way), working with local leaders and stakeholders to build a sense of local ownership, and addressing barriers to people’s voluntary participation, creating a dynamic two-way relationship between the program and the people it’s meant to engage.

Without all of these things, you might have an excellent communications campaign, but it’s not yet a behaviour change strategy.

Let’s get more ambitious. Behaviour change – and community engagement – can do so much more than we give them credit for, if only we get more critical about what we are (and aren’t) doing.

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