Syndicate content

Why Sound Technical Solutions Are Not Enough: Part II

Paolo Mefalopulos's picture

Let us go back to the main theme of this blog: why sound technical solutions devised by top ranking technical experts and supported by plenty of resources from the richest countries have failed to deliver the expected results. A review of past experiences identified a number of causes for the failures of past approaches, but most of them appear to be traceable to one directly linked to communication/dialogue, or the lack of; i.e. the limited involvement of the so-called ‘beneficiaries’ in the decisions and the design of activities that concerned their lives. To sum up, lack of results in development initiatives due to people failing to adopt the prescribed behaviours were largely due to the neglect of the voices of those who were expected to adopt and live with such innovations and technical solutions.

This is also confirmed by my personal experiences, as indicated by another instance in which I was directly involved and where a sound technical innovation failed to be adopted because of the lack of genuine communication/dialogue between the technical experts and local communities. In this instance, a technical assessment conducted by an international medical team investigated the causes of the high incidence of water-borne diseases, at times resulting also in deaths, especially among children under five years of age, in a region that experienced strong rains but only in specific periods of the year. They identified the cause of the problem to reside in the contamination of water sources due to the practice of defecation in the open. The problem was naturally more acute during the rainy season, since the water from the rains contaminated the drinking sources, causing a higher incidence of the water-borne diseases.

If the diagnosis was correct, and it was, the technical solution followed in an apparently logical and technically appropriate manner: building latrines to stop open defecation, thus eliminating the main source of water contamination. The project had to provide the materials and the training necessary to build the latrines. A media campaign was developed and implemented to encourage people to build their own individual latrines. After eighteen months, the number of individuals who had joined the programme and built a latrine was dramatically low.

At that point, a team of communication specialists was called in to persuade people to adopt the latrines. And, once more, rather than going into a persuasion mode from the start, what we did was to explore why people was not building and using latrines. The many answers to this investigation can be synthesized in an answer given by an elderly lady, who told us: “My father and my mother used the “bush,” my grandparents used the bush, my brothers, sisters, my sons, daughters, and grandchildren are using the bush. Why should we now start to build latrines?”

From that answer, consistent with those of many others, it emerged quite clearly that villagers did not see the need to build latrines, since they had such large open spaces and since, most of all, many of them were not aware of the link between open defecation and water borne diseases. The project committed the basic and, unfortunately, frequent mistake of assuming that the innovation would be automatically associated with a solution or improvement of villagers’ lives. But the villagers had a different perspective and they were not consulted, informed or involved in any manner during the technical assessment and during the subsequent design of the intervention.

Researchers and projects’ personnel must learn to understand the local context and listen to people’s point of view since, after all, they are the primary stakeholders. The emphasis of this process should be on sharing of information, mutual understanding and reversal of knowledge (Chambers, 1997) rather than focusing on persuading people to adopt the innovation. That is why in this context, dialogue, learning approaches, participatory research and capacity building activities are more crucial than media and messages.

Nowadays, it is becoming clearer (even though some technocrats and some institutions still do not want to acknowledge this) that technical solutions are not enough to have people adopt new practices and achieve the intended change. It does not matter how good and technically correct a solution is, it usually needs to be discussed, assessed, tested and validate with key stakeholders before it can be adopted. Any given behavior is usually the result of many years of past experiences and, at times, an outcome of power relationships in society. Changing such patterns is one of the major development challenges. So far, development initiatives have often been shaped by scientists rooted in the positivist school of thought, driven by technical and ‘objective’ knowledge, with a limited understanding of local social and cultural factors, and by economists, whose theories are driven by the belief that, if given the correct information, human beings tend to adopt rational behaviours. 

In my opinion, and based on my life experiences, neither of the theoretical assumptions associated with the above perspectives holds true. On one level, technical, scientific knowledge is not neutral and objective, and it takes different forms in different socio-cultural contexts, and on the other level, there is no universally accepted understanding of rationality, which all human beings can aspire or follow when making decisions. Rather than looking for expert-driven, universal recipes what we need are contextualized solutions defined, developed and agreed upon among all stakeholders. And social scientists should be in the driving seats when designing such initiatives, because what makes or breaks the successful adoption of innovations or practices is not their technical correctness but people’s willingness to adopt them. Fifty years of major failures in development initiatives should have taught us that technically sound solutions have rarely been adopted as expected by their “planners.” If specialists in behaviour and social change are not be involved form the start in such initiatives we might have to wait for another fifty years before real and sustainable change can occur. It should also have taught us that the questions we ask in our research approaches might not be enough. But this will be the topic of another blog.

Follow CommGAP on Twitter

Why Sound Technical Solutions Are Not Enough (Part I)

Photo Credit: © Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank (on Flickr)


Submitted by Helen Abadzi on
Some of the examples produced are unrealistic devised by specialists who are not well-versed in country capacity or human behavior. Others look at a very narrow timeframe, as above. In 5-10 years all the people will use the latrines, but results re needed right away for our evaluation frameworks. The title of the article can mislead. It can be interpreted as 'we don't need to provide sound technical solutions, just money for countries to figure out what to do'. Or 'political economy and public relations matter more than sound technical solutions.' etc.

Submitted by s masty on
many thanks for a pleasant and wise article. to build sustainable change one needs a consensus. to build a consensus there must be perceived moral and/or practical benefit to each constituent part. to convey benefit requires communication. QED.

Submitted by Lala on
You know, its so comforting to hear these views from a Communications expert who worked in "World Bank". This knowledge has been existing since long. Childers, Chambers, many Latin Amercian communication scholars have espoused these views for so long and so do we from our field and academic experience. But sadly, these do not find favor in the "donor funds and timeline driven", "program implementation driven", "technical specialist driven" developmental programs. Ostensibly, the poor are the "target". Once I saw my erst while health colleague making a program funding document where one of the funding lines was "Mothers expected to die in the community in the next 6 months". I was aghast...I mean its perfectly sound to forecast funds for the MMR reduction program but the unit of forecast being a "live mother's death" did not sound community oriented to me. This is just a small reflection of the technical toolkit we bring to our programming. Even today more than 50% of program funds are spent on supplies..why? As you have so rightly said, its people willingness which drives the change and experts listening to the views of the people. Further, I think we as communication thinkers and doers have to move beyond "social -scientific" label..let the academia fight its turf wars on what is scientific and what is not....we have much more pressing concerns like "authenticity", "engagement", "listening" if we hope to contribute to behavior and social change. And we have to ask questions..uncomfortable questions...I look forward to your upcoming BLOG...wonderful writings...

I have read with interest the two comments to my posting. in general, I concur with both comments. We definitely have to look at the larger context and structures that influences individuals, but right now more efforts are towards individuals behaviour change. In our programme in India we are actually developing a strategy to address changing social norms. It is however still an area in its infancy. I strongly believe that cultural mores and social norms can only be truly changed from within that culture, the question is how does that change happen and what can be done from "outside" to facilitate the conditions that will allow that change to happen. I also think that international organizations should focus more on supporting processes of strategy design and capacity building, rather than investing huge amounts of money in equipment/supplies (with the exception of emergency situations). I also agree that concepts such as engagement and listening are more important than numeric assessments, but the two can be combined in a rigorous (I also do not like much the "scientific" terminology) manner. Change is a complex phenomenon, one difficult to assess precisely, but that does not mean that is not happening. it actually might mean that we do not have the instruments to measure it (especially social change). From my point of view and from the experiences I witness everyday, I can say that change is happening, not as fast as I would like, but it is definitely happening.

Add new comment