Every year, I work with several INGOs on applying social and behavioural science approaches to programme design. A thing I come across often is people’s discomfort with using the term ‘behaviour change’ in the context of international development. I understand where the discomfort comes from, and I think we should have a serious discussion about its use.

In this post, I want to share my views on a few critiques, and I’d love it if you could share your insights and join the discussion here on LinkedIn.

Criticism 1: By promoting and focusing on behaviour change, we are diminishing the importance of duty-bearers to deliver quality services.  

One of the most common critiques is that, in general, and especially in the context of humanitarian and development programmes, we should be focusing on getting duty-bearers to uphold their responsibilities in delivering quality services such as education and healthcare. By focusing on how poor households should behave for instance, we are downplaying and maybe even erasing this responsibility.

My view is that this is a limited view of what I mean when I refer to behaviour change. To me, a government body, an institution, organisation or a community can also be seen as an entity whose behaviour needs to change. As such, one can look at most issues in two ways.

First, when we design a behaviour change intervention, we are not only talking about changing the behaviour of individuals at the household level, but we can translate this thinking into addressing the behaviour of individual policymakers for example. What conditions can we work with to help them design more responsive policies? How can we get them to implement policies?

Second, we can look at an institution as an entity that behaves in a certain way. We can refer to this as organisational behaviour change to be more precise. Still, the meaning is the same in that we need to get specific organisations to behave differently to deliver better services.

Therefore, I would encourage us to broaden our perspective on programme design and look more widely at whose behaviour we want to change.

Criticism 2: By focusing on behaviour change, we are promoting colonialist and Western ideals on how people should do things.

Human rights are universal. In my perspective, for individuals to act at their full capacity as rights-holders and to hold duty-bearers accountable, they need to know what their rights are. The process of learning what these rights are and how to demand them requires a person to see things in a different light or to adopt new ways of doing things. This, in my perspective, requires people to change their behaviour. If we are working within a rights-based framework, and we agree that human rights are universal, then helping individuals to claim their rights is not colonialist or erasing anyone’s identity.   

Criticism 3: By focusing on behaviour change, we are saying that people are poor, uneducated or sick by their own doing.

This critique has some overlaps with the first one, but has some distinct elements. It is suggesting that we should not be placing any focus on how people go about doing things, and just focus on changing or even bringing down the system.

For me, there is a lot we can do to make people’s immediate lives a little bit better by looking at what can be changed in their immediate environment. As the reader of this post, you may relate to the sense of agency and accomplishment that comes with being able to make a change with whatever means are around you. So, in my opinion, there is great value in helping people see what is around them in a new light.

In conclusion, I think that the way many understand the term ‘behaviour change’ is limited and that is doing us a big disservice in terms of programme design. We can certainly broaden our perspective on this topic.

Having said all of that, I do believe that we need to update our language so that we can better articulate what we are doing in the application of social and behavioural science. On that note, please check out Karen Greiner’s charming article How I cured my “b” allergy.

And now I would like to hear from you. How should we be talking about behaviour change in the context of international development? Or, do you have any additional critiques? Please share them here.