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Tom Wein reflects on behaviour change in development, and the education work of Twaweza in East Africa.

Owen Barder of the Centre for Global Development hosts the excellent international development podcast, Development Drums. In an episode broadcast early this year, he discussed accountability and openness with Rakesh Rajani and Martin Tisné.  An interesting discussion in its own right, it also threw up some fascinating points about behaviour change and development.

Rakesh Rajani leads a Tanzanian NGO named Twaweza, which is Swahili for ‘we can make it happen’. They have led a fascinating project across East Africa to  demonstrate to parents that even though their child may diligently attend school, they are not necessarily learning; the data shows that four out of five children in third grade cannot read at the required level. He hopes to foster parental and community pressure on the school system to boost quality.

In his own words from the podcast, he lays out the issue:

“One thing we’ve managed to do now is to get most children to primary schools. But there are lots of problems beyond that. Teachers don’t show up, if they show up they’re not teaching, we don’t have enough books, the money that is increasing in national budgets isn’t getting to schools and most importantly children are not learning. And when you talk to parents about it, first of all, many parents don’t even know about these things; they’re completely in the dark. And even when they get to know about them, there is a sense that most people are that ‘I can’t do anything about this, I’m just an ordinary parent.’”

“So the idea of citizen agency is how can you turn that around? How can very ordinary people, not fancy types, not just the activists, not just the wealthy folks, but how can very ordinary people be able to make a difference?”

To address this, Twaweza have trained volunteers across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to administer a test of literacy and numeracy for the child, while family members watch. They thereby discover the true level of their child’s education. It is a valuable initiative, but as Rajani admits, it has not yet had the desired impact. Though it has changed the debate in the media, and though politicians have made some changes to curricula, ordinary people have not yet felt empowered to act. A follow-up media and communication campaign has failed to elicit that behaviour change among parents.

Rajani takes up the story again:

“I think the part that’s proven to be tougher than we had imagined is how can citizens themselves and communities begin to make a difference to take actions. And what we realize is that some of us who are used to the idea that we can do things and have experienced that all our lives, can sometimes underestimate what it is to get communities to act. You know if you’ve live for 20, 30, 40 years with the idea that education is what happens in schools, and is done by trained teachers, you have no role, particularly if you have low levels of literacy, then it’s – just having one engagement over a weekend and even if it’s followed up through stuff on radio and media, isn’t going to be enough. So, I think the – it’s, we’re beginning to see some actions, but I think that’s going to take a longer haul.”

Rajani then draws some extremely important conclusions about behaviour change:

“And what we’re also realizing is that we need to pay much more careful attention to questions of motivation, questions around collective action, questions around what will it get people to believe in? And which people? Because I think the other thing we need to do is differentiate while our aim is millions of citizens, change is likely to begin with a few and we need to get better at targeting those few.”

These final points are exactly right. Media and communication can get expensive quickly, and funds are too scarce to pour into influence efforts of dubious effectiveness. What is needed is a detailed study of motivations – and the many other parameters behaviour change requires – using academically valid social science research; that study cannot be on the general population, but must target a group which is self-identifying and socially cohesive, as well as accessible and salient.

Twaweza has already achieved some important things in East Africa, and the development agenda of empowering citizens has huge potential. But much, much more can be achieved, if behaviour change campaigns start with good research, rather than bright ideas. The case is a perfect example of the changes in influence practice that the BDI hopes to effect.

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