What do aid agencies need to do to get serious on changing social norms?

How Change Happens

It is one of the big questions of our time: how should we react to the rising tide of nationalism and populism (not just in the UK and the US, but also in India and the Philippines)? The issue gives rise to the question of how aid agencies should best engage with social norms – the deeply held beliefs of what is natural, normal and acceptable – that underpin a lot of human behaviour, including how people treat each other and how they vote.

It’s quite common to hear progressive types (in which category I include Oxfam, for which I am a strategic advisor for Great Britain) to worry that while they have been busy having conversations on the evidence on this or that intervention/project, or the case for this or that policy change, they have ignored the tide of disillusionment with politics-as-usual that underpins the rise of populism. We need to engage the public in a wider conversation aimed at encouraging progressive norms, or opposing exclusionary ones.

Fair enough, but what strikes me in such conversations is just how much would need to change for that to become reality. What would a ‘guide to shifting norms’ cover? Here are a few thoughts.


There doesn’t seem to be much evidence on how to change norms, such as what lies behind the increasing acceptance of the rights of people with disabilities, the age at which we deem childhood to end, or even why dog owners routinely pick up their pooches’ pooh in my local park, something that was unimaginable a generation ago? How do deliberate attempts at change interact with the forces of demographic, technological or cultural change that also help drive norm shifts? This is one area where we really do need more research, both historical and current.

One of the areas of research I have come across is on violence against women, and a fascinating paper that showed that independent feminist movements are one of the strongest explanatory factors behind progress in this area. A Filipina activist memorably described the best way to change laws and policies on gender rights as being like cooking a rice cake – you need simultaneous heat from the top (via the machinery of the UN) and heat from the bottom (from women’s movements).

Up until now, a lot of work on norms has revolved around legislative change, whether through international laws and conventions, or at national level. One way of looking at the current populist backlash is that such a legal approach has overreached – the laws on issues such as racism or hate crimes have become so removed from the actual norms inside people’s heads that they are prompting a backlash, like that against ‘political correctness’. We need to find other, non-legal ways to close the gap.

We also need to involve more people from the disciplines that really ‘get’ norms – those that delve inside people’s hearts and minds, like psychology and anthropology, rather than the current intellectual dependence on economics, law and political science, which seem to have an impoverished understanding of what goes on inside people’s heads.

What those disciplines could help us do is completely rethink our approach to ‘power analysis’. Although we pay lip service to ‘power within’ in terms of people’s sense of individual rights and agency, the kind of power analysis we use to design our projects and campaigns usually reverts straight back to the formal power of money and political influence.

A ‘power within’ analysis would look at the moments in people’s lives when norms are formed or reformed, and the crucibles that forge them. I suspect that would lead us to give priority to three arenas in particular: the family, faith organisations, and early years education As Aristotle said, “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will show you the man”.


How to put this knowledge to good use? Engaging seriously with norms would require different research, different messages, and different partners.

Firstly, it would mean moving beyond the standard approach to trying to persuade the public by amassing a pile of statistics and evidence (memorably satirised by an Australian critic as ‘bad shit; facty, facty’ papers). One Oxfam leader suggested: ‘start with the emotion, then follow up with the evidence’. Guiding or influencing emotion and narrative is a whole skill in itself, and would require its own brand of evidence in terms of testing to identify the narratives that actually succeed in getting through to people. We do that in fundraising, and a bit in campaigns, but we have to become more imaginative on our narratives and more rigorous in our testing of them.

We also need far more engagement with faith organisations, parents (especially mothers) and early years teachers. Our traditional partners (media, civil society organisations and academics) could also play a role, perhaps more in changing norms rather than in their initial formation, but this would definitely entail a big shake-up of our partners. One example from Oxfam’s current work is the Female Food Heroes TV programme in Tanzania, which works to change norms around the roles of women in agriculture. Elsewhere there is evidence of the impact of soap operas on gender norms. More of that please!

Beyond the individual, societal norm shifts are often linked to critical junctures such as the impact of war on women’s rights. Getting serious about norms would mean developing the ability to sense and respond to such moments as windows of opportunity.

OUP author Duncan Green is in Australia to promote How Change Happens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s