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Zahir Shah

June 2nd, 2023

Beyond the buzzwords: Rethinking Social and Behavioural Change in the development and aid sector

1 comment | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Zahir Shah

June 2nd, 2023

Beyond the buzzwords: Rethinking Social and Behavioural Change in the development and aid sector

1 comment | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Behavioural researcher and MSc Development Studies alum, Zahir Shah discusses the need to re-evaluate current practices in the social and behavioural change sphere within the development and aid sector.

In the past few years, in the realm of development and aid, social and behavioural change has been touted as a key solution to address complex challenges faced by communities worldwide. However, it is extremely important that we pay attention to the shortcomings that can sometimes be found behind these well-intentioned efforts. While social and behavioural change interventions have their merits, they often fall short of creating profound and sustainable impact, requiring a critical re-evaluation of the approach in the development and aid sector.

Focus on superficial outcomes

One of the major issues plaguing social and behavioural change programs is their tendency to focus on superficial outcomes rather than addressing underlying systemic issues. Such initiatives often prioritize short-term results and quick fixes, neglecting the structural barriers that perpetuate social problems. It is imperative that we shift our attention towards tackling root causes, empowering communities, and engaging in systemic change that can yield long-lasting results.

Western-centric biases

Another major issue facing the SBC programming is that many efforts suffer from the western-centric bias, imposing preconceived notions of what constitutes progress and development onto diverse culture and societies. This approach disregards the nuances of local contexts and fails to recognize the wisdom and agency of communities. To truly drive change, we must embrace cultural humility, actively listen to local voices, and co-create solutions that are contextually relevant and empowering. In my experience of leading several behavioural research studies on sensitive topics such as child protection and Gender Based Violence (GBV), I have encountered situations where Western-funded donors and INGOs have exhibited biases that contradict the findings. Unfortunately, in order to secure funding and prevent funding lapses, the problem is exaggerated beyond its actual extent.

Mere tokenism

All too often, social and behavioural change initiatives resort to tokenism, where community participation is reduced to a mere checkbox exercise. Genuine ownership and meaningful involvement of local stakeholders are crucial for sustainable change. Instead of imposing external agendas, we must prioritize building genuine partnerships, nurturing local leadership, and empowering communities to shape their own narratives and development trajectories.

Mostly limited to communication campaigns

Moreover, the limitation of social and behavioural change interventions to mere communication programs is a significant problem. By confining interventions solely to communication efforts, there is failure to address the broad range of factors that influence behaviours and social norms. This narrow approach overlooks the need for comprehensive strategies that encompass systemic change, community engagement, and the understanding of underlying drivers.

The role of private consultancies

The role of private social and behavioural change consultancies can play a valuable role in providing specialized expertise, technical assistance, and capacity building to organizations and projects. However, there are certain practices and dynamics within the consultancy landscape that can have negative implications for the sector. Overreliance on external consultancies creates a culture of dependency within organizations, hindering development of internal capacity. Instead of building the skills and expertise of the staff, donors and INGOs continuously rely on external expertise, undermining long-term sustainability and self-reliance.

Moreover, these consultancies apply standard approaches, one-size-fits-all approaches that do not effectively consider the unique contexts and needs of the communities they aim to serve. The proliferation of consultancies in the development sector has led to competition for funding and fragmented efforts. This cost competition compels the consultancies to hire inexperienced new graduates and demonstrate external expertise. This competition diverts valuable resources from effective program design and development and hinders the meaningful impact that can be created. In addition, these consultancies often operate within project-based timelines and deliverables, which promote a culture of short-term focus on achieving immediate results rather than addressing complex, long-standing issues. This approach often leads to superficial results that fails to tackle root causes and achieve sustainable change.

Difficulty measuring the impact

Last but not least, there is always scepticism about the impact or achievements of the SBC programs implemented. When the programs are not well-designed and structured from the outset, it becomes difficult to track progress, measure outcomes and the impact of the interventions. Lack of clear objectives and inadequate theory of change leads to poorly designed programs and implementation, in turn leading to inefficiencies, delays, and unintended consequences.

Hence, beyond the buzzwords lies the potential for real and transformative change through social and behavioural change interventions in the development and aid sector. The need for paradigm shift has become apparent when examining the shortcomings and challenges surrounding social and behavioural change in this sector. By rethinking our approach and adopting a more holistic and comprehensive approach we can unleash the true power of SBC to address complex challenges and create sustainable impact.  It is time to unmask the illusion and embark on a journey towards more effective and authentic social change.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image: The tipping point of change: The DFID-funded Finote Hiwot programme encourages communities to talk about child marriage. These conversations ultimately bring behavioural change which provides the ‘tipping point’ to end the practice. Credit: DFID, via Flickr.

About the author

Zahir Shah

Zahir Shah is an alumna of MSc in Development Studies from the LSE. Zahir is an experienced behavioural researcher having worked with different international organizations and consultancies and is currently working as a Research and Evaluation consultant in the Middle East and is based in Erbil, Iraq.

Posted In: Decolonising Development | Department Alumni | Fieldwork and Travel

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