In Support of Positive Deviance

In Support of Positive Deviance

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Judith Rodin was honored as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER, Changemakers's inaugural celebration of the world's most influentual and inspiring women. Find her fellow honorees' voices here.

by Judith Rodin, President, Rockefeller Foundation

Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, yet earn only five percent of the income. Women harvest 90 percent of the world’s food, yet own only one percent of the world’s land.  Women are three times as likely as men to work in informal economies. And abuse and sex trafficking remain commonplace, while women across the globe still lack basic legal rights and protections.

At the Centenary of International Women’s Day, we are  compelled to reflect upon these realities and to envision what more we can do in the next 100 years to nurture and scale innovative approaches to the myriad challenges still facing the women of the world.

At the Rockefeller Foundation, we have found that identifying and scaling innovation, and applying it to seemingly intractable problems, can be incredibly effective for a wide range of issues.

But the key to leveraging innovation isn’t only devising a great idea and implementing it from the top-down.  In our experience, scalable solutions are also found when we seek innovations where they occur – on the ground, in local contexts. This is often called “user-driven” innovation.

One of my favorite examples of this approach to problem solving is Positive Deviance, one of our grantees. They search for behaviors that enable outliers or “positive deviants” to succeed where others fail.  Then, they encourage the widespread adoption of these same behaviors.

In Southeast Asia, researchers at Positive Deviance visited an impoverished Vietnamese village and noticed that children in a scattering of families were in exceptionally good health. Upon closer examination, they discovered that, in these households, caregivers didn’t wash away the shrimp and crabs found in rice-paddies, but, instead, cooked them along with their rice – adding protein to a carbohydrate-based diet. This technique, once unearthed, was promoted in one village, and eventually spread to thousands.

It was small user-generated local innovation brought to scale that made had an enormous impact on children’s health across a broad region of Viet Nam.

Today, the laboratory is everywhere, and everywhere is a laboratory. The Rockefeller Foundation is encouraging and scaling several types of innovation in a number of different contexts around the globe.  We have partnered with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and State Department Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer to create the Secretary’s Innovation Award for the Empowerment of Women and Girls – aimed at seeking out and scaling local innovations for women throughout the world.

Women the world-over – because of the challenges they are forced to confront – are instinctual innovators and energetic entrepreneurs. Their drive and their ideas must be recognized, realized, and taken to scale.

I am confident that through efforts like these, and the efforts of so many others, over the next 100 years we will help foster scalable innovations that enable more equitable growth, promote resilience, advance opportunities for women, and empower women to shape their own futures and that of humanity.


Dr. Judith Rodin has been president of the Rockefeller Foundation since 2005. She was previously president of the University of Pennsylvania, the first woman to lead an Ivy League institution, and provost of Yale University. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, and Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. She participates in the annual World Economic Forum and serves on several boards, including those of the Brookings Institution, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Global Humanitarian Forum (founded by Kofi Annan), and Clinton Global Initiative’s poverty alleviation track. She is also a director of AMR Corporation, Citigroup Inc. and Comcast.