What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?
In 1991, Jerry and Monique Sternin were faced with what seemed like an insurmountable challenge in Vietnam. As new Director of Save the Children in Vietnam, Jerry was asked by government officials to create an effective, large-scale program to combat child malnutrition and to show results within six months. More than 65 percent of all children living in Vietnamese villages were malnourished at the time. The Vietnamese government realized that the results achieved by traditional supplemental feeding programs were rarely maintained after the programs ended. The Sternins were mandated by the government to come up with an approach that would enable the community to improve and sustain their young children’s health status…and quickly!
Building on Marian Zeitlin’s ideas of positive deviance, working with four communities and a population of 2,000 children under the age of three, the Sternins invited the community to identify poor families who had managed to avoid malnutrition despite all odds, facing the same challenges and obstacles as their neighbors and without access to any special resources. These families were the positive deviants. They were “positive” because they were doing things right, and “deviants” because they engaged in behaviors that most others did not. The Sternins and the community discovered together that caregivers in the PD families collected tiny shrimps and crabs from paddy fields, and added those, along with sweet potato greens, to their children’s meals. These foods were accessible to everyone, but most community members believed they were inappropriate for young children. The PD families were also feeding their children three to four times a day, rather than twice a day, which was customary.
The communities developed an activity which enabled all of the families with malnourished children to rehabilitate their children and to learn how to sustain their children at home on their own, by inviting them to practice the demonstrably successful but uncommon behaviors which they had discovered in their communities. The pilot project resulted in the sustained rehabilitation of several hundred malnourished children and the promotion of social change in their communities.
After that first use of the positive deviance approach to address malnutrition in Vietnam, Jerry and Monique Sternin continued to use the approach, resulting in the successful application of the PD approach in more than 41 countries in nutrition and a variety of other sectors from public health to education to business.
Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.
Co-founder, Positive Deviance Initiative
Monique and her husband Jerry developed the Positive Deviance approach over the last two decades. In addition to using the PD approach to fight childhood malnutrition in the developing world, Monique has promoted the use of the PD approach in various sectors such as advocacy against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt, condom usage for commercial sex workers in Myanmar, and maternal & newborn care in Pakistan. Monique’s passion for the PD approach stems from its successful impact in improving lives of thousands of women and children throughout the world and providing a powerful tool for communities to solve seemingly intractable problems.
Late co-founder, Positive Deviance Initiative
Jerry Sternin was a development practitioner, with 24 years overseas experience in developing countries including 8 years as a Peace Corps Director and Volunteer in the Philippines, Nepal, Mauritania and Rwanda, and 16 years as a Save the Children Director in Viet Nam, Bangladesh, Egypt, Philippines and Myanmar.
Jerry was a pioneer in translating the concept of “Positive Deviance” into an action-oriented community development approach. The Positive Deviance model developed by the Sternins to address the problems of malnutrition in Viet Nam has now been replicated in 41 countries. The Sternins have championed the application of the Positive Deviance approach in other public health issues abroad such as HIV/Aids risk-reduction, advocacy against female genital cutting, advocacy against girl trafficking, and in the US in education and on patient safety and MRSA elimination.
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