Each summer for the past three years, 50 human-rights workers from UNICEF have come to Penn to participate in an unlikely collaboration. Their destination is not the School of Social Policy and Practice, or the Law School, but rather the Philosophy Department in Claudia Cohen Hall, where they spend two weeks learning innovative techniques for changing behaviors in some of the poorest parts of the world.
The program is called “Advances in Social Norms and Social Change” and it addresses a range of entrenched practices in developing communities, including child marriage, female genital cutting, and open defecation. It teaches field workers that sustainable progress on these kinds of issues is only possible when communities decide to stand up and collectively agree to change the social norms that govern how their members behave.
Sensible as that may sound, it is actually a departure from the way non-governmental organizations (NGOs) typically tackle these kinds of problematic behaviors.
“The traditional model is based on information,” says Cristina Bicchieri. “They go to the people and tell them how bad certain practices are, and how much better off they’d be if they were to change their behavior. And it doesn’t work.”
Bicchieri, the Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Studies and Comparative Ethics and director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program, is the founder and co-director (along with Gerry Mackie, a professor at the University of California-San Diego) of the UNICEF collaboration. She is a philosopher by training and has written extensively, from a theoretical perspective, about how social norms develop and function within communities.
Bicchieri began to apply her ideas in a practical way in 2007, when her recently published book The Grammar of Society earned her an invitation to a conference on social norms in Bogota, Colombia. The conference was organized by a man named Antanas Mockus, who’d become famous for the innovative techniques he’d used during his two terms as mayor of Bogota to improve public behavior, including deploying mimes at stoplights to shame bad drivers, and showering on national television to promote water conservation.
At the conference, Bicchieri was introduced to representatives from UNICEF who were interested in rethinking the way they were approaching human-rights campaigns around the world. As Bicchieri saw it, much of the fieldwork that UNICEF was funding suffered from a basic misunderstanding about the reasons people in many communities persist in practices that from a Western perspective seem obviously counterproductive.
Take child marriage, a practice that is endemic in the developing world. The consequences of child marriage are clear: Girls who are married young are vulnerable to sexual exploitation; they have children young; and they typically don’t receive any education. Human-rights campaigns have tended to emphasize these negative effects when trying to persuade parents to delay their daughters’ marriages. All told, they have not gotten very far.
The cause of that failure, Bicchieri argues, is that while there are many bad reasons to participate in child marriage, there also are sensible reasons—at least from the perspective of individual parents trying to decide how best to provide for their daughters.
“An older girl will not find a husband, period,” she explains. “An older girl who is educated will not be wanted as a wife, because her husband feels she will disobey him. There are no schools in most villages, so a young unmarried girl would have to be sent outside to get an education—and she will become the prey of young men who will want to rape her. She will be dishonored for life, and it will be a disaster for the family.”
A range of social expectations and pressures supports the practice of child marriage, creating a collective action problem: Even parents who don’t personally support child marriage engage in the practice because the consequences of being the only ones to buck the norm are too grave. As a result, reforming the practice requires all the members of a community agreeing at the same time to change their behavior.
Bicchieri pressed this view through speeches and consulting assignments with UNICEF for several years. In 2010, she and the organization teamed up to host a summer training program that would bring human rights field workers from around the world to Penn. Bicchieri and Mackey, along with an assortment of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers in philosophy, PPE, and related departments, would teach workers how to recognize where social norms are operating and how to work with communities to repeal negative social norms and instill positive ones.
One of Bicchieri’s first tasks each summer is to teach attendees just what a social norm is. “People think everything is a social norm,” she says. “They think a social norm is wearing pantyhose or stopping at a red light. [They’re not.] They think basically everything that sounds like a rule is a social norm, but of course not every rule is a social norm.”
As Bicchieri defines it, a social norm has two parts. First, individuals have to hold what she calls “empirical expectations,” or the belief that other people in their community do in fact behave a certain way. Second, individuals have to hold “normative expectations,” or the belief that those people believe that everyone else in the community should act in a certain way. (Stopping at a red light isn’t a social norm because most of us would follow the rule regardless of our beliefs about what others think we should do—our basic safety motivates us. Female genital cutting is a social norm, because the practice is supported entirely by beliefs that individuals have about what other people in their communities do and expect them to do.)
Social norms are notoriously difficult to transform, especially given the way NGOs have traditionally approached these kinds of issues. Bicchieri calls these “top-down” strategies. They include passing laws that prohibit specific behaviors, or going house-to-house and telling people why a certain practice is bad and should be stopped. These approaches rarely work. Bangladesh, for example, has a law banning child marriage—but it’s widely ignored.
“When a law and the local norms are very far apart, we know local norms win,” Bicchieri says.
Molly Melching, who has worked on development and human rights issues in West Africa for 30 years and is the founder and director of the NGO Tostan, echoes this point. Melching is considered a pioneer in the use of social norms-based programs in the field, and she attended the Penn-UNICEF seminar at Bicchieri’s invitation. Explaining the limitations of information-based campaigns, she points out that even life-threatening behaviors can seem better than the cost of not conforming to them.
“If people know they could die as a result of a certain practice—but they also know that if they don’t do the practice there may be ‘social death’—we’ve found that they will choose the practice over social death,” she says.
In place of top-down campaigns, Bicchieri advocates a strategy of grassroots engagement that supports community members in dialogue around basic values. These conversations often begin with community leaders examining specific practices in light of more fundamental beliefs and values, and they culminate, when successful, in public declarations to abandon negative practices and adopt positive ones. The public declarations are a crucial step, because it’s only when individuals see their neighbors pledging to change their behavior that they’ll believe they can go ahead and take the leap, too.
Bicchieri explains this approach using the issue of child marriage, for which field workers might begin by guiding community members in conversations about the fundamental value that women should be good mothers.
“You stress that a good mother is an educated woman, because she can better educate her children. You talk to them within their set of cherished values and show them there are other ways to fulfill them,” Bicchieri says. “You don’t go to these people telling them they’re doing everything wrong and their values are ridiculous—because they will not listen to you.”
This grassroots approach takes a lot of time. It can be years before NGOs have measurable results to show for it. Tostan, which has led efforts that have resulted in more than 6,000 communities in eight African counties abandoning female genital cutting, employs what it calls a “Community Empowerment Program” that begins with community-driven conversations about human rights and takes three years to complete.
This pace of change is out-of-step with the demands that funders often place on NGOs.
“Funders want to have evidence of positive results within a short period of time, and I think this is a general mentality that has to change,” Bicchieri says. Strategies that pursue quick results, she argues, almost always prove to be unsustainable.
The limits of a quick-fix approach are particularly evident in the way governments and NGOs have tried to tackle the problem of open defecation. In many parts of the developing world it is common practice for people to defecate in the open, which creates serious public health problems: Flies land on the exposed feces and transfer fecal bacteria to human food, which causes diarrhea, killing an estimated 1.5 million children each year.
For years the NGO response to this problem has been to ship latrines into these communities, as though a lack of bathrooms were the only factor sustaining open defecation. The approach has paid meager dividends. “Millions have been spent on sending toilets or the tools to build latrines into developing countries,” says Bicchieri, “and the success has been absolutely minimal.”
One reason for this is that for individuals considering where to relieve themselves, open defecation is more convenient than trekking to a latrine every time they have to use the bathroom. Bicchieri advocates a different approach known as CATS, or Community Approaches to Total Sanitation. UNICEF has worked with NGOs to implement CATS in countries like India, where three-quarters of the rural population practices open defecation. They find that changes in sanitation practices only occur once a community gets together and agrees collectively to adopt a social norm that imposes sanctions against people who go to the bathroom in the open. These norms typically develop once NGO workers have shown community members, often in dramatic terms, that defecating in the open, combined with transmission via flies, leads inevitably to individuals consuming each others’ feces in their food. Once a norm sanctioning open defecation has been adopted, communities tend to rally together to build and maintain latrines and enforce their use. CATS (also known as CLTS—or “Community-led Total Sanitation”) has been implemented in more than 40 countries around the world and has led to thousands of communities being certified as “open-defecation free,” but the strategy takes time and is significantly more labor intensive than simply shipping in toilets.
Bicchieri is currently developing a series of Coursera lectures that will be taught around the world by a small group of instructors trained each summer at Penn. She is also working on a book geared towards a general audience that will explain her theory of social norms and its importance for human rights campaigns to counter the misunderstanding among NGOs, funders, and the public about the influence that social forces play in sustaining individual choices.
As Bicchieri notes, “Think of the history of Europe and how many centuries it took to change values about women. So why should we expect other people to change their values in a week?”