Case Study

Positive Deviance: An asset-based approach to problem-solving




Project Overview

Implementing Team/Partners

PDI (Positive Deviance Initiative)



Additional Resources




The Positive Deviance (PD) approach is an asset-based, community-driven approach to behaviour and social change. It is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups (the positive deviants) whose unusual behaviours or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers who face the same challenges with the same resources. The PD approach enables community members to discover existing solutions to complex problems from within their community, and develop a plan of actions to promote their adoptions by everyone, making it particularly suitable to social problems that require behaviour change where technical solutions are not enough.

Methods in Action



Shift perspectives on expertise

A key starting point of PD initiatives is to convince the experts that they are not experts. It’s that process of getting the expert hat off, making space for community members who usually don’t speak up, who usually don’t have a voice or a role..

Identify & map common practices & perceived barriers

By articulating this, the profile of community becomes clearer and individuals begin to see that they are not alone in having this challenge. People can also start to see variations within their community, and discover alternative ways of dealing with their situation. 

Recognition of existing solutions and successes

The community learns that there are a few people who are doing something different and they are not encountering the problems that everyone else is encountering. This is also where things can ‘get off track’ as the temptation is to teach people what to do, what they have discovered. But the community should be allowed to design and create activities and spaces which give everyone the opportunity to practise those discovered behaviours and strategies, through the use of creative approaches and media such as community theatre production..

Addressing childhood malnutrition in Vietnam (1991)

The first step involved establishing a baseline from which progress could be evaluated and collecting data to document the current conditions. Self-selected volunteers weight the children where 64% suffered from some degree of malnutrition. Then came the phase of re-questioning the assumptions and identification of positive deviants. People often assumed that the cause of malnutrition was poverty but data revealed that some children from very poor familiar were well-nourished. They were closely observed and a number of uncommon practices uncovered. To disseminate the positive deviant practices, a community learning process was designed to involve local leaders, volunteers, staff and villagers. The community was given the ownership of the learning process to trigger behavioural change. The villagers decided that the best way to share knowledge was to bring malnourished children to a neighbour’s house where they prepared nutritious meals together with health volunteers, practice cooking new recipes and learned about sanitation and childcare practices. Community’s continuous monitoring was a key element of the success and sustainability of the programme.

By the numbers

Reduced malnutrition by 85% within 2 years