Is there a Weight Watchers of development?
Ok, that came out all wrong. I didn’t mean to suggest that what the developing world needs right now is a diet plan! It’s just a thought I had when I stumbled onto an article in the NY Times about body image and dieting.
In it, the woman being interviewed berates programs like Weight Watchers saying that we should “give up dieting and learn to recognize hunger and appetite and respond to them. Dieting…cause[s] compulsive eating and destabilizes our relationship to food.”
I think most people would agree with this, what she’s saying is self-evident. But if it were as easy to change people’s eating habits as she suggests, then problems like obesity and eating disorders wouldn’t be as pervasive as they currently are.
I often think about what it takes to get people to change. The goal is usually a simple one: To eat less and healthier. Or for rural villages in Zambia, to buy soap and wash hands after using the latrine, or to plan out farming activities in advance of the season. Now, how do you get there?
I think it’s pretty complicated. These things are influenced by a bajillion different factors including touchy ones like politics, emotions, and culture. I think people usually get why they need to fundamentally change, but if simply getting it isn’t enough to change behaviours, what is?
Bam! Pow! Bang! Pop! Jenga! (Jenga?) Yes we can!
Holy social change Batman!
If you ever find yourself working in a field that is focused on creating social change*, you’ll come across a variety of approaches.
(* There is no universal definition for ‘international development’ but if nothing else, it is about change, about people changing and changing people…which is where it gets confusing, but I digress.)
Like the woman in the article, there are those who espouse the importance of “changing the paradigm”. These people can be down right militant about it; from their perspective, everything needs to change before anything can start to change. “Blow it up!” they say, then build it back up from a place that is grounded.
There are others who champion a more strategic approach. If you focus your efforts on the right “leverage points”, you can make even the most rigid system change in time. Like a game of Jenga, you have to be patient and have steady hands, but eventually, the blocks tumble down.
Many prefer a more inclusive approach based on the principles of awareness, participation, freedom, choice, and democracy. This approach sees a groundswell of people making a bunch of individual choices to create a better end. Yes, we certainly can.
There are many more approaches to creating social change and while I don’t disagree with many of them, I wonder what the best approach is. Is blowing up the system a realistic strategy? Provocative but not very practical. Is incremental change from within the way to go? Patience is definitely a virtue. Is it really just about getting people together? Sounds like fun, but it could also be like herding cats.
People are people are people.
People are not like cats. People are people. But though we like to think ourselves rational, it’s important to recognize what we are is beautifully and fallibly human. I’m finding that if I approach things from this perspective, they get a bit, though not entirely, easier to deal with.
The article about dieting started off a chain of thoughts in my head about what works, what gets the change process started in the short term. I’m not promoting Weight Watchers, but I think programs like it are onto something.
What they do is help people navigate the difficult process of personal change. It gives them simple tools (like a point system), a safe environment (like group meetings), and incentives (like avoiding shame during public weigh-ins) that allow people to not only take the first step but to take ownership over the change process.
Some would argue that programs like this address symptoms of the problem and not the root causes. Some would say that they’re just money makers that prey on and even exacerbate unfounded insecurities. I’m not in denial of these things, but I do see value in this as a practical approach. What’s more is that people seem to like it and are willing to pay for it. That says something, something important about people.
Maybe I’m stretching things here, but I wonder what a Weight Watchers-esque behaviour change program would look like for rural farmers in Zambia? Certainly numerous things need to be happening in concert, but it’s the pragmatist in me that wants to know what it would take for them to really own the change.
I don't know much, but I do know some things.
Hey, maybe I'm just on crack. But it doesn't stop me from thinking.
And in all this thinking, I’m constantly searching for truths that help me make sense of the complexities involved with creating change, that anchor me to the ground and help guide me through what is a very foggy process. I’ve landed on a few:
People are people.
Good things happen through hard work.
Change takes time.
Change happens within first.
So the question I should really be asking myself is what would it take for me to change?
Yup, that’s likely the first step. Now, if only I had something to help me take it…