Big Ideas from the SBCC Summit 2016

Post by Adnan R Amin, Managing Director & CEO, Unisocial Limited, Bangladesh t: @unisocialbd

So the first and much-awaited International SBCC Summit is now over. Its latent demand was evident in its urgency, enthusiasm, attendance and critical conversations. The three-day event stood out because it brought together professionals who not only had similar skills and interests, but also spoke the same language. The need for cultural understanding and cross-boundary knowledge sharing has been piqued, if not entirely fulfilled, by the exchange. These are important developments for the future of SBCC.

I was invited to speak about Unisocial’s experience with behavior change as it pertains to ‘citizen involvement in governance’ in Bangladesh. But as it turned out, the experience for me was not as much about ‘knowledge-sharing’ as it was about ‘learning’. In this post, I will recount or summarize themes and ideas that have – in my opinion – the potential to transform SBCC as we know it.

Taking SBCC Beyond Health

The summit featured a number of case-studies and talks that envisaged a robust role for SBCC beyond ‘health’. In its earliest days, SBCC was most successfully and famously applied to health-related challenges. Therefore, ‘Behavior Change’ often automatically evokes notions of ‘health behavior’. Yet there are an infinite number of behaviors that can be, and is being, promoted through SBCC. Some examples (of negative behaviors) mentioned during the summit includes unsafe migration, resistance to organizational / policy reform, social-compliance failure in factories, citizen apathy towards governance, child marriage etc. What these instances indicate is that SBCC has extensive applications beyond health and our SBCC learnings and experiences can be applied to practically any social reform agenda. The journey of SBCC has therefore just begun.

Laying Multidisciplinary Foundations

The SBCC Summit featured talks and discussions that touched upon Neuroscience, Behavioral Science, Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Project Management, Marketing, Advertising / Communications, Media Ethnography and Digital Media Sciences. This may be considered a shift away from the traditional IEC and/or awareness-raising models. BCC in 2016 must be conceived as a multidisciplinary function that draws upon physical, social and creative sciences to facilitate the achievement of project goals. This conceptualization also frees SBCC from the grips of obsolete theories and static models – allowing people from a number of academic backgrounds and disciplines to contribute to efforts to positively affect behavior.

Revisiting Roots of Behavior

Naturally, behavioral motivation varies by geography, history, culture, beliefs and a host of other factors. However, in agreeing upon a general theory of behavior, it is vital to recognize that human behavior is not rational. Yet, for decades, SBCC practitioners have appealed to audiences’ rationality – imagining, for example, that cancer statistics would deter smokers. The session titled ‘From the Pulpit to the People’ was an eye-opener in terms of understanding and acknowledging how human behavior is shaped. Darriel Harris (JHBSPH) spoke about how his project was using passages from the Bible to convey messages about Malaria and mosquito nets.

Marianna Muzzi (UNICEF, Ethiopia) talked about how deacons were helping discourage child marriage. Harnessing the power of Faith for behavior change is potent, new direction that has infinite applications, especially in countries with organized, institutionalized and ritualized Religion. Religion is just one example of powerful cultural forces that can be used to shape behavior.

Communicating Across the Board

In some discussions, it was pointed out that project managers and/or implementers sometimes treat SBCC as yet another activity to be implemented; i.e. the emphasis is on completing a list of materials, broadcasts and activities. In short, SBCC thus becomes a chore. Sometimes it is compartmentalized into boxes like ‘sensitization’, ‘awareness raising’ or ‘demand generation’. Yet, the very nature of SBCC dictates that it be planned simultaneously with an intervention and used strategically to achieve project goals. An imperfect marriage between ‘program’ and ‘SBCC’ essentially forfeits the scope for synergy. There are important implications in this about the disadvantage of using implementing NGOs / agencies to carry out SBCC interventions.

Shaping the Future of SBCC

Lastly, a much talked about theme – as surmised from water-cooler conversations – concerned the very structures of power surrounding development work and SBCC. Triggered partly by an impassioned talk by Kumi Naidoo (African Civil Society Center), the need is growing for a critical review of power structures across geographic boundaries, nationalities and donor-recipient relationships. In the future, SBCC will do well to remain outside the influence from dominant knowledge, interests or ideas, unless they contribute to positive behavior. It must be the mission of every serious SBCC practitioner to rid the field of SBCC of extraneous considerations that compromise its effectiveness. And in that sense, the first International SBCC Summit 2016 was an impressive first step towards ensuring balanced representation and equitable exchanges among all stakeholders.