Suggestions for the Next SBCC Summit from a Researcher’s Perspective

Post by Mohammed Umer Mir MBBS MS, Doctoral Candidate, Global Health Systems & Development, Tulane University School of Public Health

It is not every day that you get to see and hear from some of the most renowned professionals in your field of work. The SBCC Summit 2016 provided just such an opportunity. It was the first event of its kind and I count myself lucky to have been able to attend. The experience was enlightening to say the least. As a relatively new entrant in this field, the ideas I was exposed to really shaped my thoughts and outlook on what SBCC really means and how we can be more effective in what we do and bring meaningful change using the resources that we have. The summit has left me with quite a few things to mull over for the direction my work should take.

The research on habits and the cognitive processes involved which influence them is fascinating. As Dr. Neal explained in his plenary session, intention based interventions do not always work. There are numerous examples of people knowing about healthy behaviors and their benefits, and they still do not adopt them. In my own research on HIV risk behaviors in mobile men in Southern Africa, I have found absolutely no impact of accurate ‘knowledge’ about HIV on sexual behaviors. People develop habits over time, habits which maximize their ‘utility’, and their decisions and actions are not always what you would expect a ‘rational’ mind to make. Innovation in addressing risk behaviors is key in developing the field further. At the risk of oversimplifying, there is need for more emphasis on coaxing people to adopt healthier habits using cues, interventions which utilize their own values to work towards a positive change, efforts targeting the whole cascade of relevant events, with minimal efforts on the beneficiary’s part. This is not just more impactful but also more sustainable.

The researcher in me did feel somewhat of a misfit among all the different exhibits and programs presenting at the summit. I could not help but feel that there was not enough representation of the researchers working on SBCC issues. Maybe this is because of the health focus of the summit and researchers working in communication research are not specifically focused towards health behavior change. However more presentations on state of the art research and methodologies would be a great addition to future events. Which brings me to another issue raised more than a few times in the sessions and discussions. SBCC is complex, it is a slow process, and its effects are hard or even sometimes impossible to measure. All of these may be true but are not reasons to shy away from rigorous evaluations of our programs. These evaluations should be geared to not just show effectiveness but also to elucidate the process of change brought about through the program so that the many theories of behavior change can be validated in different contexts, with different populations. They also need to include economic evaluations like cost effectiveness studies providing guiding evidence for maximizing impact using the limited resources available. It is not that evaluation methods which are adept at accommodating the complexity of SBCC issues do not exist. Maybe this is a place where Dr. Rimal’s suggestion of making SBCC more multidisciplinary would play a role.

Overall, the summit was an experience which I am sure will have a positive impact on the global SBCC domain and I look forward to attending many such future events.