Positive Deviance Case Studies

The case studies provided here demonstrate how the PD approach is used in different communities with intractable problems around the world. These case studies illustrate the feelings of the participating communities from the first community meeting, all the way to implementation of the PD approach, and chronicle the dramatic effect that the approach has on improving the lives of the people living in the communities.

  • Uganda (reinsertion of girl soldiers) case study
  • Viet Nam (malnutrition, narrated by Jerry Sternin) case study

Spotlight Case Study: Vietnam as a Prototype for the PD approach

In 1991, the Sternins faced what seemed like an insurmountable challenge in Vietnam. As new Director of Save the Children in Vietnam, Jerry was asked by government officials to create an effective, large-scale program to combat child malnutrition and to show results within six months. More than 65 percent of all children living in Vietnamese villages were malnourished at the time. The Vietnamese government realized that the results achieved by traditional supplemental feeding programs were rarely maintained after the programs ended. The Sternins were mandated by the government to come up with an approach that would enable the community to improve AND sustain their young children’s health status…and quickly!

Jerry in VietnamBuilding on Marian Zeitlin’s ideas of positive deviance, working with four communities and a population of 2,000 children under the age of three, the Sternins invited the community to identify poor families who had managed to avoid malnutrition despite all odds, facing the same challenges and obstacles as their neighbors and without access to any special resources. These families were the positive deviants. They were “positive” because they were doing things right, and “deviants” because they engaged in behaviors that most others did not. The Sternins and the community discovered together that caregivers in the PD families collected tiny shrimps and crabs from paddy fields, and added those, along with sweet potato greens, to their children’s meals. These foods were accessible to everyone, but most community members believed they were inappropriate for young children. The PD families were also feeding their children three to four times a day, rather than twice a day, which was customary.

The communities developed an activity which enabled all of the families with malnourished children to rehabilitate their children and to learn how to sustain their children at home on their own, by inviting them to practice the demonstrably successful but uncommon behaviors which they had discovered in their communities. The pilot project resulted in the sustained rehabilitation of several hundred malnourished children and the promotion of social change in their communities.







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Quotes that embody the essence of PD:

"Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people all remark
We have done it ourselves."

~Lao-Tzu Tao Te Ching


"We dance around in a circle and suppose while the truth sits in the middle and knows."

~Robert Frost