Why Evidence Action Prioritized Behavior Change over Scaling

With alarmingly low adoption rates, Evidence Action stopped scaling and focused on real behavior change.

September 05, 2017

In the social impact sector, the promise of scale is much sought after. Organizations not only want to see initiatives that improve the lives in one community, they are often seeking ways in which a successful initiative can be replicated to help millions more. 

Evidence Action, a global nonprofit, had a proven, low-cost approach to providing safe drinking water to households via chlorination, which they called Dispensers for Safe Water. After a successful pilot in eastern Uganda, Evidence Action developed a plan and secured the funding needed to scale the program to millions of people in Uganda.

We spoke to Richard Kibuuka, Uganda Country Lead for Evidence Action who joined in 2014 to help scale. They were partway through the scaling program when Evidence Action noticed a disturbing trend.

“As we installed more chlorine dispensers by water pumps, adoption rates decreased. People were not adding chlorine to the water they pumped,” says Richard. “Therefore, although the geographic footprint and number of dispensers installed was increasing rapidly, the number of people using the dispensers was not keeping pace.”

Social Change is Behavior Change

When we say we want to change the world or solve one of its biggest problems, we’re really saying that we want to change the way people behave and that’s where plans to scale often fail.

There is often the assumption that when a user/customer is given something that is good for them — e.g. safe drinking water — they will want to use it. But if we would just take a moment to assess our own behaviors in the face of things that are “good for us” — exercising regularly, eating healthy, saving money — we would quickly recognize that behavior change is a much bigger obstacle to achieving social impact. 

By January 2015, adoption rates for dispensers dropped to a low of 14 percent, significantly lower than the target of at least 45 percent. 

Evidence Action recognized that scaling the number of dispensers would not make the impact they desired if communities didn’t use them, so they made a bold decision, in consultation with its funders, to stop its geographic expansion and double down on increasing adoption at existing water points. This involved figuring out how to change the behavior of the communities such that they used the chlorine dispensers more.

As of October 2016, Evidence Action installed 5,865 dispensers in Uganda, providing 1.8 million people with access to clean water, and with an adoption rate of 59.6 percent. Their efforts paid off.

Richard has learned three important lessons that can help any social sector organization think through design interventions that change behaviors and achieve their desired impact.

A 3 Step Framework to Change Customer Behavior

The community was excited about the new dispensers, but like anything new and shiny, the novelty wore off. What didn’t stick were habits—a predictable behavior.

Richard and his team did three important things, which on hindsight mirror the behavioral change framework from Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard”, written by Duke University CASE Senior Fellow Dan Heath and Stanford University Professor Chip Heath. To make the new behavior stick, you have to convince both the rider and the elephant to go down the path you designed—not only is there trust involved but also clear directions and a promise of something better. 

The framework covers three steps.

1. Direct the rider (the rational mind)

According to Richard, community members were overwhelmed by the numerous steps for cleaning water to keep their family healthy.

Dispensers for Safe Water helped overcome this by providing crystal clear directions: go to your regular local water point, see the bright blue dispenser located right at the water point, turn the lever on the dispenser which will automatically dispense three milliliters of chlorine, walk home (the chlorine mixes as you walk), use the water (and read the directions posted on the dispenser in local languages if you forget).

Evidence Action also appealed to the rider’s logic by educating the community on the effects of unclean water, providing statistics about disease rates and giving examples of problems associated with contaminated water. 

2. Motivate the elephant (the emotional heart)

Real behavior change is not only when someone knows what to do, but they’re also intrinsically motivated to do it.

Evidence Action recruited trusted members of the community to become promoters of the program. These influential people helped to build awareness for the program and to encouraged the community to use the dispensers. 

Rather than just talking about the effects of unclean water, Evidence Action also designed messages that would appeal to the community’s emotions. They focused on three messages:

  • Safe water leads to a good life 
  • It is everyone’s responsibility to prevent diarrhea by using chlorine dispensers 
  • All parents should make the right choice to protect their children’s lives by using chlorine dispensers

The first message appealed to individual’s aspirations to do better in life. And the other two messages drew on an individual’s desire to be seen as a good member of the community. 

The attention of the community, at this point, was earned. Now that they had cogent instructions and the community’s engagement, they inspired a new way of living, and in turn, embracing a better future for their families.

The next time you start a project to solve a problem in the world, remember that real change isn’t with new products or processes; it starts with people.

3. Shape the path

With the right tools to engage both the rider and the elephant, Evidence Action then invested in multiple channels of communication to reinforce the habit. They attended community meetings, educated children, trained workers at clinics to talk about clean water and discussing health issues like diarrhea. They worked with local radio and created advertisements in weekly government talk shows. Eventually, Evidence Action made the chlorine free and readily accessible at all water points, making the path the new norm.

“As of September 2016 data,” says Richard, “the adoption rates in Uganda had exceeded Evidence Action’s 45 percent target, increasing to 64.3 percent from the low of 14 percent in January 2015.”

The next time you start a project to solve a problem in the world, remember that real change isn’t with new products or processes; it starts with people.

You can read a full case study on Evidence Action’s lessons in scaling on Scaling Pathways, written by Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship. Our thanks also goes to Acumen Fellow Chris Walker, Social Innovations Director at Mercy Corps, for his support in bringing this story to life. 

Photo Credit: Evidence Action​

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