Navigating towards cultural change

January 24, 2014

A Twitter conversation around the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns and my recent travels to several countries where garbage disposal is a major problem have me thinking about this question of how we bring about significant cultural change.   In the U.S. it took decades to change the culture around garbage disposal and personal littering habits with numerous strategies including the use of effective public service announcements.

The cartoon character “Meena” is another example of how it can take a long time and many varied strategies to change long-standing mindsets.  Meena was a project originally initiated by UNICEF that helped provided a role model for girls that over time became part of the culture.

We generally understand that significant cultural change takes time – years or even decades – yet the policies of funders and practitioners don’t often lend themselves to the type of sustained efforts needed.

In exploring this question further, here are what seem to be some general learnings:

  1. Agreeing to goals (although this can be challenging with diverse stakeholders) is often easier than implementation and sustaining momentum.
  2. Significant cultural changes (empowering women,  reducing litter /waste management, etc…) take time (years/decades) and can be significantly harder the larger the group that is changing and the more entrenched the cultural norm.  (The 2010 study from the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance listed below does a nice job of discussing social norms- starting on  page 42).
  3. During the long periods needed, trial and error of different strategies may be needed as the policy landscape, and what strategies work within it, may change significantly.
  4. The chain of cause and effect between the efforts of an organization or alliance and eventual advocacy outcomes can be difficult to demonstrate.

What are some actions we can take based on these learnings?

  1.  Familiarize ourselves with studies that have been done of long-term efforts for lessons learned. (A sample bibliography is below).  While funding and other constraints may often point us in the direction of short-term solutions, we can equip ourselves with evidence that will allow us to pursue more long-term tracks.
  2. Develop flexible networks with a variety of partners and stakeholders.  This will help to create and implement changing strategies as the political environment and other external elements may change.
  3. Customize our approaches to work closely with local partners.  While general goals may be ‘universal,’ adaptation will certainly not be.  As the SSIR article listed in the bibliography notes: “Cultures are often characterized by a hidden structure that is largely invisible to outsiders and sometimes poorly understood even by insiders. Many cultures actually develop a lack of transparency precisely to prevent comprehension by outsiders. Discovering how a culture works requires one to create networks of informants and use research methods such as participant observation. This requires trust, which may take years to develop.”

Some additional reading:

The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy, Steven Teles & Mark Schmitt,  Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), 2011,

Monitoring & Evaluation of Advocacy Campaigns, Literature Review, Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, 2010

Evaluating the Effects of International Advocacy Networks, By Ricardo Wilson-Grau

Tracking Progress in Advocacy: Why and How to Monitor and Evaluate Advocacy Projects by Maureen O’Flynn, INTRAC, 2009

Supporting the Monitoring of Aid Effectiveness from a Gender Perspective, ActionAid International, 2012

Monitoring and evaluating advocacy: lessons from Oxfam GB’s Climate Change campaign, Simon Starling, 2010