Innovating to identify the most effective social change mechanisms to engage Roma communities

Romanian Red Cross

If you’ve never heard of Positive Deviance as an approach to humanitarian and development challenges then you will enjoy this story.

First, the background

In Romania, a large proportion of the Roma population faces structural vulnerabilities characterized by the complex and continuous ethnic and intergenerational dimension of poverty. The Roma often live in marginalised, economically and socially vulnerable communities, and this has led to social isolation, causing additional difficulties, especially for Roma children in school. According to the Romanian census conducted in 2011, 621,573 Romanians (about 3% of the population) belong to the Roma ethnic group although the 2010 Council of Europe data mentions a Romanian Roma population ranging between 1,200,000 and 2,500,000 people.

Romanian Red Cross works with a large number of Roma communities, but like many National Societies confronted with highly complex humanitarian challenges and frustrated with the results, they have been on a journey to explore more innovative ways of tackling these problems.

A Romanian Red Cross Branch in the city of Sacele – Garcini district, in Brasov County works closely with the local Roma population. The area is inhabited by a population estimated to be between 9,000 and 20,000 people of Roma ethnicity, with an average age of 40 years and very poor living conditions. The Branch applied to the Empress Shoken Fund which supports, among other things, innovative experiments to address vulnerability.

Focusing on Local Innovation

It is often the case that humanitarian and development organisations begin their interventions in a given location by asking “what problem can we solve here?”. But Romanian Red Cross wanted to try a ‘solution focussed approach’ and one that targets its attention specifically to locally-driven solutions. They began to ask:

“What solutions, assets and local innovators exist in this community?”

“Who in the community has already solved the problem we wish to invest in?

These local and solution-based innovation initiatives are a hallmark of innovation in the Red Cross and Red Crescent network. While many others have focused on importing solutions from the global north or on technological solutionism, the Red Cross Red Crescent with its extraordinary local network has often concentrated on surfacing and supporting these local innovators. Research and practice experiments conducted by the IFRC Solferino Academy Innovation team and others, (see here and here for an overview of this) has indicated that these kinds of approaches tend to be more sustainable, highly effective and can surface ‘oblique’ solutions perhaps outside the view of normal interventions. Romanian Red Cross, through this project, was leading the network in testing these approaches.

Romanian Red Cross Approach

Romanian Red Cross decided to try two parallel experiments, an approach commonly used in innovation approaches (multiple parallel experiments): 1) Participatory Community Development (developed by the IFRC in the early 2000s and already implemented by Romanian RC in four other communities),  and 2) Positive Deviance (PD). The latter is a behavioral and social change approach that seeks to build on the successes of community members. PD is based on the premise that, in any social context, there are a number of individuals who, although endowed with the same resources as their peers and facing the same challenges, are more successful in meeting those challenges. Through the study of these individuals – called “positive deviants” – the PD approach suggests that innovative solutions to such challenges can be identified and refined by identifying and understanding their unique characteristics and behaviours.

The project received strong support from both the school and community members. Although people were initially reluctant because it was the first activity where there was no material reward and the beneficiaries had to contribute, the atmosphere and energy was very good and positive. Adults and children were constantly attending the meetings. They were able to decide on a common problem – school dropout – as well as agree to put it forward and analyze why it is a problem and who is the champion of the behavior. These champions were named and agreed upon by all, and community members also agreed to copy their behaviors to achieve change. Furthermore:

  • 10 RRC staff and volunteers participated in the PD introduction training.
  • 2 community facilitators, of Roma origin, were empowered to work in the community.
  • 24 interviews were conducted in the community
  • 24 community meetings were conducted
  • Finally, at least 20 adults and 10 children, members of the community, attended the community meetings on a permanent basis.

The specific objective was fully met, including enhanced participation in school and results, as the analysis conducted by the project manager and the PD facilitator showed that both approaches could be successfully applied.

In a poor community also suffering from violence, the PD meetings succeeded in bringing dialogue, and understanding and the willingness to start a change. The groundwork for these meetings was laid, the community facilitator, who is also a teacher at the school, committed to continuing the meetings with community members, and the school offered its support.

The project has led to a number of other outcomes for Romanian Red Cross including enhanced trust and relationships in the community. You can see more in this video