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The Busara Blog

5 reflections to strengthen civic engagement - Part II

Context is king

By Ariana Keyman, Gideon Too, Ruth Canagarajah

Photo by David Pennington on Unsplash.

Our determination to set up behavioral labs in non-WEIRD countries was driven by the idea that changing the context would change the results. This idea, supported by our equally curious partners, has led us down several paths towards better understanding the behavioral patterns at play in non-WEIRD countries.

Having an idea is one thing — having the evidence to support it is an entirely different matter. It is the evidence we’re really interested in. In part 1 of this series, we shared reflections around the community meeting as an effective community engagement tool for Civil Society Organisations(CSOs) in the region. In this article we’re going to go into 3 reflections on notable behavioral contexts and factors we have found to explain observed CSO-led civic engagement in East Africa. A more detailed version of these reflections is available in the full document here.

Reflection 3: Social influence and individual perceptions of self-efficacy are the key behavioral patterns that have emerged from the field, amidst a population of striking diversity.

Our work in civic engagement has happened throughout a highly varied region, so it is often difficult to draw conclusive, generalizable findings from it. It also isn’t possible to generalise by region or community because of the overwhelming and striking diversity within all the places we have worked.

There are, however, a few patterns we have observed that could be useful considerations while using behavioral science to support CSO-led civic engagement in East Africa:

  1. Individuals are strongly susceptible to social influence, and consistently respond meaningfully to interventions and nudges designed with a view for priming for social norms. In one example, storytelling was used to successfully change behavior through a character known as Mama Dorah. Her character was relatable and she engaged in non risky behaviors. Her story was designed so it looked like it was real news story, making it adaptable. However, interventions have backfired in other contexts, driving powerful negative reactions. This may suggest that only when a target audience member truly likens the scenario or individual presented in a social norms intervention to themselves will the intervention constitute a powerful tool to drive behavior. If the scenario or individual presented in the intervention is not accurate, appropriate, or relatable, such interventions may have the power to strongly dispel and discourage an individual’s propensity to exhibit a certain behavior.
  2. Qualitative research in both Uganda and Tanzania have suggested that low levels of self-efficacy are prominent and can manifest in a lack of belief that anything an individual could achieve would affect their community’s situations. In one study we ran in Kampala intrinsic treatment group subject were primed for self-efficacy by being asked to think about a time they had done something and it went well. They were then asked to write it down in 3 to 4 sentences before going on to execute a task. There respondents were then more willing to learn more about the issues affecting Ugandans. Future research should explore assessing collective efficacy in driving behavior, especially given the strength of social norms, as this could be a powerful tool.
  3. There is often overwhelming diversity within CSOs’ target regions and audiences. In Southwestern Uganda, for example, the diversity of languages in small, compact regions means that community meetings often need to be run in multiple languages. These different nuances make it extremely challenging to understand the best way by which CSOs’ designing advocacy strategies can generalize any findings, and accurately target audience segments.

Reflection 4: When working with CSOs, there can be a striking difference between what they suspect will be effective with their audiences versus what actually is.

While CSOs are the closest entities to communities they serve, there seems to be a striking cognitive dissonance between what CSOs suspect will be effective at getting through to communities, and what they in turn carry out in their actual advocacy and programming. We have observed on numerous occasions a discrepancy in the sophistication of CSOs understanding of their audiences, and the methods they employ to try to engage them.

One overarching example is how CSOs tend to use impersonal, intimidating, and abstract language relating to ‘rights’, ‘justice’, and ‘freedom’ when engaging with their audiences — language that they’re the first to admit can be difficult for some of their audiences to understand and likely ineffective at mobilizing real action.

While our work has demonstrated that there is certainly a need for further strengthening of many CSOs’ capacity to collect evidence to inform and strengthen their advocacy strategies, perhaps a more pertinent insight is that this is only useful if CSOs feel able and willing to use this evidence to inform new, effective, creative approaches to their work. As such, it seems clear that there is a further need to incentivize creativity, experimentation, and risk-taking for many CSOs, as the current mode of operating does not do justice to what we have observed to be deep and complex insights into audiences and issues at the grassroots.

Reflection 5: In measuring impact, be mindful of the long-game.

At Busara, our guiding assumption has certainly been that an effective and vibrant civil society is an important driver and pre-requisite for an informed and engaged citizenry, as well as an accountable and responsive government. While project activities move rapidly and timelines are short, governments move slowly. Government responsiveness results can only be measured over relatively long time horizons. Fast-moving funding cycles demand that CSOs give results on their activities in the short term. This makes the task of creatively and thoughtfully mapping CSO activities to government-level impact challenging.

All these factors encourage the tendency for CSO impact to often be measured at the level of immediate outcomes, e.g. attendance to a community meeting, signatures to a hash-tag campaign, registration to an event etc. While there is value to measuring these outcomes, focusing purely on these creates the risk of losing perspective on the larger strategy of the pursuit. At Busara, we are yet to arrive at a concise set of answers to this tension. What seems clear is more care needs to be given to incentivize a long-term, creative mindset in the pursuit of understanding how to engage the larger outcomes this work is looking to shift as well.

In five years of applied behavioral science, it’s safe to say we’ve barely scratched the surface of the behavioral complexities at play in driving East African civil societies. It is, however, affirming to look at the data and see some trends beginning to emerge. As we continue with our mission to apply and advance behavioral science, we are excited to already see how behavioral science can bring about a change in how we approach and engage with different issues for better results.

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Busara is a research and advisory firm dedicated to advancing Behavioral Science in the Global South