This is the third and final blog update for the Positive Deviance Pilot project in Pakistan’s newly merged districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) implemented by UNDP. If you haven’t yet read our previous blogs, you can catch up on all the details for the background to our project here and our initial findings  here

Pakistani women face challenges in accessing education and employment opportunities across the country, but the lack of opportunities for the women of the newly merged districts in KP is especially severe. The prevailing cultural system attaches great importance to the concept of male “honor” signifying independence, self-respect, being a provider, and protecting female family members – this results in very few women in the newly merged districts in KP being engaged in employed work or public life and discourse outside the home. In the tribal areas, transgressors of the cultural norms are taunted by the rest of the community members; “they always used the term coward for those men whose women participated in the public sphere”[1] . This restriction on women’s engagement in public life was the problem we wanted to investigate (Step 1!).

Using the positive deviance (PD) approach allowed us to identify outliers and their “home-grown” strategies to overcome  resistance of their families and communities . The approach was quick and cost effective. We invested $30,000 over 9 months for a pilot that was inclusive, community-led and drew on deep insight from marginalized women to capitalize on solutions that already exist.

Image: Steps in the Positive Deviance process

Women explained why it was so challenging for them to convince their families and communities to allow them to seek employment outside of the home: “People from the community have never thought about permitting women to work as a good thing. They say that women become too headstrong and irrepressible...women become free-thinking and start seeing themselves as the equals of men; women start mingling with men who are strangers to them which is giving birth to immorality. And then they say, ‘you are so shameless that you get your females to earn money for you’ “ [2]

The PD methodology had not been used in the Pakistan Country Office before, so it was a steep learning curve for all of us. Since UNDP could not access the tribal areas to conduct the pilot, we had to work through a local implementing partner with an established presence and network in the region. This gave us access, but close support from our side and many meetings with the partner were required to ensure a PD approach rather than a traditional top-down “community sensitization” scheme; we wanted the women themselves to identify challenges they were facing and the solutions they were applying.

Our partner reached out to community networks and platforms they were already working with to hold two rounds of discussions explaining the project and the search for “positive deviants” and eliciting a list of names identifying 62 positive outliers (POs) across 3 tribal agencies: Kurram, Khyber & D.I. Khan – Step 2 complete. With permission from the positive outliers and their families, individual interviews were conducted with each of the 62 women – the initial findings of these are detailed in our previous blog – and the main barriers to their engagement in public life, and their successful strategies to overcome these, were noted (Step 3!). Further validation of these findings (step 4) was done by holding focus group discussions with parents and family members of the positive outliers (around 144 people attended these) during which they discussed the strategies of positive outliers and confirmed the approaches taken.

The strategies they applied were not necessarily new to the approaches we see women using to change the mindsets of conservative communities and families elsewhere, but they give us a solid evidence base of behavioural insights from which to consider further testing and scaling up of interventions in support of women’s engagement in public life. For example, the positive deviants in the newly merged districts in KP advocated with influential family members for their support, connected with other women already in employment and introduced them to their families as role models, and demonstrated to their families they were able to work whilst maintaining their honour. A woman from Jamrud in Khyber who was supported by her mother in receiving an education and “then she got the permission to get a job and she went out to work. She not only laid a good foundation but also became a model for other girl”. Being viewed as a “role model” had a beneficial effect for other girls in her family; her sister noted “my mother supported us immensely and my sister minded her limits and was careful of her respect as well as the respect of other people of our family”. In terms of programming, such behavioral insights guide us towards considering how we may establish peer-to-peer networks amongst both women and men; for women so they have a source of role models and information on employment opportunities that would be culturally acceptable, and amongst men so that those who support women’s empowerment can advocate with other men in nearby families and communities. Establishing information & advocacy networks for women to understand the opportunities out there would also be important and a socially acceptable method for addressing women’s emancipation.

To date, the innovation has not yet been replicated but the office has every intention to do so. As a starting point, we would like to complete rapid prototyping stages by testing the identified positive outlier strategies in various UNDP projects (likely in early 2019). Thereafter, we will have a more concrete results base from which to scale-up to more comprehensive development interventions.

The PD approach has received significant interest in the office as a way of gathering insights on hidden behaviours that we are often not able to see. Many of the projects implemented by UNDP Pakistan focus on behaviour change – be it in relation to electoral processes, addressing environmental issues, or regarding individual income generating behaviours. As such, our experience to date is being shared with other projects with a view to replicating.

In a societal context where power and knowledge are believed to be vested in the community leaders alone (such as in the tribal areas), not reinforcing such unequal knowledge power dynamics is important. This PD pilot demonstrated that the possible solutions to many long-entrenched and complex development problems do not necessarily require major resources from outside but could be found, funded and implemented by local communities themselves. Perception and behavior change are difficult to bring about – but “it's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.”[3]


[1] female community member in Khyber Agency focus group discussion

[2] interview with female community member in Lower Kurram Agency

[3] Jerry Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World's Toughest Problems


Beenisch Tahir
Innovation Officer (Lead)

Ilena Paltzer
Innovation Coordinator 

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