Broadening the Climate Adaptation Toolkit: Lessons from Social and Behavior Change

By Veronique Lee

While awareness of the challenges around climate variability is on the rise, adoption of adaptive practices and behaviors by many communities has been piecemeal and short-lived. The uptake of practices that enhance climate resilience hinges on the ability and willingness of individuals to change their daily habits, which in turn is influenced by an array of socio-economic, political, and cultural factors.

Social and behavior change (SBC), an approach long championed in global health and biodiversity conservation programming, may be a critical part of the solution. October’s Adaptation Community Meeting (ACM) brought together panelists from across USAID to share lessons on how SBC has been successfully applied in health and environmental programming and share their perspective on SBC as a tool for enhancing climate resilience.

Behavior change is not a new strategy in development programming, but the field has evolved significantly in recent years to reflect a more holistic understanding of human behavior. Nga Kim Nguyen, Senior SBC and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Advisor for USAID, explained SBC as an approach that lends itself to environmental interventions targeting structural barriers.


Woman farmer and family in Africa
USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures supports Dispensers for Safe Water, a low-cost program that “nudges” water users in rural areas to get in the habit of treating water by installing chlorine dispensers at water pumps. The program maintained high usage, seeing 43 percent adoption rates at scale. Nudges are just one type of SBC intervention that modify the physical environment to encourage adoption of target behaviors.

Rather than being centered on awareness-raising interventions, which have not yielded expected changes in behavior, USAID’s Global Health Bureau is now looking at nudges – positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to achieve non-forced compliance – to address service provider behavior. They are also examining how practitioners might go beyond the "one size fits all" approach to changing different behaviors. For example, different approaches are needed to foster behavior change promoting vaccinations, which are generally a one-time intervention, versus handwashing, which requires lifetime adoption.

Within the last few years, USAID has advanced a variety of SBC interventions to promote healthy behaviors and achieve broader development objectives. Taking cues from SBC’s application in global health programs, USAID has tested SBC approaches in environment programs. Megan Hill from USAID’s Forestry and Biodiversity Office shared examples from the USAID Caribbean Marine Biodiversity Program’s #PassOnParrotfish campaign, which used social media and other outreach tools to raise awareness about the need to protect the species that keep coral reefs thriving. Through the West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change project, USAID is employing SBC approaches to reach people through a variety of different mediums such as theatre, radio, and roadshows to mobilize and engage communities in coastal adaptation and conservation efforts.

For climate resilience, SBC is a new area that merits further exploration. Veronique Lee from the Adaptation Thought Leadership and Assessment (ATLAS) project, has been working with USAID to develop an introductory guide outlining how to catalyze SBC for climate resilience. The guide will serve as a resource for practitioners in the adaptation community to develop a foundational understanding of SBC and begin to reframe adaptation objectives, practices, and actions through a behavioral lens.

While SBC interventions are already contributing to development objectives globally, the practical challenge of measuring success over time remains. Each ACM panelist described the need for impact measurement to be rigorous but acknowledged the challenge of understanding the various methods of measuring success. Hill described possible metrics, such as pre- and post-surveys or observational data, but emphasized that the choice of indicators must derive from formative research and be driven by the nature of the interventions.

SBC provides practitioners with a more holistic approach to understanding behaviors and the individual, social, or structural factors that can affect the uptake of activities. Applying SBC principles early in intervention design, and broadening their application beyond communication, offers a unique opportunity to increase resilience and help communities on their path to self-reliance.

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Integration
Adaptation, Biodiversity, Health, Resilience

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