Brian Heilman
Shawna Stich
Publication Date
September 1, 2016

This study explores the challenges of applying the “innovate, evaluate, scale up” recipe or script in one field of recent innovation: community mobilisation approaches to address socially and politically sensitive issues, particularly, but not exclusively, intimate partner violence. As stated in the report, "Intimate partner violence… is different in important ways from many other development and human rights challenges. This form of violence rests upon unequal power among the genders, and the central importance of power to this challenge makes preventing this violence more of a political issue than, for instance, eradicating polio. If ending intimate partner violence almost certainly requires transforming historic and deeply held social norms and power structures, what exactly does "scale up" mean? Who could or should undertake it?"

The research involved a literature review and key informant interviews with representatives from five selected initiatives with direct experience in scaling up community mobilisation initiatives related to socially and politically sensitive issues, such as intimate partner violence. According to the report, programmes that qualify as “community mobilisation” for this study as those that: (a) aim to transform norms, power structures, and behaviours at the community level; (b) engage most or all of the community in repeated, consistent ways; and (c) facilitate participatory action among community members.

In particular, the study set out to answer three guiding research questions:

  1. How have implementers of community mobilisation initiatives attempted to “scale up” their efforts to shift attitudes about intimate partner violence and other socially and politically sensitive issues?
  2. To what extent have any such approaches achieved success and effectiveness in “scaling up” to a national, regional, or international level?
  3. What are the most salient obstacles, challenges, and lessons that have emerged from prior efforts to take these community mobilisation approaches to scale?

Based on the literature review, the study presents a "snapshot of the field" which is designed to frame the lessons presented afterward, helping substantiate the relevance of the lessons beyond only the five selected initiatives involved directly in the study. Findings include the fact that community mobilisation has been used as a tool to change widely held opinions and harmful behaviours related to sensitive issues in diverse settings; that many studies of community mobilisation interventions to shift cultural norms and reduce intimate partner violence show promising results; and that there is generally a sparsity of literature directly addressing scale-up of community mobilisation initiatives addressing socially and politically sensitive issues.

The five organisations/initiatives are then briefly introduced together with information on their scale-up strategy. These projects include: 1)IMAGE (Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity) in South Africa, which combines microfinance for women with a group education and community mobilisation component as part of HIV prevention efforts; 2) PRACHAR (Promoting Change in Reproductive Behavior in Bihar) in India, which included interpersonal communication, training programmes, home visits, street theatre, wall paintings, and education and communications materials to address adolescent reproductive health; 3) SASA!, which is designed to prevent violence against women and HIV by explicitly addressing the power imbalance between men and women, and by attempting to shift community norms and behaviours (started in Uganda but is now being implemented in 20 countries over 5 continents); 4) Stepping Stones, a structured programme of group education sessions focused on inter-generational communication and relationship skills in the context of gender and HIV (first implemented in Uganda and now being implemented in 60 countries worldwide); and 5) Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program, a community-based human rights non-formal education programme that aims to enhance health and human rights (first developed in Senegal and is now being implemented in 10 African countries).

From discussions with the key informant interviewees – as well as the findings from the literature – the report presents five key lessons that can be derived about the current state of community mobilisation programming to address socially and politically sensitive topics and ways to move programming forward. In brief, these are: 

  • Lesson 1: There is an increasingly recognised need for additional research and a community of practice on the scale-up of community mobilization initiatives.
  • Lesson 2: Government collaboration and institutionalisation remain goals for many selected initiatives.
  • Lesson 3: The sensitivity of topics such as intimate partner violence, female genital cutting, and HIV, the intensity of community mobilisation program models, and the funding levels these models require make government leadership and other scale-up methods particularly challenging.
  • Lesson 4: Organisations undertaking this work face a difficult choice between achieving the widest reach and ensuring true fidelity to the original program model. 
  • Lesson 5: Acquiring adequate funding for community mobilisation efforts, let alone scale-up, is a considerable challenge; at the same time, too little is known about the cost-effectiveness of these models.

In conclusion, and based on the findings and lessons learned, the report stresses the importance of the following:

  • Investing in increased research on community mobilisation initiatives, specifically studies that explore scale-up strategies;
  • Building a community of practice related to community mobilisation initiatives seeking toscale up;
  • Evaluating community mobilisation initiatives for their cost-effectiveness in reliable, comparable ways;
  • Exploring whether government leadership and institutionalisation is an appropriate end goal for scaling up these types of initiatives;
  • Continuing to innovate; and
  • Recognising that there’s no magic bullet... and revising the script appropriately.

ICRW website on September 14 2017.