Introduction >

I. What is behaviour change

Human behaviour can be defined as a person’s observable patterns of actions in relation to their environment that produce measurable results. In the context of Action Against Hunger interventions, a wide range of behaviours have an impact on the causes and effects of undernutrition in several sectors of intervention, as shown in the following examples.

Sectors of interventionExamples of important behaviours
Water, Sanitation and Hygiene• Handwashing with soap at key times.
• Storing and handling water safely in the home.
• Use of hygienic toilets.
Nutrition and Health• Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.
• Correct use of ready-to-use therapeutic foods.
• Treatment seeking for childhood diseases.
Mental Health and Care Practices• Keeping children’s play areas clean.
• Stimulation and encouragement of children during meals.
• Use of prenatal and delivery care services.
Food Security and Livelihoods• Use of compost in crop production.
• Vaccinating livestock against diseases.
• Contributing to a savings fund or insurance policy.

These and many other behaviours are commonly reflected in the objectives, indicators and anticipated results. Here are some examples of objectives taken from recent project documents:

“To prevent poor nutritional outcome through rigorous promotion of optimal infant feeding practices and proper hygiene/sanitation practices.”

“To increase the diversity and frequency of foods consumed by the household.”

“10,800 households have received hygiene kits and improved their knowledge and practices related to cholera prevention and reduction.”

“To encourage the adoption of sustainable farming practices, including crop rotation, crop-association and use of organic inputs by targeted small holder families within the district.”

The success of these projects depends on selected people adopting new behaviours or modifying existing ones and sustaining them over time. This is the essence of behaviour change in the context of an intervention.

Promoting behaviour change is not easy! Even seemingly simple behaviours are actually quite complex when you look closely at the pattern of actions they involve.

For example, handwashing with soap at key times involves going to the handwashing place, wetting the hands, applying the soap, rubbing the hands for 20 seconds… well, you know the rest. And carrying out this operation time after time, day after day, also requires actually wanting to do it, remembering to do it, feeling comfortable about doing it and having the means to do it. All sorts of things can prevent a person from practising handwashing to a high standard each time.

When it comes to promoting behaviour change among a large number of people in a way that’s reliable and sustainable, the challenges are considerable. Many readers of this guide may have personal experience of some of the difficulties involved.

Here you can see typical problems that project staff may encounter in an intervention to promote handwashing with soap at key times:

  • “We realised later that people already had a very strong practice of handwashing but nobody told us that at the time”.
  • “The people at the radio station didn’t really understand what we wanted to communicate”.
  • “People’s knowledge of handwashing increased but they didn’t feel motivated to do it”.
  • “We spent a lot of money on radio spots but the target group never got to hear them”.
  • “People wanted to increase handwashing but didn’t have access to cheap soap so their behaviour didn’t change”.
  • “People complained that they needed jobs and a decent water supply, not advice about handwashing”.
  • “We understood later that the men discouraged the women from using soap”
  • “Handwashing practice improved at first, but was very low again at the time of the endline survey”.

Avoiding these common difficulties requires using a systematic and scientific approach to behaviour change, in other words, treating behaviour change as a technical subject using reliable tools and methods as part of a programmatic approach, like any other interventions.