Enhancing Social Norms Programs: An Invitation to Rethink "Scaling Up" from a Feminist Perspective

Written by Rebecka Lundgren for the Community for Understanding Scale Up (CUSP)

Over the last four years CUSP has reflected critically on what it takes to adapt and scale our approaches effectively and ethically. During 2020 and 2021 we focused on what we would recommend to achieve effective, ethical and sustainable adaptation and expansion of our approaches. We explored what ‘feminist scale’ might look like and mean.  While previously, as a group we focused on the challenges we encountered with adaptations and expansions of our program, this time we considered what kind of adaptation and expansion we would like to see.  Our methodologies were based on feminist principles, but we found that these principles were frequently lost when others took them to scale: namely, the focus shifted to numbers, geographic coverage, efficiencies, rather than on the process of scale. We have many stories of how organizations have used our programs without providing follow-up support to enable them to grow their newly germinated ideas into action.  Most of us had not heard the term ‘feminist scale’ but rather noted that the term ‘feminist movement(s)’ was common. Would using new terminology broaden our vision of scale and better communicate the values behind our work?  In this blog, we share our reflections in a new CUSP document.  

Metaphors matter.  In many cultures, ‘scaling up’ is seen as natural, as good.  Who wants to ‘scale down’?  It seems a no-brainer.  But is this the best metaphor to use to expand work for gender equality? The standard definition of scale reads:      

“Deliberate efforts to increase the impact of innovations successfully tested in pilot or experimental projects so as to benefit more people and to foster policy and program development on a lasting basis.”       

But this apparently straightforward definition has given way to use of the term scale up as it is framed in the business world: scaling is not just reaching more customers but doing so for less, that is, achieving ‘economies of scale,’ or ensuring ‘more bang for the buck’.

Scaling up as a metaphor for growth and expansion emphasizes hierarchical organizational structures, quantification, reducing programs and people to packaged components, objectification through language, business models of success, and valuing the apolitical. This metaphor directly impacts how norms change programs are designed, adapted and implemented, and misses the principles and processes that are fundamental to the transformation of gender-based social norms. Like us, many INGOS are encouraged to go to scale, to expand into new geographic spaces.  It is common for ‘development efforts’ to eschew ‘outside expert’ models of intervention (e.g., Doing Development      Differently, and Time to Decolonize Aid), yet pressure to scale something that looks and performs like ‘a product’ continues— packaged and disseminated in ever more efficient, cost-cutting ways.  

In our conversations this year, we explored how other frameworks such as those based on ecosystems might better inform expansion efforts (or scaling up) of organizations working to shift social norms.  We examined three conceptual metaphors: scale (from geography and business), diffusion (from chemistry and anthropology), and growth within an ecosystem (from biology).  With ‘scaling up,’ one tends to think of what can be transported and transplanted, with minimal effort from one site to another. 

By contrast, with the ecosystem metaphor for scale, one is not importing the seed from outside but rather observing where ‘local’ seeds best suited to the habitat and causing the least disruption to other flora and fauna already exist (even in the imaginations of people).  The outsider does not provide a solution or expert knowledge, but rather finds the conditions that already exist, and through dialogue and with respect, strengthens or awakens them. With ecosystem thinking, we consider how to grow one’s work from within, in partnership, noting the links between the activist, her relationships with others, the organizations within the community, the legal, religious, health, business and educational systems, her material resources, and government. Ideally one then provides sustained engagement and support (including funding) to enable those linkages to develop and strengthen, while also learning from the process.

Scale and movement building.  We explored what successful scaling of social norms change does look like, studying social movements that have respected ecological constraints and harnessed dynamic energy from within to create change. These social movements, many of them feminist, align with the ‘growth in an ecosystem’ metaphor for scale. They often scale by word of mouth, through relationships, not involving governments or sometimes even registered entities. Led by those most affected by the issue, these movements are nimble and evolving, emphasize learning and look beyond project-oriented time frames and activities to move toward social justice. They are decentralized, participatory, rooted in local community, and disrupt and redistribute power.

So what does feminist scale look like? We consider that social norms change can be better achieved by feminist scale, rather than through the ‘unlimited growth = good’ metaphor. The transformation of inequitable gender norms is fostered by movements guided by ecological models grounded in deep organizing that emphasizes relationships, solidarity, shared analysis and vision, deliberation and debate. They work within and across power and place in social relationships, centering the voices, needs, priorities and actions of marginalized communities with a shared vision of gender equity. Feminist scale explicitly considers the structural changes happening under the patriarchal umbrella. We have seen how, without a feminist analysis, the adaptation and expansion of programming can inadvertently reinforce the status quo, despite good intentions.

We reached consensus on seven key elements of a feminist approach to scale.  

  1. Effective, in-depth pre-program consultation with all those who are and will be affected.
  2. Commitment to a sustained, safe process defined by collaboration, mutual respect and balanced power—with an adequate budget to support such processes.
  3. Culturally sensitive approaches to adaptation, with emphasis on learning and responsiveness.
  4. High-quality, in-depth, on-going training and mentoring.
  5. Accountability to communities, with an emphasis on those most affected.
  6. Facilitation of connections with local governing bodies.
  7. Political in nature.

The last element, often overlooked, is that this work is fundamentally political. The ‘metaphors we live by’ – our own social norms, what we take as ‘given’ – shape and are shaped by politics. By exploring and acknowledging the background geo-political context of ‘international development’, we seek to challenge disparities and equitably share power. Further, partnerships with local governing bodies ideally need to align with community organizers’ own values. It is essential –yet rarely done - to ask networks to identify their own priority visions and challenges, as they see them, rather than assuming their ‘needs’ from outside.

How would global investment in feminist scale look?  Investments could embrace complex adaptive systems theory and the value of complexity theory in tracking effective social norms change; promote systems-level work to create a supportive environment for social norms change; fund women's rights organizations and feminist movements grounded in communities; and invest in core funding for longer term programming which fosters deeper partnerships with communities at the onset of programs, aligned with their visions, aspirations and abilities. 

How would feminist monitoring and evaluation of scale look? It could invest in M&E systems that enable communities and the organizations working to track their own progress and enable them to hold service providers, program implementers and donors to account, while tracking unintended consequences and program backlash. It could invest in and celebrate mutual appreciation and shared learning across continents, so that communities in the Global North can also learn from those in the Global South.

We hope this summary of our two year-long discussion will promote broader discourse on scaling gendered social norms change. We are mindful that these deliberations are only the beginning and that many others are trying to re-vision how ‘development’ can support people and communities to feel empowered.  We are inspired by the knowledge that non-violent movement building whilst undoubtedly fragile, can indeed effect meaningful social norms change. And that it takes just 3.5% of a population to support a social movement for that change to start to happen.

About CUSP.  The Community for Understanding Scale Up represents a unique perspective of evidence-based approaches to gendered social norms change from organizations that have worked both autonomously and with a variety of partners to implement, adapt, and/or scale their interventions. CUSP is a group of eight organizations working across several regions with robust experience in scaling gender-based social norm change methodologies in various contexts— the Center for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP), Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity (IMAGE), the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University, Center on Gender Equity and Health (GEH) – UC San Diego, Oxfam GB, Raising Voices, Salamander Trust, and Tostan. Between us, we have created the GREAT, IMAGE, SASA!, Stepping Stones, Tostan and We Can programs.

To access the full document, Community for Understanding Scale Up (2021). “Enhancing Social Norms Programs: An Invitation to Rethink ‘Scaling Up’ from a Feminist Perspective.” Community for Understanding Scale Up. click here.    

Interested in hearing more? Joining the conversation? You are warmly welcome to our CUSP webinar, 30th March 2022. Please register here https://bit.ly/3IusZGe

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