Hacker-type Thinking Can Solve Malnutrition (with Video)

Written by Ben Cheek on .

This week in the Vision Can Do Anything Mini Course, we talked about the implications of taking a Jesus-inspired hacking approach to our leadership.  One implication is that we should always position ourselves as leading-edge or trailing-edge outsiders.  This helps us maintain a perspective that can always see what's needed to find the next innovation and/or include the next group of people.

One of our participants finds himself leading two groups, one a leading-edge group of creatives and artists, the other and trailing-edge non-profit for Haitian children.  As I thought about that, I remembered that even trailing-edge organizations should have leaders who are maintaining a leading-edge perspective.  A great example of this is some very important work being done in the area of hunger and malnutrition.

The governments of the developed world spent about $2.2 billion to solve world hunger in 2008i, but in 2009 the number of malnourished people swelled to over a billion — an increase of 75 million,ii even while current levels of agriculture could feed twice the current world population.iii Obviously, our big-systems, interventionist, resource-intensive approach isn't working.

On the other hand, Jerry and Monique Sternin implemented a strategy in Vietnam that helped 2.2 million people, including improving nutrition for 50,000 children. In the villages where the strategy was deployed, malnutrition was reduced by 85% —all without outside food aid. How did Sternin's team do this? They discovered how the parents of the healthiest children fed their kids. These parents fed 3-4 times a day as apposed to twice a day.  They also foraged for shrimp, crabs, and greens to add flavor (and nutrition) to meals. Success was a matter of designing clever ways to roll out this behavioral asset to other families.iv

Watch the video below to hear more about the story:

Want to know more about Sternins' strategy?  It's called Positive Deviance.  It looks for unusual stories of success and health in broken and dysfunctional systems.  It's been applied to problems ranging from infant health and mortality rates Pakistan to MSRA infections in American hospitals.  Find out more at the Positive Deviance Initiative.

I consider positive deviance to be a form of hacking humans systems.  It tends to follow The Four Rules of the hacker ethic very well:

  1. People over systems: creativity, fun, and access.
  2. Respect the system, but don't get entangled.
  3. Create open, versatile, sharable improvements.
  4. Keep everything as simple and decentralized as possible.


iCustome query on QWIDS (Query Wizard for International Development Statistics) Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).,4:1,5:4,2:1,7:1&q=3:212+4:1+5:4+2:1+7:1+1:1+6:2008 (accessed 3/29/10).

ii“Hunger Stats” World Food Programme. WFP. (accessed 3/29/10).

iiiJean Ziegler. “PROMOTION AND PROTECTION OF ALL HUMAN RIGHTS, CIVIL, POLITICAL, ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS, INCLUDING THE RIGHT TO DEVELOPMENT: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food” Human Rights Council. 2008 United Nations. (accessed 3/29/10). Pg 2.

ivArvind Singhal, Jerry Sternin, & Lucía Durá. “Combating Malnutrition in the Land of a Thousand Rice Fields: Positive Deviance Grows Roots in Vietnam ” Positive Deviance Wisdom Series. 2009 Positive Deviance Initiative. (accessed 3/29/10).

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