Social behaviour change: our learning journey

Cathy Stephen, July 2021

Over the past year, we have done plenty of learning and thinking about what social behaviour change means for Sightsavers.

Social behaviour change (SBC) is about understanding and influencing healthy and inclusive behaviours, and providing a supportive social environment in which these behaviours can flourish. If we can encourage people to change their everyday behaviours, then we might get some way towards having healthier and more inclusive societies.

We’ve also thought about how to improve the clarity and guidance on SBC for our staff and partners. Take a look below to see what we’ve been working on.

An image showing a woman at a market, with piles of different fruits in the foreground. The woman is pointing to a mask that she is wearing over her nose and mouth.
A still from a TV ad in Benin to promote wearing a mask in public. The ad includes sign language and captions.

Designing accessible social behaviour change campaigns

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Sightsavers’ Ascend West and Central Africa programme rapidly adapted its neglected tropical disease (NTD) activities towards reducing the transmission of COVID-19 in 11 countries. In the absence of a vaccine, the only way we had to stop the disease from spreading was to change people’s behaviours.

We developed a communications campaign to influence behaviours that would prevent COVID-19, together with creative agency M&C Saatchi World Services and consortium partners. Some of the campaign and activities can be seen in this storymap.

We created a learning brief that described how we made this SBC campaign more accessible for people with disabilities. This led to a set of recommendations for our SBC work, which included:

  • Create a shared understanding among all stakeholders on what accessibility and inclusion mean early in the project design.
  • Embed universal design throughout the project cycle, and frame inclusion and accessible design of SBC around the needs of the target audiences.
  • Work with different national ministries to encourage dialogue, foster better decision-making, and ensure that inclusion and the accessibility of SBC are given a high priority. Provide practical examples to emphasise why the inclusive and accessible design of behaviour change is important for the people it intends to reach.
  • Foster connections with national organisations and/or community groups that represent target audiences, for example organisations of people with disabilities (OPDs). Promote meaningful participation and feedback loops during project planning, creative design and monitoring change.  This could include asking people with disabilities about how usable and understandable they find our communication materials and activities.
  • Allow sufficient time and budget for inclusion and accessibility. However, be willing to make compromises on what is feasible, based on the scope of the project, as well as the priorities and resource pressures of crucial stakeholders such as the Ministry of Health, commercial design companies and local partners.
An illustration of a Bangladeshi family outside their home.

Our approach to behaviour change

Learn why behaviour change is so crucial to Sightsavers’ mission to protect sight and fight disease.

Read the blog
A diagram showing four people each standing a metre away from each other, with red arrows saying '1 metre de distance'.
An illustration taken from a health workers training guide, as part of the COVID-19 prevention campaign in Benin.

The behaviour change wheel

Sightsavers recently held a learning exchange with ActionAid to share how both organisations have used the behaviour change wheel. This is what we call a comprehensive ‘SBC framework’; in other words, a set of steps that enables us to identify the exact behaviours that need to change, and how to influence them.

The behaviour change wheel can help us to understand and influence complex topics such as gender-based violence and disability stigma and discrimination.

ActionAid shared how it has applied behavioural science to reduce gender-based violence as part of its work in Kenya, Nepal and Ethiopia. The organisation has also developed a field guide for their staff and the wider sector. This can help practitioners to design interventions that better understand and influence the priority behaviours in order to create change.

Sightsavers shared experience on Ghana Somubi Dwumadie (the Ghana Participation Programme), a four-year disability programme in Ghana with a specific focus on mental health.

As part of the consortium led by Options, Sightsavers has also been using the behaviour change wheel to design and develop targeted interventions in Ghana. These interventions aim to reduce negative and discriminatory attitudes, behaviours and norms faced by people with disabilities, including people with mental health conditions.

Overall, this was a valuable sharing and learning session. We were given an insight into how the behaviour change wheel is being used by our partners in other settings, which has helped us to think through other ways that we could use this tool in future.

An illustration showing a group of people sitting at a table, talking together. One person in the group is a wheelchair user.
Sightsavers has conducted a systematic review into stigma and discrimination, which has led to recommendations including the need to involve people with disabilities when designing programmes.

Understanding stigma and discrimination

Sightsavers has gathered practical learning from a project in Uganda involving the economic empowerment of young people with disabilities. The project’s goal was to support young people to gain employable skills, as well as increasing their opportunities for employment and access to financial services.

We used a participatory process to develop behaviour change interventions. Our work focused on reducing stigma and discrimination faced by youth with disabilities and supporting them to act as equal economic actors and valued members of their community.

Sightsavers has also recently published a systematic review of the literature about disability-related stigma and discrimination in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. The recommendations from this review are significant for our SBC work as they show us the importance of:

  • using social behaviour change frameworks, for example the behaviour change wheel, to more systematically analyse and influence negative behaviours and social norms which drive stigma and discrimination.
  • conducting research at the outset of planning interventions to understand the context-specific drivers and manifestations of stigma. We need to use standardised tools and appropriate methods to measure stigma at the start of projects and at various points along the way, to show changes over time.
  • involving people with disabilities and their representative organisations in all stages of design and implementation of interventions and research. This is not only the right thing to do but is also often associated with better results.

Developing an SBC community of practice and toolkit

All of this learning is shared, discussed and used by the SBC community of practice. This is a space for Sightsavers staff who are delivering projects or who are interested in SBC to come together, provide peer support, and exchange the learning, ideas and challenges that they are facing in their SBC work.

A group of staff from across the organisation have also been working together to develop an SBC toolkit. This will give Sightsavers staff the guidance and tools to better understand and influence the behaviours of people and communities we work with.

The toolkit is being developed to improve clarity, provide guidance on SBC, and will be used as a tool to increase our organisational capacity. It is strongly embedded in learning from across Sightsavers programmes and from good practice developed from across the social behaviour change sector.

We are moving forward with our social behaviour change priorities by gathering learning, sharing our experiences, and identifying ways to strengthen the quality and effectiveness of our SBC work.

"We used a participatory process to develop behaviour change interventions"


Cathy Stephen is Sightsavers’ global technical lead for behaviour change communication.


Want to learn about our work and our mission?

About Sightsavers

More blogs

Patience from Liberia wearing her new glasses, whilst standing next to her mother, betty.
Sightsavers blog

If we have vision, we can transform universal access to spectacles

A pair of glasses can be life-changing for someone with refractive error. That’s why we’ve joined the World Health Organization’s SPECS 2030 initiative.

Sumrana Yasmin, May 2024
A female researcher speaks to a woman about her experience of female genital schistosomiasis.
Sightsavers blog

Why community collaboration is important in our research

Our research on female genital schistosomiasis has shown the need to establish a safe environment for participants when studying sensitive topics.

Omosefe Osinoiki, April 2024
Johannes Trimmel
Sightsavers blog

The key to inclusive education is engaging organisations of people with disabilities

Collaborating with disability groups has earned the Inclusive Futures consortium a Zero Project Award in 2024.

Johannes Trimmel, February 2024