Why awareness raising campaigns cannot fix structural problems

Pei Shan Loo (biography)

By Pei Shan Loo

Why are awareness raising campaigns popular? Why can’t they fix structural problems? And how can system dynamics help?

Large amounts of funding for health, societal, environmental and other complex problems are channelled into “awareness raising” to build public recognition of the problem in the hope that understanding will lead to change and a lasting solution.

Why awareness raising campaigns are popular

There are at least four reasons why funding is spent on awareness raising campaigns:

  • Such campaigns can readily be conducted in short timeframes. For example, if funding is available for a one-year project, this is enough to successfully complete an awareness raising campaign.
  • Similarly, awareness raising campaigns can usually be tailored to fit limited budgets.
  • Training for local project staff to undertake such campaigns is relatively straight-forward.
  • Pre-post campaign evaluations are straight-forward and usually demonstrate increased awareness and interest in the topic of the campaign.

Why awareness raising campaigns cannot fix structural problems

Yet many complex problems are structural, requiring more than raised awareness to fix. Let’s use a simple analogy to illustrate this problem.

Imagine a village where there is no coffee. In response, donors are encouraged to fund coffee promoters to explain the benefits of coffee to the villagers. As a result, some villagers are keen to try drinking coffee.

The coffee needs to be brewed specially with a machine, by a barista, available only in a town, 30km away. To reach this town, transportation is challenging with muddy roads, especially during the monsoon season. When they arrive, the villagers discover that the coffee price is more than they can afford. Also, the villagers have the habit of drinking tea. Over time, villagers stop talking about coffee, and slowly forget about coffee.

From the donors’ and fundraisers’ perspectives, the results may seem promising with increased awareness and interest in coffee. Because longer term impacts are not evaluated, there is no record of the coffee demand dropping over time because of structural barriers.

Oftentimes, when campaigns to increase awareness are seen as making an impact, it leads to further dependence on more such campaigns. As a result, the desire and effort to identify fundamental solutions can be compromised and problems persist.

Structural issues are often even more profound than described in the coffee example. Indeed “structural violence” provides an apt description of physical and mental harm resulting from disparity in access to power and resources that characterise poverty, famine, health inequity, gender discrimination, and marginalization. It can be difficult to pinpoint root causes because structural violence is usually rooted in longstanding ubiquitous social structures, normalized by stable institutions. The resulting problems are taken for granted and no one is held accountable, except the poor and sick themselves.

How system dynamics can help

System dynamics is a method that develops quantitative simulation models that can test different short and long-term policies and other interventions. Quantitative models are usually developed from systems maps (causal loop diagrams) co-produced with stakeholders. The models allow a range of ‘what if’ scenarios to be tested allowing decision makers to explore the impacts of a range of policies and other interventions, allowing the most effective to be chosen for implementation.

It is not possible to provide a comprehensive introduction to systems dynamics here, but its strengths include:

  • stakeholders can be included in the model-building process to ensure that their perspectives are taken into account
  • a range of causes and effects of a problem can be mapped as a system in causal loop diagrams, focusing on interactions and feedback loops, including vicious and virtual cycles
  • such diagrams can highlight leverage points, where a small shift in one element of the system can change the behaviour of the whole system or significant parts of the system
  • delays between causal stimulus and effect can be taken into account.

Two previous blog posts also demonstrate some of the benefits of system dynamics modelling:

Final questions

Do these thoughts resonate with your experience? Do you have examples to share of how system dynamics modelling has been used to bring about structural change?

Biography: Pei Shan Loo is a graduate student in the System Dynamics masters program at the University of Bergen, Norway. She is interested in public health and peace studies, with work experience in project implementation and management regarding migrant health and human security.

5 thoughts on “Why awareness raising campaigns cannot fix structural problems”

  1. Are there parallels to the call to ‘Determine the value proposition’ of digital technologies projects, particularly when marginal gains from a single technology are small, and the impact of awareness raising campaigns, given that one possible outcome of applying digital technologies is disruption to the current value chain (a structural change)?

    • Hi David,
      I wonder if I understand your question correctly. Do you mean if this is similar to channeling resources into digital technologies that have marginal gains, and possible disruptions to the system (due to the mismanagement of resources)

  2. This is an important contribution because it flies in the face of accepted wisdom in the systems thinking research community: that system dynamics is not an effective approach in the face of marginalization, and boundary-challenging methodologies (like Critical Systems Heuristics, which supports stakeholders in rethinking systems that cause oppression) are needed instead.

    I strongly encourage you to write this up more fully in a journal like “Systems Research and Behavioral Science”, which is read by the community of readers interested in Critical Systems Thinking. In particular, look at the work of Mike Jackson (especially his 2019 book with Wiley), as he is the main author who has aligned different systems methodologies with their “most appropriate” contexts of application. He says that System Dynamics is most useful when the system to be modelled is complicated rather than complex (i.e., is stable and understandable enough for modelling to work), and when stakeholders agree on the problem (otherwise you will be supporting one stakeholder’s views on what is important and marginalizing other perspectives).

    Mike’s work on this sounds so logical, but I have shown in my own work that (contrary to Mike’s view) System Dynamics can be used to address significant conflicts, when the root of the conflict is a lack of understanding of how the things found to be important in people’s different perspectives actually interact. Now you have made a case for using it to understand and respond to structural violence, including marginalization.

    It would be really useful to have this available in the literature to cite, but in writing the paper, you would specifically need to address Mike Jackson’s “System of Systems Methodologies”. His 2019 work is a source of reading on this, and I have summarized all the previous critiques of that framework in my 2000 book, “Systemic Intervention”. You might need to search for more recent critiques too, but my feeling is that there isn’t a lot of recent work on this: a bunch of us criticized the framework in the late 1980s and across the 1990s, but the System of Systems Methodologies continued to be used. However, I think your criticism combined with mine (I have only presented it in talks, not written it up for a journal yet) could revive the debate and provide stronger criticisms than those already in the literature, as they strike to the heart of the central claim of the System of Systems Methodologies. I will soon be editing a special issue of “Systems Research and Behavioral Science” (with Bob Flood) to honour Mike Jackson’s lifetime contribution to systems thinking, and this would be a great paper for that issue, if you’re interested.

    • Hi Gerald,
      Thank you so much for the feedback. I appreciate you taking the time out to share your thoughts, and I am glad to hear the blog post resonates with some of the work you have done.

      Before learning system dynamics, I used structural violence perspective to analyze health and social problems. After learning system dynamics, I think it is a tool not only for better understanding but also better communicating complex problems, especially causes that seemed invisible to many.

      Just a quick response to Mike’s position on: when stakeholders agree on the problem (otherwise you will be supporting one stakeholder’s views on what is important and marginalizing other perspectives).

      I think system dynamics can be particularly useful in this situation. When stakeholders (I assume Mike is talking about power imbalance, where certain stakeholders dominate the decision more than the rest) agree on a causal loop diagram (from group model building), such qualitative causal loop diagram is turned into a quantitative model. In model, structure drives behavior, and simulated behavior is used to explain the historical reference mode. If the “dominated” causal loops are wrong, the developed structures will not deliver the behavior that explains the reference mode. The model structure needs to be revised, so does the causal loop diagram.

      I am new to some of the terms you mentioned, I think this is an good opportunity for me to learn more. I am quite curious to see why system dynamics is seen as an ineffective approach in the face of marginalization from the readings you listed. Thank you again for the feedback.

      • I think the answer to your question about “why system dynamics is seen as an ineffective approach in the face of marginalization” is as follows, although the word “ineffective” possibly doesn’t capture the problem. In situations of marginalization, it’s not just that stakeholders have different views on what is important (that alone can be problematic for an SD approach if securing agreement on what is to be modelled is an issue) – it’s that the perspectives of marginalized stakeholders are made profane (derogated or ridiculed). Therefore, getting agreement from clients to include the concerns of marginalized stakeholders can be problematic. Furthermore, structural features of the situation can even prevent access to marginalized stakeholders. I am dealing with this right now in a project. To their credit, the clients (in a Hospital Trust) want us to involve patients in the evaluation that we are doing, but we cannot seem to get beyond the HR rules that allow us access to formally-appointed patient representatives, but not actual patients themselves. Confidentiality is cited as the reason, but we need to talk with people who have actually experienced being on the hospital wards, not people who have volunteered to speak on their behalf. Even though the Hospital Trust is aware of the problem of marginalization and is asking us to counter it, their norms and processes are reproducing it. If you can’t speak to marginalized stakeholders, you can’t produce an inclusive model.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: