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:
- Laura Schmitt Olabisi’s blog post Modeling as empowerment shows that systems and structures are not monolithic and can be changed.
- George Richardson and David Andersen in their blog post Four patterns of thought for effective group decisions provide additional insights into the system dynamics modelling process.
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.