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I Don't Know * Silence * Positive Deviance * Premonitions & The Extraordinary * The Transcendentalists Club

Positive Deviance

At the invitation of the Vietnamese government, Jerry Sternin went to Vietnam in the 1990s to work on eradicating malnutrition in the country’s villages as a staff member of Save the Children. Building on research by Marian Zeitlin of Tufts University, he held the kernel of an idea and a question: Is it possible to find out why some children might be healthy? This was a very odd question when everyone knew their mission was to fight the problem of malnutrition against near-hopeless odds, with its attendant and well-documented poverty, poor sanitation, limited food distribution systems, lack of access to fresh water, and political bureaucracy. Who in their right mind would ask if anyone was well nourished?

Well, that is exactly what Sternin did. He stood in front of a group of women from a local village who had been trained to chart the growth of the children by age and weight. He asked them if there were any children under three who were from poor families but well nourished. He did not know what would happen next. The answer was like the call and response of birds singing to each other. “Co [pronounced “Gah,” meaning “Yes”], co, co.”

“You mean it’s possible today in this village for a very poor family to have a well-nourished child?” Sternin asked them.

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