The Vietnam Story: 25 Years Later

Listen to Vietnamese locals speak about the impacts of the Positive Deviance Initiative from the 1990s on their communities and families 25 years later.


In 1991, the Sternins faced what seemed like an insurmountable challenge in Vietnam. As new Director of Save the Children in Vietnam, Jerry was asked by government officials to create an effective, large-scale program to combat child malnutrition and to show results within six months. More than 65 percent of all children living in Vietnamese villages were malnourished at the time. The Vietnamese government realized that the results achieved by traditional supplemental feeding programs were difficult to maintain after the programs ended. The Sternins were mandated by the government to come up with an approach that would enable the community to improve AND sustain their young children’s health status…and quickly!

Building on Marian Zeitlin’s ideas of positive deviance, working with the four poorest cities in QX District, TH Province and a population of 2,000 children under the age of three, the Sternins invited the SC staff to identify poor families who had managed to avoid malnutrition despite all odds, facing the same challenges and obstacles as their neighbors and without access to any special resources. These families were the positive deviants. They were “positive” because they were doing things right, and “deviants” because they engaged in behaviors that most others did not. The Sternins and the community discovered together that caregivers in the PD families collected tiny shrimps, crabs, and fish from paddy fields, and added those, along with sweet potato greens, boiled rice, and what other food was available, to their children’s meals. These foods were accessible to everyone, but most community members believed they were inappropriate for young children. The PD families were also feeding their children three to four times a day.

The communities developed an activity which enabled all of the families with malnourished children to rehabilitate their children and to learn how to sustain their children at home on their own, by inviting them to practice the demonstrably successful but uncommon behaviors which they had discovered in their communities. The pilot project resulted in the sustained rehabilitation of several hundred malnourished children and the promotion of social change in their communities.