The Politics and Possibilities of Scale

15 June, 2019


Written by the Community for Understanding Scale Up (CUSP)
Read the recent paper by the authors, On the CUSP: the politics and prospects of scaling social norms change programming

How is meaningful impact defined in international development?

Does it mean reaching “W” number of people? Conducting “X” trainings? Spending “Y” amount of money? Improving “Z” indicators?

Gender transformative programming (i.e programmes which aim to strengthen and/or create equitable gender norms and dynamics) has evolved considerably over the past decade. Activists around the world have been working for decades for these issues to be taken seriously. It is encouraging to see great progress and enormous potential. There is evidence that we can foster safer, healthier communities which support the decision-making and agency of women and girls, while holding men and boys accountable to the women’s rights movement.[1] [2]

One of the opportunities emerging is how to reach additional communities or take programmes to scale. This can be challenging and time intensive. In efforts to expand reach, partners may try to cut down costs and time in a variety of ways: shortening program length, investing less time in preparation, contracting technical for-profit organizations, prescribing programming that is not community-led and cutting trainings, among others.  When this happens, money can be wasted, women and communities can be let down, and the hoped-for transformation of social norms doesn’t materialize. In an effort to maximize impact, quality and ethics are sacrificed.

The Community for Understanding Scale Up (CUSP) has been unpacking these issues and influencing the global conversation on effective and ethical scale. Discussions over the last two years have revealed there is far more complexity in scaling gender equality and social norms change, with risks of perpetuating power imbalances, lack of sustainability, and potential harm to women and communities.

CUSP is a group of nine organizations (the Center for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP), Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity (IMAGE), the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University, the Oxfam-initiated “We Can” campaign, Puntos de Encuentro, Raising Voices, Salamander Trust, Sonke Gender Justice, and Tostan) with robust experience in developing social norms change methodologies that are now being scaled across many regions and contexts. CUSP members currently support programs in Latin America, Africa, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and South Asia. We have drawn our insights based on a combined 120 years of experience.

“On the CUSP: the politics and prospects of scaling social norms change programming,” in the themed issue of SHRM “The Politics of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” uses the reflection of CUSP members’ social norms change methodologies going (or not going to) scale to explore some common experiences within the intersections of norms change, gender equality, and scale. Below are some recurring themes in our discussions.

First, the methodologies designed by CUSP members, as well as other socials norms change initiatives, were developed with clear intent, both in terms of principles and processes. When organizations try to replicate or adapt without a deep understanding of the program, they may overlook components that are crucial to creating impact, affecting fidelity. Fidelity refers to how well the adapted/scaled program maintains the key approaches of the original program. When intentional programming is squeezed into short funding cycles—placing outcome contingencies on continued funding and/or reducing fidelity to the original initiative in the process—we have found that implementing organizations are unable to achieve their intended impact.

Next, deconstructing hierarchies and building more equitable communities is a political act. Feminist organizations are intimately aware of the history and nuance of women’s priorities in their contexts and, in fact, research shows that women’s rights organizations and feminist movements have been the single biggest indicator for creating progressive policy on ending violence against women.[3] In CUSP’s experience, indicated also by social norms change researchers, social norms change programming designed from the outside in is a common scale-up pitfall that can lead to unintended harm.[4] Despite the integral role of local women’s organizations in this work, research by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) revealed that 48% of women’s organizations had never been recipients of core funding, and 52% never received multi-year funding.[5] [6] Consequently, CUSP has questioned the implications of underfunding feminist organizations when trying to bringing justice and gender equality interventions to scale.

CUSP has also explored who is best placed to manage scale processes. In our experience, stakeholders seeking to scale are quick to place national government at the top of the decision-making process, and/or task international development corporations (IDCs) and INGOs[7] with scale initiatives. The deeply political question to consider is whether governments, for-profit organisations, or  international non-governmental organizations can lead social norms change programmes, when their structures are typically patriarchal in nature. CUSP has seen the impact (or lack thereof) of neglecting politicized, feminist organizations in hope of a supposedly politically neutral approach, under diverse government entities and international implementers. In response, we have reflected on what is lost when organizations look beyond women’s organizations rather than supporting those most likely to deconstruct and rebuild social norms in a meaningful way.

Lastly, a frequent consideration among CUSP members is how to think more creatively about evaluation.  Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) (comparisons between groups or populations, whereby one receives an intervention(s) and the other does not) are still considered to be the “gold standard” of evidence, despite their shortcomings in evaluating social norms change. Whilst RCTs focus on what has changed, there is also a need to measure why and how change has happened.[8] Although there has been  increased effort in the past decade to clarify how such programmes function and what is required to shift norms and behaviours, organizations looking to scale social norms change initiatives can try to think beyond RCTs, as well as encourage innovation and practice in methodologies that are not RCT-evaluated. Access to RCTs typically prioritizes researchers from the Global North and can disempower activists and researchers from the Global South. Thus, CUSP has considered how the political realities of social norms can be grounded in the realities of women’s lived experiences throughout the evaluation process, as well as how women’s own priorities—which are so often overlooked—can be evaluated at scale.

The increased attention from donors and policy-makers wishing to take CUSP’s and other social norms change methodologies to scale ushers in infinite possibilities to create long-lasting, rights-based, transformative change globally. CUSP believes that ethical and effective social norms change rests in the hands of the communities who have had meaningful opportunities to critically analyse, dialogue, assert their own values and create their own future. How can global stakeholders work within their own organizations to reflect on our own social norms and roles in perpetuating some of the hierarchies described in this blog and identify opportunities to redistribute such power? CUSP encourages efforts to adapt and scale gender equality and social norms change and to remain firmly committed to ensuring the agency and safety of women and communities. Consequently, because politicized, locally rooted feminist organisations are best placed to foster positive change, organizations may need to rethink their strategy to go wide, and instead, go deep.


[1] Coalition of Feminists for Social Change (COFEM), Men as allies and activists, Feminist Pocketbook Tip Sheet 6, 2018.

[2] Coalition of Feminists for Social Change (COFEM), Staying accountable to women and girls, Feminist Pocketbook Tip Sheet 4, 2018.

[3] Htun, M., & Weldon, S. L. (2012). The civic origins of progressive policy change: Combating violence against women in global perspective, 1975–2005. American Political Science Review, 106(3), 548-569.

[4] Cislaghi, B., & Heise, L. (2018). Theory and practice of social norms interventions: eight common pitfalls. Globalization and health14(1), 83.

[5] Durán, L. A. (2015). 20 Years of Shamefully Scarce Funding for Feminists and Women’s Rights Movements. AWID.

[6] Cornwall, A. (2016). Women’s empowerment: What works?. Journal of International Development, 28(3), 342-359.

[7] Wallace, Tina, Fenella Porter, and Mark Ralph-Bowman (2013) Aid, NGOs and the realities of Women’s Lives: A Perfect Storm, Rugby: Practical Action Publishing.

[8] Siegfried, N., Narasimhan, M., Kennedy, C. E., Welbourn, A., & Yuvraj, A. (2017). Using GRADE as a framework to guide research on the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women living with HIV–methodological opportunities and challenges. AIDS care, 29(9), 1088-1093.

Please note that blog posts are not peer-reviewed and do not necessarily reflect the views of SRHM as an organisation.