Bringing ethical thinking to social change initiatives: Why it matters
Norms-shifting interventions (NSI) seek to improve people’s well-being by facilitating the transformation of harmful social norms, the shared rules of acceptable actions in a group that prop up harmful health behaviours. Community-based NSI aim for incremental normative change and complement other social and behaviour change strategies, addressing gender, other inequalities, and the power structures that hold inequalities in place. Consequently, they demand that designers and implementers–many who are outsiders-grapple with power, history, and community agency operating in complicated social contexts. Ethical questions include whose voices and values, at which levels, should inform intervention design; who should be accountable for managing resistance that arises during implementation? As interest and funding for NSI increases in lower and middle-income countries, their potential to yield sustained change is balanced by unintentionally reinforcing inequities that violate human rights and social justice pillars guiding health promotion efforts. A review of 125 articles on ethical considerations in public health, social justice, and human rights–where NSI actions intersect–indicated little guidance on practice. To begin to address this gap, we propose ten ethical values and practical ways to engage ethically with the social complexities of NSI and the social change they seek, and a way forward.
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