First course on changing behaviour to reach SDGs launched

Australia’s Monash University has launched a first-of-its-kind course on behavioural change for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The course, launched in partnership with the SDG Academy – the flagship education initiative of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) – on 2 August, is pitched at professionals and others who work on SDG programmes and marks a “significant shift in recognising behavioural science and behaviour change as a pivotal tool in tackling the SDGs”, according to a statement made by Monash.

The seven-week online course ‘Changing Behaviour for Sustainable Development’ is being offered by Melbourne’s Monash Sustainable Development Institute (MSDI) under the university’s BehaviourWorks Australia programme.

It draws on the experience during the COVID-19 epidemic where behavioural changes prompted by scientific knowledge, such as wearing masks, keeping a distance from others and getting vaccinated when vaccines were available, significantly helped to reduce the spread of the virus.

The course is currently available free of charge thanks to financial support from Australian entrepreneur and philanthropist Harold Mitchell.

Monash sees its role in offering this course as contributing to providing inclusive and equitable quality education for everyone, a key premise of SDG 4.

In a media release accompanying the launch, Professor John Thwaites, chair of MSDI, said: “When we face big sustainability challenges, we focus on the technological or infrastructure solutions – and they are important – but we also need to look at the human perspective, the behaviours that will make a difference to whether we can successfully meet these challenges. We need to bring the two together.”

Enrolments for this self-paced course are now open and those accepted can complete the course any time before 31 August 2023.

The course introduction says that human behaviour is at the heart of the SDGs, and that “we need to understand human behaviour, what drives it and what can change it”.

Applying solutions

This is an attempt for university-based behavioural scientists to work with policy-makers to apply solutions by triggering behavioural changes at the grassroots level.

The course includes six modules, all done online via MSDI. The learning objectives include how behavioural science can be applied to understand behavioural insights to achieve the changes we wish to see at a local and global scale to realise the SDGs.

Going through material available on the website of the SDG Academy, which is partnering MSDI in this venture, it is clearly Western-centric with most of the expertise coming from Western institutions (that includes Australia).

Thus, would courses like this make the same mistakes development communication programmes did in the 1960s and 1970s, when Western ‘experts’ were involved in educating people in the developing countries about the concepts and application of development goals?

When this question was put to MSDI by University World News, Professor Thwaites and Professor Liam Smith, director of BehaviourWorks Australia, in a joint response, said: “It’s worth noting that this course is introductory and designed to encourage a lay audience to think behaviourally about issues that are much larger [SDGs] … [and] reference to behavioural and development theories in the course is minimal, and any discussion of these is clearly signposted as context dependent.”

When this correspondent pointed out that the original development communication theories were deemed to be a failure because of a lack of participation from those who were to become the beneficiaries of such development and thus, by the late 1980s, participatory communication became a buzzword in development communication training, they said that the course structure allows for participatory communication methodologies.

“We also open the conversation of theory and what drives behaviour to students, seeking their contributions in terms of what they experience in their part of the world, and from their context,” Thwaites and Smith said. “Our course does offer a two-way process of knowledge exchange, and we look forward to learning from our students just as much as they learn from us.”

They add that the course makes “repeated reference to stakeholder collaboration and co-design of interventions to enable a tailored and context-specific approach to behaviour change to be applied”.

The professors also stressed that those registering for the course through the SDG Academy come from a variety of backgrounds from all over the world, including both developing and developed countries.

Alumni feedback

In alumni feedback on the SDG Academy website, Eunice Nabadda from Uganda talks about how, after having her first child and leaving a banking job, while being a stay-at-home mum, she did an online course on early childhood development for sustainable development, and now she is looking for funds to set up day-care services based on what she learned in the course.

Sandeep Menon, an architect by training, is another alumnus of the SDG Academy. He has been bewildered by the rapid expansion of cities in his native Kerala state in India and did a course on urban cities, after which he realised that architectural training does not take into account local cultural and environmental needs.

Thus, he joined a progressive architectural academic institute in his state, where he is now a faculty member and says he is teaching young people that “urban development should be a product of the socio-ecological processes of a local region, ethically responding to the aspects of minimising the ecological footprint and be well within the bio-capacity of the land”.

These are two of many such perspectives from people who have done the online courses and embarked on a different path to their involvement in development work. The MSDI course also aims to influence such behaviour, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

Thwaites and Smith told University World News that there are students from California and Jamaica, as well as from Uganda and South Sudan. There are also students from Australia and New Zealand.

“In terms of their backgrounds, it appears we have representatives from NGOs, government and policy, from industries such as education, business, sustainability and health. Most students are actively engaged in projects that involve changing human behaviour, whether this is at the ‘grassroots’ or not,” they said.

For the SDGs to be achieved, people at the grassroots need to be engaged as change agents, so can university courses like this, especially offered in English, do the task?

“The emphasis of the course is not on theory, but on the tools and approaches needed in practice, to deliver behaviour change based on a tried and tested methodology, and research evidence,” the professors said.

“It does require an ability to read and understand English, but apart from that, anyone who commits the time will be able to complete it,” said Thwaites and Smith. They added that there is “scope to translate the course into other languages in future iterations, to improve its accessibility”.

They also emphasised that this is not a university-based course in the traditional mould. “It’s a course designed by staff in [an applied part of] the university in close collaboration with the SDG Academy, whose input we’ve taken on board to ensure it meets the needs of their audience,” they explain.