From South Sudan to Norfolk, in this blog post, Henry Chamberlain details how he uses the same behaviour change techniques to positively impact the Norfolk homeless as he does in his humanitarian work…
I sat in front of Hogdar Chol on a rickety old stool. Sweat pouring down my brow as he weighed me up during a humid afternoon in the Sud of South Sudan. The leader of the Sudanese Nuer’s White Army sat motionless with his worn AK47 casually leaning against his thigh, surrounded by tall lean militiamen. Fit and assured in his words and actions. He was staring deep into me. Beyond the intense circle, the prized cattle rested in the afternoon heat amongst reed houses as cattle dun smouldered on open fires, the Sobat River slowly meandering deep into the huge swamp.
A month earlier it is suspected that Hogdar Chol led an ambush that sank approximately 30 boats carrying 750mts of humanitarian food supplies and killed just under a hundred Sudanese People’s Liberation Army soldiers and their families who were securing the convoy. The United Nations reacted by closing down the main supply route and was in the process of planning a multi-million-pound airlift to by-pass the conflict hot spot – I was convinced that it was possible to negotiate access for our barges and resume riverine operations.
It had taken me weeks to piece together what had happened, then convince senior management that I should lead a mission to open up the riverine corridor. Two days were spent travelling deep into the vast marshy area by speedboat in an attempt to find Hogdar. Our escort of 2 United Nations Department of Peacekeeping gunboats, refused to follow when we got close to the ambush site – they indicated the gearbox was playing up. I was on my own with a small team and we had minutes to secure our safety and then negotiate a complete change in behaviour from that of killing to one of providing security to enable future barge operations to continue.
Coming Face to Face with Hodgar Chol
On my arrival, I had worked hard, using active listening, to understand his perspective and concerns, then used empathy and rapport to establish a baseline of trust. He had revealed his concern’s very quickly; the Lou Nuer (he was Jikany Nuer) had recently attacked his villages and therefore he needed to revenge them and secondly, his community had not received one bag of food, whilst 750mt was going directly past his villages to his enemy. Not only providing zero assistance, but also undermining his authority.
Hogdar Chol smiled, he was pleased because he had been listened to and not dictated to. There is no law in the bush of South Sudan, the militia leaders do exactly what they like, so these were an important first few steps, I felt our security was guaranteed, now for the hard bit, changing his behaviour. The atmosphere lightened as he offered a rich sickly tea, which I drank, fully realising my stomach would probably be in absolute agony within an hour or so, but I had to drink it, to cement our initial success.
Using all I had
My body language, position in the circle, who I had with me, and my dress were all carefully orchestrated to achieve maximum impact in terms of garnering his support. I had persuaded one of the Jikany Nuer spiritual leaders to come with me in full tribal regalia, there were no other white faces, just local Nuer staff and there was a minimum display of wealth and expensive equipment. We had travelled as the Nuer would in open boats which takes days. The easy option would have been to use a UN helicopter, but this would not have worked – assumed arrogance before you even look Hogdar Chol in the eye. Essentially, I was trying to narrow the cultural gap and demonstrate that I was also prepared to expose myself to malaria, dehydration and be uncomfortable in his land. I was just as dirty, sweaty and uncomfortable as Hogdar.
I now moved on to the next stage in trying to influence his behaviour, which in some ways was not too difficult; he had already taken his revenge and secondly it was quite easy to offer assistance to his people – in fact, food stocks had been allocated, but nobody had bothered to travel down the river and make sure they were delivered. After another hot cup of sickly tea, Hogdar Chol agreed to guarantee the security of our barges through his area if his people were in support.
Two weeks later the barges moved through Hogdar’s section of the river to Akobo – deemed the hungriest place on earth by the Head of the UN mission in South Sudan.
You do not get to influence people and make things happen by sitting in the field HQs, you have to get out, get to know them, enjoy their company, only then perhaps you are in with a chance.
Back to the Norfolk coast
Eight years later I am sailing on a 1950s whelk boat along the North Norfolk Coast with a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, both made homeless by their addictions. On the first night we sat huddled around a wood burning stove as the cold damp night presses into the canvas tent that protects us and the same concepts are used; Active Listening, Empathy, Rapport and then if I am very lucky, the chance to Influence them in a positive life direction and eventually to Change their Behaviour.
Figure 1: Behavioural Change Stairway Model