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July 29, 2014

International Aid and the Making of a Better World: a great new book

July 29, 2014

Four ways in which a good theory of change can help your social accountability work

July 29, 2014
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This piece went up last week on the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability blog. Sorry, I mean ‘knowledge platform’.

Theories of change (ToCs) are a bit of a development fuzzword at the moment, used in lots of different and sometimes baffling ways. But Oxfam finds ToCs extremely Gandhi v logframe cartoonuseful, provided they address issues of power and politics, avoid linear ‘logframe on steroids’ or exclusively technical approaches, and embrace the messy realities of the world in which we are trying to support the search for social accountability. Here are four ways in which they can help.

Exploring the context, going beyond your assumptions and spotting new possibilities: Before jumping into ‘what do we do?’, a good ToC starts with deep observation of the political or social system in which you are working: broad stakeholder analysis, understanding of power (both formal and informal), the coalitions (actual or potential) that drive or block change, the windows of opportunity that might arise. This is particularly helpful when operating in systems very different from the ones you are used to (eg staff from stable democracies working in one party systems or fragile states).

Power Analysis is at the heart of Oxfam’s theory of change work. Power is the invisible force field that connects (and divides, and excludes) individuals, households, communities and nations. It is in constant flux, endlessly renegotiated, whether in a progressive or regressive direction.  Tools like stakeholder mapping, and thinking about both formal and informal power, reveal an ecosystem of power spreading well beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of SA work (citizens’ groups, the state). In Tajikistan, a brief mapping of village-level relationships added religious leaders, teachers, doctors, truck drivers and others (including officials’ lovers!), greatly expanding the possibilities for building progressive alliances.

Power analysis also explores the incentive systems that operate within the political economy. In Vietnam, a league table approach has proved influential in encouraging accountability at municipal level – no-one wants to be bottom of the league.

Beyond technical fixes: All too often, SA can get stuck in an infatuation with IT and access to information. In Tanzania, the innovative Twaweza programme has stepped back to ask why these were not enough to trigger citizen demands for better performance from the state – the answer seems to lie in a deeper exploration of power and incentives. Power analysis also helps SA programmes get beyond ‘supply’ (training officials) or ‘demand’ (supporting protest movements). Often progress lies in brokering conversations between the two, bringing in other players identified by power analysis, and creating the spaces in which searches for common solutions can emerge.

Embracing Complexity: Real life is messy: change is unpredictable and rarely conforms to the project plan. Surfing the waves of events in a complex system requires different ways of working to grinding through the plan, but has enormous potential. A few examples

Positive Deviance: rather than assume you have to develop innovative ideas, why not spend some time finding the ones that already exist? In Eastern DRC, Oxfam staff began research on security sector reform and civilian security by identifying outliers – which army command posts appeared to be more respectful of civilians than others, and then researching why that might be.

public dialogue in S SudanMultiple parallel experiments: if you don’t know what will work, why not try several different things at the same time, like a venture capitalist funding start ups? In Tanzania, Oxfam’s Chukua Hatua project employed an evolutionary approach of variation, selection and amplification in its governance work in two provinces: start 7 or 8 different governance projects in parallel, sit down with partners after 9 months and agree which were most successful, then scale those up (with some new variations to add to potential learning).

Iteration and course corrections: In complex systems, you need to ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’. Call regular time outs in any programme, perhaps with an external facilitator, and encourage staff and partners to be as honest as they can about what is working, and what isn’t. Then think about ‘course corrections’ to the work.

Windows of Opportunity: Change is seldom smooth – windows of opportunity open and shut, often around events, whether foreseeable (elections) or unpredictable (shocks, scandals, sudden changes of leadership). Yet too many project plans chart an illusory world of steady state ‘roll out’ of training, capacity building, campaigns etc. Preparing for windows of opportunity, spotting them as rapidly as possible, and reacting can greatly improve the impact of SA work, (while presenting management challenges to avoid hopping from one issue to another in an entirely unfocussed way!)


  1. That’s one terrific brief on ToC, Duncan!

    To accompany the starting questions you mention in the beginning, I thought I would share one I’ve often found really useful: “What are the accountability mechanisms?” They’re virtually always there in some form. They just rarely default to deliberation and liberal democracy.

    (And then there’s my belief that it’s useful to be more explicit about ontological priors (without actually saying it that way) … but that seems to be a lost cause : )

  2. I can’t help it – the league table suggestion brings The Wire to mind, and the police higher-ups trying to get the precincts to compete on how many crimes they solve.

  3. TOCs are critical but are not adequately theorized. I also wonder about how to carryout meaningful impact evaluations given the issues you outline. How is Oxfam evaluating its work?

  4. Indeed, do not deny the basics:
    power – ‘broad stakeholder analysis, understanding of power (both formal and informal), the coalitions (actual or potential) that drive or block change’
    access – ‘to information'(easy on the IT tiger) and access to knowledgeable / powerful people
    language – ‘Often progress lies in brokering conversations between the two, bringing in other players identified by power analysis, and creating the spaces in which searches for common solutions can emerge’

  5. Very nice blog Duncan, thanks. Just reading “Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate and When to Fight” Robert Mnookin and just finished a section on the difference between “positions” and “interest” – resonates well with Power Analysis.

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