The best evidence yet on how Theories of Change are being used in aid and development work

August 28, 2014 5 By Duncan Green

If you are interested in Theories of Change (ToCs), you have to read Craig Valters’ new paper ‘Theories of Change in International Development: ToC hamster-webcamCommunication, Learning or Accountability’ or at least, his accompanying blog. The paper draws on the fascinating collaboration between the LSE and The Asia Foundation, in which TAF gave LSE researchers access to its country programmes and asked them to study their use ToCs. That means Craig has been able to observe their use (and abuse) in practice.

What this paper helps answer is the question I raised a while ago – will ToCs go the way of the logframe, starting out as a good idea, but being steadily dumbed down into a counterproductive tickbox exercise by the procedural demands of the aid business?

Here are the headline findings from Craig’s blog

  • A Theory of Change approach can create space for critical reflection, but there is a danger that this is an illusory process.
  • Personalities matter—they change whether a Theory of Change is seen as a tool of communication, learning, or a method of securing funding, or some combination of these. 
  • Power relations between donors and implementers in the international development industry discourage critical reflection and therefore constrain Theory of Change approaches.
  • A Theory of Change approach needs to focus on process rather than product, uncertainty rather than results, iterative development of hypotheses rather than static theories, and learning rather than accountability.
  • Politically expedient Theories of Change may be useful, but are unlikely to encourage critical reflection.
  • If the aim is to encourage critical reflection and learning, the use of Theories of Change should be supported only so long as they remain useful in that respect

Read the blog for a fuller explanation of these points, but in addition a few of the things that jumped out at me from the longer paper were:

What is a ToC anyway? ‘it is useful to draw a distinction between a Theory of Change as a formal document and as a broader approach to thinking about development work. For some Theory of Change is a precise planning tool, most likely an extension of the ‘assumptions’ box in a logframe; for others it

Not much participation there, then

Not much participation there, then

may be a less formal, often implicit ‘way of thinking’ about how a project is expected to work.’

But in either case, ToCs are currently very top down, usually drawn up by ‘experts’ in the country office, rather than through anything resembling a participatory process.

ToCs are a stone that tries to kill three birds at the same time. Unsurprisingly, that causes problems:

Communications: both external (donors, partners, governments) and internal (getting staff on the same page)

Learning: Thinking through a ToC helps learning, but the benefits are more pervasive. A TAF staff member beautifully captures what I think are one of their main benefits ‘”issues creep into everyday language…at a philosophical level, the Theory of Change is [creating] learning across programmes”. A good ToC is a kind of ‘iteration engine’, creating space for reflection and learning, and consequent (initially unforeseen) adjustments to the programme.

Accountability: But ToCs are also being driven by donors, who increasingly demand them in project applications, and this can have a ‘a corrosive effect on their honesty and usefulness.’

But ‘this does not close off their benefits entirely; whether to play to donor narratives is a choice and it can be done to different degrees. This puts the onus on both donors and implementing organisations to create better conditions for honesty and critical reflection on assumptions.’

This is key – there is wiggle room between the demands of accountability and the need to use ToCs to learn and adjust, and whether organizations use that wiggle room is at least partly down to their clarity and assertiveness.

I think there’s a dynamic here: a new approach comes in, initially in a fuzzy, all things to all people, kind of way. That liberates people to think more I want changebroadly (in this case about working in complex systems, living with ambiguity and uncertainty, adjusting to events and new insights etc, rather than doggedly pursuing the initial plan/claiming linear cause-effect impact, however implausible). But if the new approach is popular, there are inevitably pressures to codify and standardise, with the risk of losing what is most valuable about the new tool. But that is not a given, and at the very least, the forces of light need to fend off the tick boxes for as long as possible.

Last paragraph to Craig:

‘It is clear that the way in which Theories of Change are approached is closely related to the prevailing development discourses of ‘results’ and ‘evidence’. With this comes a considerable danger that the approach will privilege a linear cause and effect narrative of change. There appear to be two schools of thought on the direction of Theories of Change: one which seeks to use the tool to expand our understanding of change contexts, and another which views them as a “logframe on steroids”. As a DFID adviser highlighted, there appears to be a rather profound scepticism about the former winning out, given that Theories of Change have “become another corporate stick to beat people with” which is often not “helpful in terms of changing behavior”.  The onus is therefore on likeminded donors, implementers and researchers to build a case for a critical, honest and reflective approach, which takes the complexity of social change seriously.’