What happens when 20 Middle East decision makers discuss Theories of Change?

November 5, 2014 9 By Duncan Green

My first job after returning from holiday (disaster tourism in Northern Ireland – don’t ask) was to speak on Theories of Change to a really interesting group – a ‘building a rule of law leadership network in the Middle East’, funded by the UK Foreign Office. The John Smith Trust has about 20 lawyers, civil servants, policemen, UN personnel and business people for a 3 week training programme. Equal numbers of men and women, from Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman. Chatham House rules so that’s your lot viz info.

Over the course of a year, each Leadership Fellow develops an Action Plan for reform back home, ranging from girls’ education to police training to civil society strengthening, and will work on it during their UK visit, where they get inputs from people like me, discussions and visits to the UK Parliament and elsewhere.

I was presenting on theories of change (ToCs) – here’s my powerpoint. My co-presenter (from a UK thinktank) defined a ToC as ‘a conceptual map of how activities to

US military stakeholder map of Afghanistan, aka a complex system

US military stakeholder map of Afghanistan, aka a complex system

outcomes’. As you might imagine, I disagreed with the implied linearity of that. But the disagreement, and the views of those present was interesting.

However much I may love thinking about systems, uncertainty etc etc, there is clearly a psychological cost to most normal people in ‘going there’ on complexity. People, especially decision makers, prefer to KISS (don’t we all), which leaves them feeling more effective and in control of bringing about change. In contrast, showing people the Afghanistan map (as I invariably do) can easily leave people feeling demotivated and defeated.

So if we want to equip people rather than demoralise them, the language, and examples have to focus not on complexity itself, but on a few things we need to do differently to make our actions more compatible with complex systems. Here are some of the ones that came up.

The problem may not be complex at all, at least to a first approximation – think Cynefin (below): if your problem is in the simple quadrant, then you may be making your life unnecessarily difficult by spending much time on systems and complexity. Wheel out the logframe and get stuck in.

Iteration and Feedback: The key is not to abandon planning, but to treat all plans as rough drafts, in need of regular adaptation and improvement in light of events or increased understanding. Make sure the feedback loops and pauses for reflection are in there from the start to allow you to correct your course as you go. (i.e. you can plan for uncertainty)

Unintended consequences: plans often exist in an imaginary world where the only consequences of our intervention are those we intend. Feedback loops can help identify the other stuff that happens, and adjust plans accordingly.

cynefinResilience, especially to massive setbacks: a heartfelt plea from an Iraqi participant – What do you do when years of painstaking work are destroyed in days by something like the Islamic State? No easy answers except to think about an intervention in terms of its resilience to shocks. In many countries, we have found that ‘power within’ work on things like women’s empowerment is resilient in the sense that newly confident women leaders are the first to start organizing after displacement, or in refugee camps, whereas other things (eg classrooms) are destroyed completely.

Power and interests become more apparent once the work is under way – in the Middle East, politics and power are often personal, opaque and unfathomable. So by all means do a preliminary power analysis to identify potential allies, opponents or swing voters, but expect to update it as you get more involved in the issue (and other players start to notice and react to your work)

And some dilemmas:

Is the use of ToCs just a problem solving approach – isn’t that very reactive/negative? What about proactively creating a new society? Here I was torn between head (nothing helps you build an alliance for change better than a shared problem) and heart (we all want to build the new society – why should we let ourselves got bogged down in the petty problems of the current system?)

Incremental v Transformational: the standard spiel is ‘transformational good, incremental insufficient’, but does that need to be reframed in light of the Arab Spring? Surely the key lesson of events in Egypt and elsewhere is that a shock can trigger what looks like transformational change, but it doesn’t stop there – institution-building, the long hard slog of politics etc can make or break (or reverse) that transformational potential. So the key question becomes how the transformational and incremental processes are interlinked. Not sure we’ve got much idea how to do that.

Good to be back. Holidays are overrated.