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

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.’

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5 Responses to “The best evidence yet on how Theories of Change are being used in aid and development work”
  1. Ben Ramalingam

    Hear hear – an excellent blog and paper that should be read and digested widely. Question for Craig: are there any plans for follow-up work with other agencies or in specific sectors?

  2. Cornelius Chipoma

    TOCs have become a thing you do rather than represent how development actors and clients experience development work. The poison is in the mechanical thinking that characterizes development work. The theory of change is not the problem/challenge, it is the quality of how it is informed and executed. Add to this the rigid efforts to evaluate impact that are dominated by static approaches. I managed a project that worked at the system level and over the course of its implementation actors changed and the government changed. By necessity, we had to keep making adjustments (continuously testing new hypotheses, as reflective practice would have it). Ignoring such realities (and others that come along over the life of the project) is one of the key challenges of development work. Another is that TOC thinking, if not well operationalized, can quickly be labelled as academic. Even when you have teams that can articulate TOCs you may still have work to do to contract an implementing partner that hires staff that understand perfectly what needs to be done. In other words, many things can detract from a TOC. The goal is to keep readjusting/correcting not just for the unforeseen circumstances but also missing information.

  3. Craig Valters

    Ben – thanks for the kind comments. I’m now over at ODI but the work of JSRP and TAF is ongoing, so you could also get in contact with them about their future plans. I’d be personally interested in expanding this work into other agencies and specific sectors (albeit recognising this is about learning and reflective practice, not only TOCs), but no specific plans right now. Watch this space, but get in touch at ODI if you have some ideas too!

    Cornelius – thanks very much for your comments. I certainly agree that many of the problems of ToCs are not unique to the tool/process – and I dig into that in a bit more depth in the full paper. Whatever Theories of Change proponents wish it to be, we know the tool cannot be divorced from the existing systems and contexts to which it is introduced. However, this is true of any tool or artefact introduced into development policy and practice, so the question the paper partly answers is to what extent can the Theory of Change approach itself create more space than usual for critical reflection on the assumptions underpinning interventions? Overall I think that it can, but more work needs to go into making the ToC approach an honest, critical, reflective process. As you rightly highlight that also requires a broader commitment to such processes – from individuals, organisations, donors and governments.

  4. Cormac Quinn

    Criag – one area where ToC use is also growing is that of evaluation. There has been an increase in the number of Theory Based Evaluations, especially for complex projects/programs where there are multiple/changing contributing factors. Using ToC to aid contribution analysis is a fascinating area – most notably if you can compare an intended ToC against what actually happened (capturing unintended/positive/negative effects).

  5. Cornelius Chipoma

    Cormac, are you able to share some good TBE reports? I am trying to understand the use of TBE. A challenge I have with the approach is the idea that external evaluators come along and reconstruct a TOC for evaluation. I just feel that the evaluation process needs to be more dynamic.