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

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.

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9 Responses to “What happens when 20 Middle East decision makers discuss Theories of Change?”
  1. pushpanath

    I was all excited that our GURU-of change will answer the question only to find it has not been done.Therefore only to come to conclusion- what is new here?.

    Without trying to lapse into nostalgia-I could say that there was a time we use to do this- mixing a bit of transformational with here and now.That was OK but was dismissed by high priests of development gurus as scattered and simplistic( Mostly drawn from the West-if I may).
    Now-it will reverse so the recycling of experts with the new-old ideas will descend and make hay for themselves.So, what is new?

    • Duncan Green

      Sorry to disappoint you Push! I had similar reactions to the piece on the recent Harvard meeting, and my thought was, ‘so what if it’s not new – maybe we are finding a way back to some of the good things we’ve left behind in the technocratization of aid – isn’t that a good idea?’ And if we have to dress it up with new jargon, and pretend the World Bank or someone else thought of it first, who cares?

  2. Kevin Cook

    Loved the PowerPoint, Duncan. May I have permission to make use of it (or parts of it) with my first year undergrads when we get to look at changing theories/approaches to development? It would bring things up to date for them and would provide a marked contrast with the linear approaches so loved for so many years. I would, of course, credit you.

  3. Kate

    Thanks Duncan, Lovely article. I often have trouble with explaining complexity too! In answer to transformational vs incremental I think it all comes back to state attractors… incremental change can fall back to the previous state quite easily but the more often a society moves away from the original state (staus quo) then the more likely it is that the society will undergo transformational change to a new state. So we need both, but we know that you can’t plan the outcome of a transformational change. So we plan to move away from a state but can’t plan the endpoint. (I have a good physical demo of this using icecream cones and maltezers).

  4. Dr. Ali AlSudany

    Thanks Duncan, It was a great chance to learn from you and all the lecturers in JSMT November 2014, I feel my mind is changed and being creatively more than.
    Many thanks again.

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