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Adaptive Capacity

Reflecting on being radical: Integrating theories of change as practice

Heather Lanthorn's picture

Ms. Gurugalpola, teaches parents and children about dental hygieneRecently, Craig Valters published new work on theories of change. He calls not for a new tool (product) but for a more careful approach (process) to practicing and engaging in development. That is, changing the state of the world for someone. And learning from it. And, ideally, communicating that learning. (Craig is pessimistic that we are near actually ushering in a learning agenda to replace the results agenda. On this, I hope he is wrong.)
In this post, I echo and expand on the idea of theories of change as allowing “space for critical reflection” (p. 4) and push back slightly on two of the outlined ‘key principles’ of a theory of change approach: being ‘locally led’ and thinking ‘compass, not map.’ I also include some of the comments Craig made on the original version of this post, here.

I have two disclaimers, given points raised both in the paper and in Suvojit’s follow-up blog. The first is a musing, though I have adopted the theory of change language along with the herd. I wish we could still revise it to hypotheses of change or ideas of change or stuff that might matter because we thought hard about it, looked at what had been done before, and talked to people about what could be done now (or something else catchier but far more tentative, humble, and open to updating than 'theory'). Alas. On the brighter side, Craig notes that, at least, “theory implies we have to think really hard about it, even if what we end up with is not a theory in the social science sense of the word.”
The second is a confession. I really like boxes and arrowsnot as the definitive product associated with a theory of change but as some means of organizing ideas that people can stand around, look at, point to, and ask, “have we learned anything about how this arrow really works?” While I don’t want to foist the need for a visual on anyone, especially if it is just going to end as a bad flowchart, I feel I should at least lightly advocate that a visual can be a useful tool for learning and may be friendlier to revisit than a lengthy narrative, and it's usually prettier. In his follow-up responses, Craig echoes that a diagram, no matter how pretty, “is not in itself a Theory of Change.” I concur.

Four principles for Theories of Change in global development

Craig Valters's picture

The stratospheric rise of the Theory of Change approach continues. In a new paper published on September 15, 2015, I argue that taking a Theory of Change approach demands a radical shift towards more and better learning in development thinking and practice.

Local farmers attend a workshop on ecology and social organization in Vila Da Canoas, in the Amazon region of Brazil near ManausHang on, do we know what a Theory of Change approach actually is?

At a workshop at ODI in April 2015, we sought to work out how different people were using the term, for what purpose, and with what effects. More detail on that can be found here and here. What’s emerged is that the term ‘Theory of Change’ is being used in at least three overlapping ways:

As a discourse, asking ‘what’s your Theory of Change?’ has become an increasingly fashionable way interrogate someone’s assumptions about change (and flummox newcomers to the terminology).

As a tool, it’s rapidly rivalling (and being used in conjunction with) the log frame. Here it’s often used as a way of making explicit the assumptions connecting (watch out, here comes aid jargon) activities, outputs and outcomes in reporting for donors.

Taking a Theory of Change approach will likely include use of a tool in some form, but is broader, reflecting a desire to embed a critical and adaptive approach in organisational practice. This is perhaps the most exciting, as it builds in what we know about how aid organisations can make effective contributions to social change in complex environments.

So where do we go from here?

The following principles (not rules) seek to ground Theory of Change approaches in this emerging knowledge – and are rooted in a concern with persistently damaging problems within the industry.

However, the aim is to not to be prescriptive: debate them, critique them, and develop your own!

Building Communities' Adaptive Capacity: What Can We Learn from Development?

Darshana Patel's picture

Adaptive capacity is “the ability of a system to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes) to moderate potential damages, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with the consequences.” (The definition comes from the Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.)

Communication has a role in all levels of climate change adaptation efforts; from the dialogue that establishes multi-governmental agreements, the positive public opinion required to introduce national polices to implementing new practices at local levels. But building adaptive capacity at the local level seems the most complex and challenging. Whether at the community, household or individual levels, building local adaptive capacity requires shifting people away from the “old way” of doing things to introducing new processes.  Adaptation efforts require communities to implement new practices and ideas, take risks, and experiment.