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What Use is a Theory of Change? 6 Benefits, and Some Things to Avoid.

Duncan Green's picture

Whether in the back of a 4×4 in Tanzania, or in seminar rooms in Oxfam house, I seem to spend an increasing amount of my time discussing theories of change. Oxfamers seem both intrigued and puzzled – what are they? What are they for? The answers aren’t simple and, as social scientists like to say, they are contested. But here’s what I currently think.

What is a theory of change? A way of working and thinking, and a set of questions. Aerobics for the imagination – not a form to fill in (and most definitely not logframes on steroids). Nor is it a typology or (a personal bête noire) an insanely complicated diagram that no-one coming after you can understand (see example, right). More here.

How does (or should) a good theory of change improve our work (or ‘add value’ as the marketing wannabes insist on saying)?

Social Inclusion and Concentration of Wealth - What the World Bank Gets Right and What It Misses.

Duncan Green's picture

This guest post comes from Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, Oxfam Head of Research, (@rivefuentes)

No one expects the World Bank to be a simple organization. The intellectual and policy battles that occur inside the Bank are the stuff of wonk legends – I still remember the clashes around the poverty World Development Report in 2000/2001. This is not a criticism. One of the strengths of the World Bank is its dialectic nature – I observed that up close when I was part of the WDR on climate change a few years ago.

Kevin Watkins, the new director of the Overseas Development Institute, reminded me recently that in 1974 Hollis Chenery, then Vice President  and Chief Economist of the World Bank, published a book titled “Redistribution with Growth: An Approach to Policy”. Kevin writes that the central idea of the book was “that the poor should capture a larger share of increments to growth than their current share. That idea has even more resonance today.”

The current battle inside the Bank seems to focus on the issue of skewed distribution of benefits of development and the problems this causes. On the one side there’s a resurgence of the argument that “growth is good for the poor” that argues there is no difference between “shared prosperity” and plain prosperity, as measured by economic growth; on the other hand, the Bank’s Chief Economist retorted that “[o]verall economic growth is important, but the poor should not have to wait until its benefits trickle down to them.”

Governance for Development in Africa: Solving Collective Action Problems: Review of an Important New Book

Duncan Green's picture

The last year or so has been a bit quiet in terms of big new books on development, but now they are piling up on my study floor (my usual filing system) – Angus Deaton, Deepak Nayyar, Ben Ramalingam, Nina Munk etc etc. I will review them as soon as I can (or arm-twist better qualified colleagues to do so).

But I thought I’d start off with a nice short one. Governance for Development in Africa: Solving Collective Action Problems, by David Booth and Diana Cammack, provides a very readable 140 page summary of the ODI’s Africa Power and Politics Programme, bits of which I have previously discussed on this blog. 140 pages is wonderful – you can read it in a morning and feel a glow of satisfaction for the rest of the day. Think there’s a lesson for me somewhere there…..

The book moves from theory to the APPP’s in-depth national fieldwork in Rwanda, Mali, Niger and Uganda and back again, coming to some uncomfortable conclusions.

The book’s underlying conceptual message is that trying to understand (and reform) African politics on the basis of ‘principal-agent’ thinking has been a disaster. Instead, it is much better to think in terms of ‘collective action problems’. The difference is that the first approach ‘assumes that there are principles that want goods to be provided but have difficulty in getting the agents to perform’.

Last Word to Twaweza: Varja Lipovsek and Rakesh Rajani on How to Keep the Ambition and Complexity, Be Less Fuzzy and Get More Traction

Duncan Green's picture

Twaweza’s Varja Lipovsek, (Learning, Monitoring & Evaluation Manager) and Rakesh Rajani (Head), respond to this week’s
series of posts on their organization’s big rethink.

That Duncan Green dedicated three posts on Twaweza’s ‘strategic pivot’ may signal that our work and theory of change are in real trouble, but we prefer to take it as a sign that these issues are of interest to many people working on transparency, accountability and citizen-driven change. His posts follow a terrific two day evaluation meeting. Here are a few clarifications and takeaways.

Spiritual matters first. We very much believe that Twaweza’s soul remains intact: we want to contribute towards change in complex systems in East Africa, by promoting and enabling citizens to be active agents and shape their lives. Our experience over the past four years has made us question much of how we ‘do’ citizen agency, but we are not quite throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

For example, in our original approach we didn’t want to be prescriptive about citizen action; we wanted to expand choices and leave it up to people to decide, what we called an ‘open architecture’ approach to social change. Sounds good; problem is that it doesn’t work so well in practice and the evidence of successful change suggests a need for less openness and more focus. New evidence about the bandwidth that poor people have to make good decisions provides useful insights on what one can realistically expect people to do.

The War for Twaweza's Soul: The Hunger for Clarity and Certainty v the Demands of Complexity

Duncan Green's picture

This is the last in a series of three posts on Twaweza, a fascinating NGO doing some pioneering work on accountability in East Africa, whose big navel gaze I attended last week. Post one covered Twaweza’s theory of change and initial evaluation results; yesterday I got onto the critique of its thinking and action to date. Today I’m digging deeper into some of the underlying issues.

Given its rethink, Twaweza is now contemplating a shift in direction – while keeping its focus on citizen agency, focus in on education (rather than try and cover education, health and water); reduce the number of partners; do more things on its own (eg research or education programming); expand successful areas such as policy and advocacy; do more experiments to uncover what works and help the organization ‘fail faster’ and so move on to new stuff.

Plenty of good ideas in there, but it also seems to me to mark an intellectual retreat from the initial commitment to finding new ways to achieve change in complex systems. I think there’s a strong case for digging deeper into complexity, rather than retreating from it. One suggestion that moves in the right direction is to set up a ‘positive deviance lab’, dedicated to detecting and then understanding examples of success in citizens’ action across East Africa.

So What Should Twaweza Do Differently? How Accountability Work is Evolving

Duncan Green's picture

Yesterday I sketched out the theory of change and initial findings on the first four years of work by an extraordinary East African NGO, Twaweza. Today I’ll move on to what some NGO people (but thankfully no-one in Dar es Salaam last week) insist on calling ‘the learnings’ about the flaws and gaps in its original theory of change (described in yesterday’s post).

First, there’s a big ‘black box’ containing Twaweza’s rather large assumption that giving people information (eg about failing education systems), would lead to them taking action to change things. What issues in the black box determine whether this is true or not?

Evan Lieberman (one of Twaweza’s many evaluators, from Princeton University) called this the ’secret sauce’ – the miracle that links information to action. His team had come up with a smart attempt to identify some of the sauce’s ingredients – conditions for a →b:

Do I understand the info? →Is it new info? →Do I care? →Do I think that it is my responsibility to do something about it? →Do I have the skills to make a difference? →Do I have the sense of efficacy to think that my efforts will have an impact? →Are the kinds of actions I am inspired to take different from what I am already doing? →Do I believe my own individual action will have an impact? →Do I expect fellow community members to join me in taking action? Evan argued that only if the answer to all of these is yes, will the black box indeed turn information into action.

Actually it’s worse than that – they missed some pretty big ones (‘do I have the time to do this, on top of everything else?’ ‘Will I run any personal risks if I do this?’). It’s a hell of an intimidating set of conditions and, as was pointed out, the danger is that accountability proponents will just latch onto one of the steps, then wonder why nothing is popping out at the outcome end.

Twaweza, One of the World’s Cutting Edge Accountability NGOs

Duncan Green's picture

Rakesh Rajani is an extraordinary man, a brilliant, passionate Asian Tanzanian with bottle-stopper glasses and a silver tongue. The persuasive eloquence may stem from his teenage years as an evangelical preacher, but these days he weaves his spells to promote transparency, active citizenship and the work of Twaweza, the organization he founded in 2009.

Rakesh is a classic example of a hybrid social movement leader, bridging the divide between policy makers and poor people, equally at ease in the homes and meetings of poor villagers and the corridors of the White House or the Googleplex (both of whom he has advised).

Last week I spent two days at a review of Twaweza’s work; an intense, exhausting, intellectually tumultuous couple of days with the smartest group of people I’ve met in a long time. Not sure how many posts it will take to do justice to it, but here goes.

First, some background on Twaweza. Its name means ‘we can make it happen’ in Swahili. It is a ‘ten year citizen-centered initiative, focusing on large-scale change in East Africa.’ Its strategy was so brilliant and ahead of its time that I nearly blogged on it just as a piece of thinking. Here’s my feeble attempt to summarize it:

Why Influencing Leaders Requires a Willingness to Hug a Porcupine

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Let’s be clear about this: to successfully influence leaders, that is, to have your views, your suggestions, your criticisms of their actions and so on, be taken seriously by them, you are not allowed to cheat. Cheat and leaders will ignore you. Worse, they will treat you with contempt. Above all, you will deserve their contempt.

The subject is important because a fundamental part of producing change is the ability to influence leaders…the leaders of the organizations you need help from, and the leaders of government at different levels without whose support very little can get done. I know this suggestion flies in the face of the current romance of the streets, of the current idealization of grass roots mobilization using cool new tools that magically launch revolutions, and produce wondrously effective pro-poor social and political change.

Now, I am a great believer in active citizens but I also know that real change is delivered by effective coalitions, and people in leadership positions are at the very heart of effective coalitions. It is the classic Inside-Outside strategy: leaders in government and leaders in civil society collaborate (sometimes quietly because of the exigencies of power play) to produce change.


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