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Theory of Change

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!

Where have we got to on Theories of Change? Passing fad or paradigm shift?

Duncan Green's picture

Gum Arabic farmers at Hilat Ismaiel, North Kordofan, SudanTheories of change (ToCs) – will the idea stick around and shape future thinking on development, or slide back into the bubbling morass of aid jargon, forgotten and unlamented? Last week some leading ToC-istas at ODI, LSE and The Asia Foundation and a bunch of other organisations spent a whole day taking stock, and the discussion highlighted strengths, weaknesses and some looming decisions.

(Summary, agenda + presentations here)

According to an excellent 2011 overview by Comic Relief, ToCs are an "on-going process of reflection to explore change and how it happens – and what that means for the part we play". They locate a programme or project within a wider analysis of how change comes about, draw on external learning about development, articulate our understanding of change and acknowledge wider systems and actors that influence change.

But the concept remains very fuzzy, partly because (according to a useful survey by Isobel Vogel) ToCs originated from two very different kinds of thought: evaluation (trying to clarify the links between inputs and outcomes) and social action, especially participatory and consciously reflexive approaches.

At the risk of gross generalization, the first group tends to treat ToCs as ‘logframes on steroids’, a useful tool to develop more complete and accurate chains of cause and effect. The second group tend to see the world in terms of complex adaptive systems, and believe the more linear approaches (if we do X then we will achieve Y) are a wild goose chase. These groups (well, actually they’re more of a spectrum) co-exist within organisations, and even between different individuals in country offices.

Blog Post of the Month: The Best Evidence Yet on How Theories of Change are Being Used in Aid and Development Work

Duncan Green's picture
Each month, People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion.

In September 2014, the most popular blog post was "The Best Evidence Yet on How Theories of Change are Being Used in Aid and Development Work"

In this post, Duncan Green, provides an overview of Craig Valters’ new paper ‘Theories of Change in International Development: Communication, Learning or Accountability’  The paper, and Duncan's blog post, help answer the question: will Theories of Change "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?"

Read the blog post to learn more!

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)?

What is a Theory of Change and How Do We Use It?

Duncan Green's picture

I’m planning to write a paper on this, but thought I’d kick off with a blog and pick your brains for references, suggestions etc. Everyone these days (funders, bosses etc) seems to be demanding a Theory of Change (ToC), although when challenged, many have only the haziest notion of what they mean by it. It’s a great opportunity, but also a risk, if ToCs become so debased that they are no more than logframes on steroids. So in internal conversations, blogs etc I’m gradually fleshing out a description of a ToC. When I ran this past some practical evaluation Oxfamers, they helpfully added a reality check – how to have a ToC conversation with an already existing programme, rather than a blank sheet of paper?

But first the blank sheet of paper. If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ll probably recognize some of this, because it builds on the kinds of questions I ask when trying to understand past change episodes, but throws them forward. Once you’ve decided roughly what you want to work on (and that involves a whole separate piece of analysis), I reckon it’s handy to break down a ToC into four phases, captured in the diagram.