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If using ‘Theories of Change’ cannot transform the way you operate, why bother?

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

Learning computer skillsIn a new (and commendably short) paper, Craig Valters advocates ‘modest radicalism’ in the use of Theories of Change (ToC) as an approach to improving reflection and learning in the development sector. In this paper, Craig reflects on the role of the ToC in the context of the ‘results agenda’ and suggests four principles that could help development organisations develop knowledge and improve practice: Focus on processes; Prioritise learning; Be locally-led; and ‘Think compass, not map’. Do read the full paper!

In this post, I share some additional thoughts on the use of ToCs and how they might be improved. I start with two problems in the way we do things.

  • In development, failures are hard to detect: Often, organisations that fail find ways to mask failure – by either refusing to acknowledge failure, finding external factors, or moving on to a different desk officer/donor/location. So within the aid industry, we have a peculiar situation where it is real hard to fail – or at least, it is hard to know when a project has failed.
  • It’s harder still to ensure that projects that fail face significant consequences of failure: Organisations that implemented the failed projects should be required to make significant changes to key aspects of design or management.

Learning lessons and being accountable to stakeholders (including, but not just donors) is at the heart of both of these issues above. In the wide world outside the aid industry, projects and enterprises are set up and when they fail, those that are invested in these projects/ideas are forced to innovate, or reinvent. The margins of failure are finer and value-for-money considerations are built in to the system (as opposed to being introduced from the outside as tools for accountability and reporting). Now I certainly don’t mean that doing development is like selling cola – but it’s worth reflecting on some fundamental institutional attributes that can offer lessons. It’s a bit like the “‘why not cash?’ challenge” that conventional humanitarian aid is faced with – an uncomfortable question that signals that we can no longer tolerate ‘business as usual’.

So the challenge I have is not a modest one: with ToCs, if you cannot transform the way development organisations operate, why bother?

Campaign art: Sing a 'Love Song to the Earth' to support climate action

Roxanne Bauer's picture

People, Spaces, Deliberation bloggers present exceptional campaign art from all over the world. These examples are meant to inspire.

With only a few months until world leaders gather to draft and sign a universal climate agreement in Paris at the COP21, an all-star lineup of music legends and celebrities have come together to record a new single to build awareness and support for action on climate change. 

“Love Song to the Earth” was created to stress the importance of taking action to protect the environment but also to uplift listeners regarding environmental protection. The song hopes to empower people to take action rather than feel paralyzed by the enormity of climate change issues.
In addition to the single, executive director Jerry Cope also created a “lyric video” featuring film from around the world as well as scientists, celebrities, and people all around the world holding up signs reading “Keep it Safe,” and "It’s Our World”.
Love Song for the Earth will join The Climate Reality Project and Friends of the Earth as a partner for 24 Hours of Reality and Live Earth: The World is Watching on 13-14 November 2015. Fans are also encouraged to sign a petition to tell world leaders to “keep Earth safe at the global climate change negotiations."

The COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, will, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate.  The goal of the agreement, involving more than 190 nations, is to keep global warming below 2°C.  COP21 will take place from 7-8 December 2015.

Love Song to the Earth

Why it’s time to put gender into the inequality discussion

Duncan Green's picture

Naila KabeerLSE’s Naila Kabeer introduces a new issue of Gender and Development, which she co-edited.

The development industry has focused mainly on the question of absolute poverty over the past decades of neo-liberal reform.  Given the levels of deprivation that continue to exist in poorer regions of the world, this focus is not entirely misplaced. But it only tells us part of the story. The growing concern about economic inequality adds an important missing piece.  We are better able to understand the persistence of absolute deprivation in the world when we compare the share of the world’s income and wealth that goes to its richest citizens with the share that goes to its poorest.

The story becomes more complex when we factor in questions about social inequality because this tells us that certain groups are systematically over-represented at the bottom of the income distribution and among the ranks of the absolute poor, while others are over-represented at the other end of the income distribution.  The current issue of Gender and Development reminds us that gender inequality is one of the most significant of these group-based inequalities – and also one of the most distinctive.

Unlike other groups facing social discrimination, men and women are probably equally represented among the world’s wealthiest households, but women’s presence tends to be predicated on their relationships to wealthy men. According to Forbes magazine, there are currently 1826 billionaires in the world of which 197 are women or 11% of the total. Only 29 of these women are ‘self-made’ billionaires. The rest inherited their wealth from fathers or husbands.

Attention to the distribution of individual earningsrather than household income gives us a better picture of how gender inequality plays out at the wealthier end of the spectrum. The gender pay gap among leading Hollywood movie stars is among the more publicized recent examples of this.

But the gender gap in earnings is larger at the poorer end of the economic spectrum and its consequences far more severe.

The things we do: Why work does not depend on demand

Roxanne Bauer's picture
Bureaucracy - MagritteWhen was the last time you finished a job in less time than was allocated to it?  Have you ever moved from a smaller to a larger home and discovered that your big, new home is somehow filled with stuff after a while? How about car parks or real estate developments that start out small, enlarge, and end up just as packed as before?

It’s human nature to fill the time and space available to us. This phenomenon, known as Parkinson’s Law, states that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” 

Other variations of the principle includeThe more money you earn the more money you spend,” or “The bigger the available space, the more junk it can hold.”

This principle comes from the opening line of a humorous essay by Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson published in The Economist in 1955.  

The essay explains the results of a study he conducted of the British Civil Service. The British Civil Service grew between 1914-1928, with a noticeable rise in administrative positions and a concurrent decline in ‘fighting’ positions. In 1914 there were 2,000 Admiralty officials with this number growing to 3,569 in 1928, creating “a magnificent Navy on land.” The interesting part of this shift, however, is that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work.  The British Navy during that period had diminished by a third in men and two-thirds in ships. From 1922 onwards it was limited by the Washington Naval Agreement, signed among the major nations that had won World War I, which limited naval construction to prevent an arms race. Thus, the number of people employed in the bureaucracy increased even as the British Empire collapsed — an event that decreased the amount of work available.

Quote of the week: Ben Bernanke

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Ben Bernanke“Individually rational behaviour can be collectively irrational. And that’s why the regulators have to do what they can to constrain individual behaviour, so that it doesn’t lead to collectively irrational outcomes.”

- Ben Bernanke, an American economist currently working at the Brookings Institution. He served two terms as chairman of the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States, from 2006 to 2014. During his time as chairman, Bernanke oversaw the Federal Reserve's response to the late-2000s financial crisis. Bernanke wrote in his 2015 book, The Courage to Act, that the world's economy came close to collapse in 2007 and 2008 and that it was only the innovative efforts of the Federal Reserve, in cooperation with other agencies and agencies of foreign governments, that prevented an economic disaster greater than the Great Depression.  Prior to serving as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Bernanke was a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System from 2002-2005 and proposed the Bernanke Doctrine concerning the source of deflation.  

Blog Post of the Month: Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths

Brian Levy's picture

Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In October 2015, the featured blog post is "Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths" by Brian Levy.

The Tyranny of Experts book coverIn his 2014 book, The Tyranny of Experts, Bill Easterly uses his rhetorical gifts to make the case for ‘free development’. In so doing, he takes his trademark blend of insight and relentlessness to a new level. But in this moment of history that has been described by democracy champion, Larry Diamond as a “democracy recession”[i], is it helpful to argue by taking no prisoners and not letting inconvenient truths get in the way?

Easterly, to be sure, communicates powerfully two big and important ideas. The first is that, as per his title, behind a seemingly technocratic approach to development are some inconvenient political realities. As he puts it:

The implicit vision in development today is that of well-intentioned autocrats advised by technical experts…. The word technocracy itself is an early twentieth century coinage that means ‘rule by experts’” (p.6)

In surfacing the implausible assumptions which underlie a world view of ‘rule by experts’, Easterly does us a service. One cannot engage effectively with today’s difficult realities on the basis of a vision of decision-making which ignores the inconvenient truths of self-seeking ambition, of contestation over ends among competing factions, and of imbalances of power which marginalize the interests of large segments of society. (Of course, as this essay will explore, many of these difficult realities arise – in different ways – in both predatory authoritarian and messily democratic settings.)

The second powerful idea is The Tyranny of Experts paean to freedom – “a system of political and economic rights in which many political and economic actors will find the right actions to promote their own development”.  (pp. 215-216). With eloquent libertarian rhetoric of a kind which Ayn Rand would no doubt have applauded, Easterly argues that:

we must not let caring about material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor”. (p.339)

Yes, but we also must not fall into a trap which parallels that of the technocratic fallacy – and let our high-minded advocacy of the rights of the poor blind us to the challenges of how to translate our rhetoric into reality. And it is here that Easterly’s Tyranny falls way, way short.

Has the governance agenda lost its mojo globally?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Romanian RevolutionWhen I started work in international development in London in the late 1990s, a more experienced colleague gave me the following insight. At some point, she said, I would either catch the bug and stay in the field or I would not and leave it to go and do something else. And it is usually some agenda within the broad field that would get you hooked, she added. She was right. I caught the bug and stayed in the field, and the agenda that excited my passion was and remains governance: efforts to improve governance systems in developing countries in order to do real and permanent good. The reason was obvious. I had moved to London from Lagos, Nigeria, having participated actively in the public affairs of the country; and I had left thoroughly convinced that unless governance improved in Nigeria there was no way that the abundance in the country would lead to improved welfare for the vast majority of its citizens. That remains my conviction.

In those days working on governance issues was exciting; for, it was like joining an army on the march, one that appeared ready to sweep everything before it. There was definite intellectual energy in the field. Practitioners had poise and confidence. Initiatives were being dreamt up by different donor agencies. Funds were pouring into the field. And we began to see a new breed of development professional: the so-called ‘governance advisers’. But behind it all, I suppose, was a powerful zeitgeist: the Berlin Wall was down, communism was on the ropes, and liberal constitutional democracy appeared to have triumphed with resounding finality.

But now, in late 2015, it all feels very different globally. In the words of the B.B. King classic: ‘The thrill is gone’.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Freedom on the Net 2015
Freedom House
Internet freedom around the world has declined for the fifth consecutive year, with more governments censoring information of public interest and placing greater demands on the private sector to take down offending content. State authorities have also jailed more users for their online writings, while criminal and terrorist groups have made public examples of those who dared to expose their activities online. This was especially evident in the Middle East, where the public flogging of liberal bloggers, life sentences for online critics, and beheadings of internet-based journalists provided a powerful deterrent to the sort of digital organizing that contributed to the Arab Spring. In a new trend, many governments have sought to shift the burden of censorship to private companies and individuals by pressing them to remove content, often resorting to direct blocking only when those measures fail.
The hidden digital divide
Data is fast becoming the universal currency that defines personal status and business success. Those with unlimited access to information have a clear economic and social advantage over those for whom it is not readily to hand. For example, people who can go online can access education and the global marketplace more easily. They also have the political knowledge to demand transparency from their government. When the term digital divide was coined in the 1990s, it simply referred to the growing inequality between people with any type of internet access and those without. On this basis, clear gaps were visible between rich and poor countries, between cities and rural communities.

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.

Media (R)evolutions: The internet and the death of languages

Roxanne Bauer's picture

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.

A large body of evidence shows that affordable and effective broadband connectivity is vital to economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. Nevertheless, while internet access has spread around the world and many more people now have access, certain barriers still exist— like language.

Today, only a fraction of world languages– an estimated 5% (by number of languages)– is present on the Internet, according to The State of Broadband 2015, a report by the Broadband Commission. English continues to dominate the web, and around 54.5% of all web content is still in English despite huge growth in users that do not understand that language or who prefer to access content in their native languages. According to analysis of the most popular 10 million websites by W3techs, after English, the most common languages are Russian (5.9%), German (5.7%), Japanese (5.0%), and Spanish (4.7%). Moreover, a significant of languages (such as Hindi and Swahili) are used by less than 0.1% of these websites, and most of the world’s languages are not represented at all in their data.

Languages used on the Internet