In 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?