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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.

A global movement against corruption: It is happening now!

Leonard McCarthy's picture

Also available in: Español | Français | العربية

Third Annual International Corruption Hunter AllianceTaking note of headline news in recent weeks, one cannot escape the reality that efforts to fighting corruption are succeeding. A decade ago, success was a privilege to societies who -by virtue of democratic gains- could claim rights to holding public officials accountable. Today, it is not easy to get away with corruption. Not even if you are a major multinational, a senior government official, or an institution with millions of followers across the world.

Within our network- the World Bank International Corruption Hunters Alliance- we feel optimistic about all that is happening to support our mission; that of ensuring every development dollar is spent with integrity. We go to work every day and the focus is how do we prevent bad things from happening. To achieve that at the World Bank Group, we are continually advancing our investigative techniques, our preventive advice, monitoring the compliance standards of debarred entities and engaging with partners across multilateral development banks, national enforcement agencies and CSOs to strengthen this young global movement against corruption. It is critical that this momentum continues to sustain change at a global scale.

Undoubtedly we face a few challenges along the way; some more complex than others, none that cannot be overcome. Last fiscal year, the World Bank prevented approximately $138 million across 20 contracts from being awarded to companies that had attempted to engage in misconduct. This is progress that could not have been achieved without years of investigative experience invested in gathering evidence, recognizing patterns of misconduct, and documenting lessons learnt.

Today, we are able to support project teams to make smarter risk-based interventions. Whether at  project design, supervision and/or evaluation; our diverse team of investigators and forensic/preventive specialists offer a solid interpretation of red flags, unusual/awkward behavior by contractors, in addition to an effective response to allegations of misconduct impacting World Bank-financed projects.

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!

If we don’t assess, how will we learn? Assessments are critical to learning, accountability and school improvement

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

Young boys studying in IndiaAre assessments and standardized tests critical to measuring the effectiveness of educational systems?  How can communities demand accountability from local schools? Suvojit Chattopadhyay argues that assesments can serve as a lever to improving education.

This is a response to a recent livemint column by Azim Premji Foundation’s Anurag Behar in which he argues that assessments are not a primary systemic lever for improvement in education and that assessments should remain tools that provide feedback to teachers in the classroom. Interestingly, Behar does not make any reference to India’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). ASER has been around for a decade, riding on a simple and powerful idea: parents, communities, the wider civil society and policymakers just did not have sufficient information on the levels of learning our public schools deliver.
Unsurprisingly, in an age where social spending by governments is under tremendous scrutiny and aid flows are under pressure, testing and assessments have found currency in many countries across the developing world. It has also helped civil society put pressure on education systems (whether public or private) to focus on learning outcomes, moving beyond a highly limiting obsession with inputs— classrooms, teachers, textbooks, uniforms, etc. To be clear, the argument is not that one can ignore the need for high quality inputs. Indeed, that would be foolish. However, there is now substantial evidence that on its own, investing in inputs will not yield improved schooling outcomes.

Accountability inside out & outside in

Rosemary McGee's picture

 Zackary Canepari / Panos​In our eagerness to be constructive, we who work for accountable governance from our comfort zones in the global north sometimes forget what it’s like to live with a deeply unaccountable state.  I don’t just mean finding that the party we voted for has since done a U-turn on a pre-election policy promise (a sensitive issue in the UK this week as the hotly contested general elections loom). I mean being a citizen within a state that has a history of torturing and massacring its citizens.  For instance, how does it sound to a Guatemalan indigenous community when an international agency urges it to hold its state to account through ‘constructive engagement’?

At IDS on 30 April, Making All Voices Count’s Research, Evidence and Learning component hosted the third workshop in a series focused on accountability, organised jointly with the Transparency & Accountability Initiative and the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability. We chose as a theme The Quest for citizen-led accountability: Looking inside the state.  Libraries overflowing with literature on the state and its institutions haven’t proven very useable for social actors who see the state within an ‘accountability politics’ frame[1], and come at it in campaigning mode.  This event brought together some of the scholars who’ve written that literature with some of those social actors who lead and support those rights-claiming processes, to unpack the state in ways that might help citizen-led accountability struggles gain purchase.

Sharing the most politically nuanced analysis of accountability that has ever been developed under World Bank auspices, Anu Joshi (IDS) and Helene Grandvoinnet (Lead Social Development Specialist, World Bank) offered a series of reflections, insights and devices for digging down inside of “context” so as to understand what makes state actors tick.  Their work points to what can be learnt by applying to state actors – individual and collective – what we already know about citizen actors – individual and collective.  Among these are the notion that power relations are at work not only between citizens and the state, but between one state actor and another; and that for governance to become more responsive and accountable, state officials may need to be empowered or mobilized at least as much as they need to be informed.  Here was ‘the state’ viewed on the inside, and from the inside looking out.

Five steps for reorienting governance work in development

David Booth's picture

Men carrying railroad track in MadagascarIn response to feedback he received on a recent post on the myths of governance in development, David Booth of ODI offers some ways to reorient governance work for more effective change.

My Five myths blog questioned several assumptions about governance and development that continue to influence the international agenda despite having little basis in research or historical experience. The animated debate that followed has confirmed that it is a good time to be raising these issues. It also challenged me to spell out some of the practical recommendations flowing from this necessary ground-clearing.

I believe five steps would take us a long way towards a governance-for-development practice with solid grounding in evidence and experience.

Blog post of the month: Five myths about governance and development

David Booth's picture

Cyclists in VietnamEach month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In March 2015, the clear winner was "Five myths about governance and development" by David Booth of the Overseas Development Institute.

In some areas of development policy, deep-rooted assumptions are extremely hard to dislodge. Like science-fiction androids or the many-headed Hydra, these are monsters that can sustain any number of mortal blows and still regenerate. Capable researchers armed with overwhelming evidence are no threat to them.
The importance of good governance for development is one such assumption. Take last month’s enquiry report on Parliamentary Strengthening by the International Development Committee of the UK parliament. It references the UN High Level Panel’s opinion that ‘good governance and effective institutions’ should be among the goals for ending global poverty by 2030. It would have done better to reference the evidence in 2012’s rigorously researched UN publication Is Good Governance Good for Development?
Here are five governance myths about which the strong scientific consensus might – eventually – slay some monsters.

Strengthened accountability in a changing world

Gonzalo Castro de la Mata's picture

Gonzalo Castro de la Mata, Chairman of the Inspection Panel at the World Bank, shares his thoughts on the Panel's new Pilot for Early Solutions and describes its success in the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Project in Paraguay.

Roman archesRichard Branson believes in accountability. When he founded Virgin Galactic, the first company to offer commercial trips to space, he promised to be on board during the inaugural flight so that he would be the first saying “oops” if need be (let’s hope not). Similarly, the tradition is that the Captain of a ship is the last one to abandon it, if things go wrong, and to go down with it if necessary (the Captain of the “Costa Concordia” being a recent exception to this rule). In earlier times, Roman engineers stood under the arches they designed as the capstone was set in place, so that the full force of their mistakes would be unleashed upon their heads. Regardless of the definition of accountability used, spotting it is easy when it is there.

The Inspection Panel was designed more than 20 years ago, at a time when both the Bank and the world were quite different. Today, information travels instantaneously, and the challenges of development are ever more pressing and complex. This new world demands ever stronger levels of accountability. At the Panel, we define successful accountability as the process through which redress is provided to people that have suffered harm when things have gone wrong, and lessons are learned by the Institution so that the same mistakes are not repeated.

One example of successful accountability is the recently concluded Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Project (PRODERS) case in Paraguay. This is a Bank-financed project aimed at supporting participatory rural development with indigenous populations. Last July, we received a complaint from indigenous people from the Departments of San Pedro and Caaguazú in Paraguay claiming that consultation within the PRODERS project had broken down. Through discussions with World Bank management, we learned that the project team had developed an Action Plan geared to working closely with the government to resolve the impediments for effective indigenous participation. We also learned that the requesters wanted a quick solution to their participation problems, rather than to wait for the results of a potentially lengthy Panel process.

Quote of the Week: Jonathan Powell

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Jonathan Powell, British diplomatThe public does not want unprofessional politicians any more than unprofessional dentists. But we do need to find a more civilized from of discourse in which politicians are able to admit they have got things wrong and reverse track without fearing for their careers.”
- Jonathan Powell, a British diplomat who served as the first Downing Street Chief of Staff, under British Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1995 to 2007. In the early years of the Blair Government, one of Powell's most crucial jobs was his role in the Northern Ireland peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement.


How can research help promote empowerment and accountability?

Duncan Green's picture

In the development business, DFID is a research juggernaut (180 dedicated staff, £345m annual budget, according to the ad for a new boss for its Research and Evidence Division). So it’s good news that they are consulting researchers, NGOs, etc. tomorrow on their next round of funding for research on empowerment and accountability (E&A). Unfortunately, I can’t make it, but I had an interesting exchange with Oxfam’s Emily Brown, who will be there, on some of the ideas we think they should be looking at. Here’s a sample:

What do we need to know?

On E&A, we really need to nail down the thorny topic of measurement – how do you measure say, women’s empowerment, in a manner that satisfies the ‘gold standard’ demands of the results/value for money people? And just to complicate matters, shouldn’t a true measure of empowerment be determined by the people concerned in each given context, rather than outside funders? We’ve made some progress on such ‘hard to measure benefits’, but there’s still a long way to go.