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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.

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!

How can big aid organizations become Fit for the Future? Summary of my new paper

Duncan Green's picture

My navel-gazing paper on the future of INGOs and other big aid beasts came out last week. Here’s a summary I wrote for the Guardian. Thanks to all those who fed in on earlier drafts. Oxfam’s Deputy CEO Penny Lawrence gives a semi-official response.

UK International Search and Rescue teamA miasma of existential doubt seems to hang over large chunks of the aid industry, even here in the UK, where I’ve argued before that a combination of government, NGOs, think tanks, academics, media, public opinion and history constitutes a particularly productive and resilient ‘development cluster’. The doubts materialize in serial bouts of navel-gazing, worrying away about our ‘value add’ and future role (if any).

So when asked to add to the growing pile of blue sky reports, I decided to approach the topic from a different angle: what does all the stuff I’ve been reading and writing about systems thinking, complexity, power and politics mean for how international NGOs and other big aid beasts function in the future?

The result, published this month by Oxfam, is a discussion paper, Fit For the Future? But if you can’t face its 20 pages, here are some highlights:

Can aid agencies help systems fix themselves? The implications of complexity for development cooperation

Duncan Green's picture

Owen BarderOwen Barder gave a brilliant lecture on complexity and development to my LSE students earlier this year. Afterwards, I asked him to dig deeper into the ‘so whats’ for aid agencies. The result is this elegant essay (a bit long for a blog, but who cares?). I will try and get some responses to his arguments from similarly large brains.

If economic development is a property of a complex adaptive system, as I’ve argued elsewhere, then what, if anything, can development agencies and NGOs do to accelerate it?

ants in thailandTo be clear what we mean when we say that development is a system property, here’s an example from the animal kingdom. You may have seen recently that ants have recently developed “super colonies” – including one that covers 6,000km along the Mediterranean that is said to be the largest co-operative unit in the animal kingdom. It is natural to talk about the “behaviour” of the colony, even though we understand that we are really talking about the individual actions of hundreds of millions of ants. Each ant responds to its external environment, including the behaviour of other ants. Because all the ants are adjusting to each other, this creates the sense that the colony as a whole is changing its behaviour, and we soon begin to ascribe intent and agency to the colony rather than the individual ants of which it consists.

Like any complex adaptive system, an ant colony will tend to go through long periods of stability and then sudden periods of rapid change that come about when ants all adjust their behaviour in response to changes in the behaviour of the ants around them. The emergence of a super-colony did not depend on the ants individually becoming fitter and stronger, learning new skills or becoming more entrepreneurial. They didn’t suddenly have access to better nutrients that made them healthier– nor have the ants benefited from universal education, access to microcredit, or new vaccines.  In fact, the ants haven’t changed at all: the colony’s behaviour can change even if the individual ants have not, because it is a self-organising complex system whose behaviour in aggregate is not simply the sum of its parts: it is determined to a large extent by the way those parts interact with each other.

What Happens when 20 Middle East Decision Makers Discuss Theories of Change?

Duncan Green's picture
My first job after returning from holiday (disaster tourism in Northern Ireland – don’t ask) was to speak on Theories of Change to a really interesting group – ‘building a rule of law leadership network in the Middle East’, funded by the UK Foreign Office. The John Smith Trust has about 20 lawyers, civil servants, policemen, UN personnel and business people for a 3 week training programme. Equal numbers of men and women, from Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman. Chatham House rules so that’s your lot viz info.

Over the course of a year, each Leadership Fellow develops an Action Plan for reform back home, ranging from girls’ education to police training to civil society strengthening, and will work on it during their UK visit, where they get inputs from people like me, discussions and visits to the UK Parliament and elsewhere.

I was presenting on theories of change (ToCs) – here’s my powerpoint. My co-presenter (from a UK thinktank) defined a ToC as ‘a conceptual map of how activities lead to outcomes’. As you might imagine, I disagreed with the implied linearity of that. But the disagreement, and the views of those present was interesting.

Aid on the Edge of Chaos, A Book You Really Need to Read and Think About

Duncan Green's picture

It’s smart, well-written and provides a deeper intellectual foundation for much of the most interesting thinking going on in the aid business right now. Ben Ramalingam (right)’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos should rapidly become a standard fixture on any development reading list.

The book argues for a major overhaul of aid in recognition that the world is made up of numerous interlocking complex systems, far removed from the assumed linear world of cause → attributable effect that underpins a lot of aid programmes. That fits pretty perfectly with a lot of the stuff on governance, institutional reform etc from ODI, Matt Andrews, and Oxfam’s own work, all covered on this blog. But it adds to it in important ways.

  • It deepens our understanding of complexity and systems thinking, drawing on a range of other disciplines
  • Much of the current aid thinking about complexity is happening in work on governance and (to a lesser extent) advocacy. The book widens the scope to just about every corner of the aid business – management, humanitarian, health etc
  • Its 25 great case studies will spark ideas in people’s heads about how they can apply the thinking in their own work

The argument is divided into three sections: a thorough critique of the current aid system; an introduction to complexity and systems thinking; and a final ‘so what’ section on the reform of aid.

Complexity 101 – Part 2: Getting to the So Whats

Duncan Green's picture

ODI’s Harry Jones continues his stocktake on complexity and development.

Yesterday, I tried to pose and answer some straight questions on complexity and development, mostly focusing on whether development problems are complex and why it matters. Today, I try to answer the ‘so what’ question and suggest three areas where changes to aid agency practice could be made:

1) How can development agencies tackle complexity?

Aligning with the three challenges outlined yesterday (distributed capacities, divergent goals and uncertain change pathways), I’d argue that all solutions proposed to deal with complexity fall into one of the three categories:

  • Interventions must capitalise on distributed capacities, finding ways to link up actors and action that fosters more voluntary coordination and collaboration.
  • Interventions must facilitate joint interpretation of key problems by key actors, and must enable negotiation on and commitment to common goals.
  • Interventions must innovate, must foster learning about how change happens, and must be flexible enough to adapt to emerging signals.

This is the reverse of the typical bureaucratic reaction to complex problems, which seeks to ‘reduce’ complexity by strengthening centralised oversight, agreeing up front on narrow, singular goals, and trying to determine in advance what will work and what will be needed. While these approaches have their place, uncertainty, divergence and distributed capacities are integral to many problems and cannot easily be swept under the carpet.

Complexity 101: Behind the Hype, What Do We Actually Know?

Duncan Green's picture

Complexity week continues with this excellent stocktake from the ODI’s Harry Jones (who’s got a new guide out on ‘Managing Projects and Programmes in the Face of Complexity‘). Part two tomorrow.

Seven years ago John Young, Ben Ramalingam and I decided to begin research on complexity theory and international development.  We felt there was really something of use and interest in there but that it might take some time to persuade others of that fact and more time to find out exactly what that value was: although there were already a few people working on complexity, since  then, the blogosphere has come alive with discussion of the ‘C’ word. It’s clear a large number of development professionals see value in complexity theory and international development (for example, here is Owen Barder on complexity in international development, William Easterly’s take, Ben’s blog devoted to the issue, and all the posts on Duncan Green’s blog about complexity and development).

What we don’t seem to have reached is much agreement on exactly what that value is. As we look forwards to this week’s launch of Ben’s book on complexity in development (which I have yet to read), it seems an opportune time to reflect on what we know. In that 2008 exploratory review we set out to examine whether complexity and development was a case of ‘paradigm, hype, or lens. Six years on, here’s my attempt to review the evidence on some straight questions on complexity and development, in two parts.  In this first part, I look at whether development problems are complex and why it matters; in the second part I will look at what to do about that complexity where it exists.

*N.B. to avoid disappearing up my own comments page I will use the popular simple-complicated-complex (bake a cake, make a rocket, raise a child) schema subscribed to by Stacey, Zimmerman, Snowden et al.

Hurling Elections at Complexity

Sina Odugbemi's picture

It keeps happening, this pell-mell rush to elections. A country is struggling to come out of conflict we insist on elections straightaway. A country has just survived decades of colonial or authoritarian rule, we insist on elections immediately. The elections happen in some often ramshackle, rough and ready manner then we claim that a new democracy has been born.  And we pile on all the expectations of ‘democratic governance’.

And who is the ‘we’ above? That strange creature known as the international community, that’s what.

That this business of hurling ‘elections’ at complexity often ends in tears has not deterred the international community, has not led to a reconsideration of the formula. Each time the effort breaks down in a particular country what is the new cry? Fresh elections of course, as soon as possible!

There are enormous problems bedeviling this approach. The main one is that it resolutely ignores the fact that you cannot build a stable constitutional democracy (more about the formal features in a moment) unless certain structural factors are in place. For instance, one of the things that I find upsetting is how people fail to realize that if you simply rush to elections in a country run until that point as a well-developed authoritarian state, especially if these are winners-take-all elections, what the victors inherit is not a democratic state. What they inherit is an authoritarian state. What do you think the victors are going to do? They are going to use the powers, tools and habits of the authoritarian state to serve their own interests and crush their opponents.  And they will claim to be able to do so in the name of something called democracy. That is what happened in post-colonial states in places like Africa and eventually led to all manner of civil wars.

What Kind of Science Do We Need for the Aid and Post-2015 Agenda?

Duncan Green's picture

Spent an intriguing evening last week speaking on a panel at the wonderful Royal Society (Isaac Newton and all that), on the links between the post-2015 agenda and science. The audience was from the government/science interface – people with job titles like ‘Head of Extreme Events’.

I talked (powerpoint here – keep clicking) about how science can help developmentistas by bringing them up to date with what science is actually about. Less Newton more Darwin, in terms of moving from a 19th Century world of linear causal chains, static equilibria and reductionism, to ecological and complexity thinking. I also tried linking some of the stuff I’ve been reading on complexity thinking with the Cynefin framework. It seems to me we need different kinds of science for the different quadrants: