Theories of Change in international development

7 April 2015 09:30 - 17:15 GMT+01 (BST)
Workshop
Speakers:

Matthew Arnold, The Asia Foundation

Patrick Barron, The Asia Foundation

Rick Davies, Consultant

Pilar Domingo, Overseas Development Institute

Duncan Green, Oxfam

Caroline Hoy, DFID

Andrew Koleros, GRM

Debra Ladner, The Asia Foundation

Heidi Ober, CARE/Crown Agents

Mareike Schomerus, London School of Economics and Political Science

Craig Valters, Overseas Development Institute

Leni Wild, Overseas Development Institute


Chairs:

Patrick Barron, The Asia Foundation

Marta Foresti, Overseas Development Institute

Marieke Schomerus, London School of Economics and Political Science

Leni Wild, Overseas Development Institute

Description

This event built on recent research on Theory of Change approaches, as part of the Justice and Security Research (JSRP) and The Asia Foundation (TAF) collaboration (Stein and Valters, 2012; Valters, 2014). It also drew on Overseas Development Institute (ODI) research on adaptive, flex­ible development programming (Booth, 2014; Wild et al. 2015).


This workshop provided an opportunity to critically reflect on an approach that has rapidly gained traction in international development circles, but is currently under researched. There remain very different understandings of what a Theory of Change approach is, how it should in­form development thinking and practice, and what it can achieve. This event aimed to move the debate forward onto a set of common principles that can help guide the approach, based upon the shared experiences of experts in the room.

​This event built on recent research on Theory of Change approaches, as part of the Justice and Security Research (JSRP) and The Asia Foundation (TAF) collaboration (Stein and Valters, 2012; Valters, 2014). It also drew on Overseas Development Institute (ODI) research on adaptive, flexible development programming (Booth, 2014; Wild et al. 2015). It is evident that there are different understandings of what a Theory of Change approach is, how it can inform development thinking and practice, and what it can achieve. This workshop was an opportunity to reflect critically on an approach that has rapidly gained traction in international development circles, but remains under researched.

What is a Theory of Change approach?

At a broad level, there was some agreement on what a Theory of Change approach is:

  • For most participants, a Theory of Change approach involved an ongoing process of learning, through articulating a strategy to contribute to change and revisiting that over time, as much as it did any final product (like a diagram of formal document).
  • There was some agreement that logframes and Theories of Change should not be conflated, but may need to become complementary, given that logframes continue to dominate reporting requirements.
  • It’s clear that Theories of Change get used for very different purposes by different people and organisations: strategic planning, communication, learning and accountability (largely to donors).
  • Most participants highlighted the importance of a Theory of Change approach providing space to take time out; to encourage genuine self-reflexivity both on the assumptions about project change logic, and on associated (often ideological) assumptions about wider social change.

There were important differences, however, in the participant’s application of a Theory of Change approach, raising the question as to whether there is a need for some common criteria around how and for what Theories of Change are used. Differences in opinion came out on a number of key issues:

  • Whether a diagram was a useful representation of a Theory of Change.
  • The usefulness of the ‘if x, then y’ formulation, since some argue it tends to prioritise both linearity and ‘our’ view of the world
  • Whether a theory of change was being conflated with a theory of action
  • The extent to which Theories of Change should explain the contribution of programmes to macro-level processes of change
  • The alignment of Theories of Change with current requirements for results, evidence and value for money

How can a Theory of Change approach inform development thinking and practice?

There was general agreement that we need to get much better at understanding change, and programme contributions to change. Theories of Change may help us reflect better on how we operationalise varying approaches to development practice. Key discussion points include:

  • Whether or not to standardise and ‘toolkit’ Theories of Change: Many felt uncomfortable with this as it may shut down creativity and critical assessment – but it may be that we do need a common understanding of what quality of questioning and analysis is required.
  • Personalities matter: iterative and adaptive approaches to Theory of Change are often taken up by ‘development cynics’; those who are keen to question assumptions. The challenge lies in building capabilities beyond the ‘useful suspects’, to make this a meaningful approach that can incentivise critical reflection during the life of the programme.
  • There is a risk that Theory of Change processes can remain top-down: as one participant put it, the “question is how are they developed? Who decides what’s logical?” Bottom-up learning appears crucial to realistic and tangible Theory of Change approaches.
  • The distinction between the objectives of accountability vs learning was noted: as one participant put it, Theories of Change should promote ‘accountability for learning’. They can be used both dynamically through the programme and retrospectively to identify shifts in thinking, context and strategy.
  • There is, it seems, currently a relatively strong authorising environment for more critical, adaptive approaches to planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning in DFID. This appetite for learning bodes well for developing further thinking on Theories of Change.

What can Theories of Change achieve?

The core idea behind a Theory of Change approach, that it can regularly challenge (and sometimes change) deeply held assumptions in development thinking, is difficult to genuinely take on. Many participants agreed that Theories of Change will have a future if they can contribute to developing programming which is better adapted to available evidence and local realities – and if they help to create deeper knowledge about how change happens across different contexts. However there was also scepticism about the direction of the Theory of Change approach, in large part because the approach can reproduce the weaknesses of the results and evidence agendas.

In order for the approach to be useful:

  • It has to genuinely create space for critical reflection, in opposition to the largely constraining results, evidence and value for money requirements of the industry.
  • It will need to facilitate working with the unpredictability and complexity of social change processes.
  • It is likely to be resource heavy, if it is expected to enable learning, as well as adaptive programming.
  • It will depend on donors and NGOs to work together – along with other like-minded researchers – to create broader incentive structures to encourage learning processes.