How is ‘Theory of Change’ (ToC) being used in international development? What are the areas of consensus, debate and innovation? This review notes that ToC can inspire and support programme improvement, helping to develop more realistic and feasible interventions that are responsive to dynamic contexts. It finds that ToC requires both logical thinking and deeper critical reflection, and that it is best kept flexible, not prescribed. Working with theory of change requires performance management approaches to accommodate uncertainty and flexibility.
The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned this review of how theory of change is being used in order to learn from this growing area of practice. The review was based on 40 interviews with staff from 25 development organisations – nine donor agencies, seven INGOS and nine research and training organisations.
Theory of change is both a process and a product. It should be seen as an ongoing process of discussion-based analysis and learning that produces powerful insights to support programme design, strategy, implementation, evaluation and impact assessment, communicated through diagrams and narratives which are updated at regular intervals. As a minimum, theory of change is considered to encompass discussion of the following elements:
- Context for the initiative, including social, political and environmental conditions, the current state of the problem the project is seeking to influence and other actors able to influence change
- Long-term change that the initiative seeks to support and for whose ultimate benefit
- Process/sequence of change anticipated to lead to the desired long-term outcome
- Assumptions about how these changes might happen, as a check on whether the activities and outputs are appropriate for influencing change in the desired direction in this context.
- Diagram and narrative summary that captures the outcomes of the discussion.
The quality of a theory of change process rests on ‘making assumptions explicit’ and making strategic thinking realistic and transparent. Practical experience highlights that this is not straightforward to do, as these tap into deeper beliefs, values, worldviews, operational ‘rules of thumb’ and analytical lenses that all individuals in development bring to their work. It takes time and dialogue to be able to challenge assumptions. Power relations, both in the programme’s context and within organisations, limit the ability to challenge established ways of working.
The time and resource needed to work effectively with theory of change needs to be taken seriously. Staff in donor agencies, country programmes and civil society organisations are all under time pressures: institutional and funding support for theory of change processes is needed to generate benefits in terms of more robust log-frames, results frameworks and better programme implementation.
Working with theory of change thinking can be challenging, but it can create a strong organising framework to improve programme design, implementation, evaluation and learning if some of the following enabling factors can be achieved:
- People are able to discuss and exchange their personal, organisational and analytical assumptions with an open, learning approach.
- Theory of change thinking is used to explain rationales and how things are intended to work, but also to explore new possibilities through critical thinking, discussion and challenging of dominant narratives for the benefit of stakeholders.
- Critical thinking is cross-checked with evidence from research (qualitative and quantitative) and wider learning that brings other analytical perspectives, referenced to stakeholders’, partners’ and beneficiaries’ contextual knowledge.
- A number of theories of change are identified as relevant ‘pathways’ to impact for any given initiative, rather than a single pathway, with acknowledgement of the non-linearity and emergent nature of these.
- Documented theories of change and visual diagrams are acknowledged as subjective interpretations of the change process and used as evolving ‘organising frameworks’ to guide implementation and evaluation, not rigid predictions or prescriptions for change.
- Theory of change frameworks and visuals are used to support a more dynamic exchange between donors, funders, grantees, development partners, programmes and communities, to help open up new areas and challenge received wisdoms.
- Donors, funders and grant-makers are able to find ways to support justified adaptation and refocusing of programme strategies during implementation, while there is time to deliver improvements to stakeholders and communities.