Theories of Change to guide Development Interventions

July 20, 2010 | Adrian Gnägi | Learning Elsewhere |


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By Adrian Gnägi
A few days ago, a colleague working in a partner country passed by in SDC Head Office and gave a presentation about his work. He presented frighteningly impressive graphs that show how fast desertification is advancing. Many rural herding families will be forced to migrate to the cities in the coming ten years if nothing happens. Luckily, the Government drew up a state-of-the-art national action plan, based on the international convention against desertification. Donors have aligned with this action plan and support the Government through harmonized aid modalities. The country is moving towards a mining economy with few new jobs outside agriculture, though, the colleague concluded, and the major challenge for the future will be to channel some of the mining revenues to poor rural families.

In the discussion following the presentation, a lady in the audience said she had not quite understood what exactly Switzerland is contributing to the fight against desertification. The colleague answered that their current focus was on the national budgeting process, supporting line ministries to do desertification sensitive budgeting. The lady seemed not quite convinced and insisted. The colleague mentioned that Switzerland also supports small pilot projects, for example an irrigation scheme for families moving out of herding. He mentioned a figure that works out as 1.5% of the threatened families.

After that, the lady was silent.

Our staff in that country are highly competent and motivated. They are at the forefront of SDC’s  Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction engagement, that’s why the colleague had been invited to give the presentation. But there obviously was a problem. The explanation of how Switzerland contributes to a better future for the families whose herding livelihoods are threatened by the disappearance of pasture was not convincing.

Our colleagues  working with those herders of course are not the only ones to struggle with the impact contribution issue, our entire business is faced with this problem. During the May 20th/21st conference in Utrecht on evaluation and complexity, “theories of change” came up during many discussions as one of the main missing links (see my first blog post on the conference). Today’s blog post is about theories of change.

 I recently found a short, neat explanation what theories of change do for us, why they are so important (Innovations for Scaling Impact and Keystone Accountability, 2010, 32):

 “A … theory of change recognizes that generally no single actor, factor or strategy working independently is able to create the change needed to reach … success. Rather, impact is attained through the combined and coordinated efforts of multiple actors with overlapping and mutually reinforcing theories of action in conjunction with multiple external factors and conditions. A … theory of change must be flexible, dynamic and adaptive, allowing … to shift its strategy in response to changes in context. An initial theory of change can be developed but will need to be revised and refined as learning takes place. The goals may remain clear but the specific pathways and activities remain emergent”. A theory of change links our contribution with that of other actors and with other influences, it explains how those different change vectors add up in the change process, and it allows us to adapt our contribution when we discover that other factors do not play out as thought or vectors do not add up as expected.

One of the things I liked best with the Utrecht conference was the co-presence of highly abstract thinking with down-to-earth pragmatism. In one of the “methods market” events Barbara Rogers for example attacked the question “where do we get good theories of change from?”. Looking at the scientific literature, the review article „How change happens – interdisciplinary perspectives for human development” by Roman Krznaric (2007, OXFAM Research Report) is frequently cited. This is indeed a fascinating paper, since it compiles and compares theories of change from many different scientific disciplines. But it most probably will not help our colleagues with their threatened herding families, since the theories discussed are at a far higher level of abstraction than their interventions are. So where could they get appropriate change theories on how to reverse the livelihood catastrophy of herders from? In the workshop in Utrecht, we came up with the following list:

  1. Analysis of existing program documents: In a recent controversial discussion on a SDC capacity development initiative, a colleague suddenly burst out saying: “I just do not believe that training Government officials will make them act against their own interests, this has never worked in my experience”. Only when having the theorem of change spelled out so bluntly some colleagues became aware of how naïve the project under discussion was. Barbara Rogers insisted that, when analyzing implicit theories of change in program documents,  the communication and awareness raising aspect is more important than finding the perfect theory of change: since theories of change are used to guide interventions and are reflected upon whenever results come in, even a poor theory is better than none, since the confrontation with reality will quickly improve it.
  2. Discussion with people involved in interventions, making implicit change models explicit: As the “anthropology of development” literature shows (see Olivier de Sardan, J.P.,  2005; Anthropology and Development. Understanding Contemporary Social Change; London, Zed Books), superficially agreeing on joint activities, while in the hidden continuing to implement different theories of change and thereby to pursue different goals is the normal reality in most international development cooperation partnerships. Making implicit change models explicit can be a great step towards more honest and more effective partnership relations: theories of change are always positioned; they depend on society, differences within societies (gender, age, poverty, race etc.), historical and ecological context etc. There is no truth in theories of change, but knowing what others believe makes a huge difference. “The truth of the pudding is in the eating”, the true theory of change is told by history only. 
  3. Deduction from observation: We are all the time making sense of the world, we all constantly develop theories of change. The main problem with our individual theories of change is that they are positioned, they reflect our individual set of differences, and they frequently are naïve because we take into consideration  a very limited set of possible explanatory factors only. But we can practice, we could be more systematic and thereby we will become better at it. This is what Maarten Brouwer was referring to when he said that impact evaluation in the future should focus on theories of change. 
  4. Learning from Research: Scientists are always confronted with the challenge to move beyond the descriptive, to capture the essence of what they observe. Many of them struggle with the level of abstraction, looking for truth above the singularities, but not too abstract so that re-embedding is possible. This is exactly the locus of theories of change for international development. Development practitioners frequently do not mingle well with researchers, though, but there would be merit to work on those relationships.
  5. Asking people who have experienced a similar change before: Collegial coaching and experience capitalization are two powerful methods to learn from others’ experience. While they are frequently applied to concrete questions, there is no reason why they could not be used to condense knowledge on change processes.

Our colleagues should formulate a theory of change for combating desertification and empowering herders. This would allow them to more convincingly explain how Switzerland’s comparatively small contribution, in concert with many other actions, will change the current desertification trend and provide for a better future for those threatened families.

One thing that still puzzles me is the concluding remark of our colleague on the mining economy. Increasing competition over diminishing resources combined with mining potential is a classic example for a tipping point potential, where increasing violent rights’ claims may drive a country into civil war. In complexity science terminology this is when a situation changes from complicated into complex, when a new meta-narrative of change starts applying (the theories of change Krznarich talks about are on this meta-narrative level). As a development agency, we cannot ignore this. But I am not aware of any discussion in complexity science circles on how to handle such an issue.


Comments to“Theories of Change to guide Development Interventions”

  1. Thanks Adrian.

    Recently I have been working in different contexts with the Theory of Change approach. In essence, it seems to me a POWERFUL METHOD to build a common picture among different actores in a cooperation system. Note: Seen from an organizational perspective, development programmes are cooperation systems that are shaped by different interdependent actors.

    A Theory of Change provides a roadmap to get you from here to there. If it is presented friendly , the roadmap can be shared with others and a common understanding of the course to future can be built up. This is helpful providing an overall picture of how different stakeholders can reach common results by working together in a cooperation system.

    The working hypothesis of an explicit Theory of Change states, that a shared Theory of Change may fuel cohesion, effective coordinated action and critical reflection among the actors involved. Note: In a cooperation system generally no single actor working independently is able to create the proposed change of a development programme.

    An initial Theory of Change should be revised periodically and adapted to emerging changes, trends, risks and potentials in the relevant environment. A MAJOR PITFALL of a Theory of Change is its path dependency; it may foster certainty and strong beliefs about the chosen pathway while uncertainty persists and flexibility is needed.

    The approach can be linked up with strategy plannning. It differs from other methods in a few ways:
    • it is easy to apply with analogue thinking and creative methdos.
    • it makes our silent assumptions (hopes and fears) of the future visible and facilitates the construction of a common picture
    • it may foster complementary thinking in the cooperation system (instead of thinking in terms of competition).
    • it changes the way of thinking about initiatives from what you are doing to what you want to achieve and starts there.
    • it shows a causal pathway from here to there by specifying what is needed to go the way sketched out to reach the goals.
    • it strengthen a common understanding among the involved actors of the cooperation system of the applied approaches to reach change.
    • it requires you to articulate underlying assumptions which can be tested and measured.
    • it may be also used to revise programme strategies and approaches in order to de-construct the implicit underlying “Theory of Changes”.

    Best regards,

  2. Hanspeter Wyss says:

    Thank you, Adrian, for this interesting contribution. I think we should work much more with the theory of change approach. Only if we know at the beginning of an intervention what exactly we like to achieve and how we can contribute to it, (and that we will be able to measure all this), it makes sense to start it. I like to underline also that the theory of change behind an intervention has to be tested constantly during implementation, particularly in the first part of of the intervention phase. Therefore, we need to MEASURE periodically our interventions at all levels (input, output and outcome). Such data would have been powerful and convincing for the colleague with the project on combating desertification and empowering herders to show to the audience what we have achieved and why SDC’s focus was on the national budgeting process, supporting line ministries to do desertification sensitive budgeting.



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