Notes from the Field

Rethinking Results Monitoring in Conflict Areas

September 19, 2012

Despite a major expansion of funding to the world’s most conflict affected areas over the past decade, many of these regions, including in Asia, remain afflicted by the same problems of poor governance, troubled state-society relations, and insecurity. This has led to growing concern within international development agencies and donor governments over the effectiveness of development assistance to these areas. At the same time, in this era of austerity, donors and aid practitioners are under increasing pressure to improve their programs and demonstrate clear results to justify relatively generous budgets.

Fragile and conflict settings are notoriously fluid and complex. They are defined by contested and unstable political settlements, eclectic mixes of non-state and state actors, and populations that are highly suspicious of outsiders, including the national government in some cases. The process of change often requires decades before sustainable progress is achieved, yet the current standard aid model of numerous, relatively short-term projects makes it extremely difficult to properly understand and assess the changes actually occurring. This is particularly true when interventions focus on extended social interactions of a highly political nature, such as peace processes, security sector reform, and access-to-justice issues. Overall, the widespread lack of data, challenges of access, and sheer complexity of these environments mean results monitoring in conflict zones and fragile states is exceptionally difficult.

A particularly unfortunate consequence of the pressure to deliver results is that both donors and practitioners at times narrow their ambitions, choosing programs that allow for easier proof of measurable results. Relatively simplistic, often formulaic “best practice” interventions lack the nuance and dynamism necessary to effectively provoke positive change in particular locales, each with their own histories and dynamics.

Theories of Change offer an alternative approach to results monitoring in conflict areas that is potentially much more effective and could help dramatically improve aid to fragile states. Theories of Change are the explicit arguments and hypotheses underpinning aid interventions. If used well, Theories of Change can be practical, user-friendly tools that are equally helpful for field practitioners, managers, donors, and academics. Here is an example of a Theory of Change currently applied in The Asia Foundation’s programs to support community security in the southern Philippines:

Community-led Efforts to Improve Local Security:  By supporting community-led efforts to improve relations with security forces, violent incidents will be less common and less severe. Improved relations between conflict-affected communities and security forces (and within communities themselves) will reduce the risk of tensions and incidents that result from poor communication.

Alongside a basic statement such as this, the wider socio-economic context, supporting arguments, core assumptions, and strategic risks are also detailed. Overall, this provides the Foundation’s team in the Philippines with a rich, nuanced rationale for designing activities over the course of 5-10 years (or more) as well as for tracking the changes sought and achieved over time.  As a result, there is a strong case to be made for emphasizing the more consistent and rigorous usage of Theories of Change, both to guide the design and management of programming as well as its monitoring and evaluation.

The current practice for articulating aid programming revolves around a project’s LogFrame. While assuredly useful in some regards, LogFrames tend to facilitate linear thinking and the over-simplicity of pure attribution between activities to outputs to outcomes. Theories of Change approaches, at a minimum, force both donors and practitioners to better rationalize and articulate their core logics for achieving change. Hence, the depth and nuance of Theories of Change, in contrast to LogFrames by themselves, allows for an emphasis on a project’s contribution within a wider context, which is more appropriate for the complexity and fluidity of conflict and fragile regions.

Theories of Change also provide an effective analytical focus for improving aid programming through improved monitoring and evaluation. By tracking and critiquing the detailed assumptions and linkages defining a Theory of Change, development organizations can test their assumptions and understanding of the local context against a wider body of evidence that goes beyond single project indicators. Rather than merely reporting against the individual indicators of a LogFrame, a Theory of Change approach allows for analysis and assessment emphasizing a more nuanced, comprehensive story of change. Instead of the metrics of individual LogFrame indicators, a Theory of Change approach requires a practitioner to argue a narrative of change, namely how they believe their programming is contributing within a wider context.

Unfortunately, the growing trend among both donors and aid practitioners to emphasize short-term projects is a major challenge to this more nuanced approach, and makes it more difficult to address the long-term challenges in conflict-affected areas. Short project cycles discourage nuanced understandings of local contexts, thoughtful consideration of how individual interventions fit into a larger picture, and the accumulation of wider bodies of evidence.

In response to these pressures, Theories of Change can serve to balance out the short-term imperatives of perpetual project cycles by re-emphasizing long-term programming, even if funded by multiple projects and donors. By developing rigorous Theories of Change around key programming areas of long-term interest, and continually creating robust bodes of evidence against them, it is possible for development organizations to make stronger arguments to donors for ensuring programming continuity and longer-term financial support. Examples of programming where this could prove useful include ongoing peace processes, security sector and legal reform in sensitive states, access-to-justice in transition areas, and peace-building in protracted conflict zones. Moreover, by using Theories of Change as a consistent analytical focus over repeated project cycles, it would be possible to avoid continuously re-inventing the wheel of analysis and design, as well as the expense of evaluating the same basic argument in each project cycle.

Aside from conflict and fragility programming, Theories of Change are a potentially useful concept for other areas of programming, including economic reform and development, women’s empowerment, and environmental sustainability. The reality of trying to design, manage, and evaluate interventions that respond to exceptionally complex, dynamic, and extended social problems requires concepts that allow for such nuance and variation to be valued. By using Theories of Change rigorously over the long-term, development organizations can improve their ability to implement smart and effective programming.

Matthew Arnold is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer for results monitoring and Thomas Parks is the Foundation’s regional director for governance and conflict, both based in Bangkok. They can be reached at marnold@asiafound.org and tparks@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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