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Can Theories of Change Help Us ‘Do Development Differently?’

December 10, 2014

By Craig Valters

Where next for debates and practice of Theories of Change? In my last blog on this topic, I argued that we need to be wary of Theories of Change simply becoming another corporate stick to beat people with: to prevent this, there is a considerable onus on likeminded donors, implementers, and researchers to build a case for a critical, honest, and reflective approach, which takes the complexity of social change seriously.

Since then, I’ve been questioning what we can do to make this happen.

In short, we need a Theory of Change for how theories of change can create change (see this sketch).

One of many hypotheses I’ve come up with is that the Theory of Change approach needs to be joined up, as a discourse and practice, with other initiatives which aim to change how we think about and do development. Anchoring to broader movements with similar goals (critical and reflective research, policy, and practice in development) may help prevent it heading down the “logframe on steroids” path.

Doing Development Differently Development types (researchers, policy-makers, practitioners) are getting pretty excited about a new initiative, called “Doing Development Differently.” Put simply, this initiative argues that there is plenty wrong with how we approach development programmes. Many development initiatives fail to address the complexity of social change, promoting interventions that will have little impact. They’ve agreed on some common overarching principles to move things forward, which you can read here.

I’ve realized that Theories of Change and doing development differently could be useful allies. Here’s why:

Iteration and learning: Those involved in doing development differently argue that successful programmes often blend design and implementation through rapid cycles of planning, action, reflection, and revision (drawing on local knowledge, feedback, and energy) to foster learning from both success and failure. This model of practice fits with how many who find a Theory of Change approach useful: Theories of Change can act as a kind of iteration and learning diary, updated as important contextual shifts take place and/or when key assumptions come unstuck.

Solving local problems: Successful programmes also tend to focus on solving local problems that are debated, defined, and refined by local people in an ongoing process. Such a process is a prerequisite for “local ownership” which moves beyond tokenism, aiming to ensure that development programs fit problems to solutions rather than solutions to problems. Theories of Change, also, need to be developed based on serious reflection on how local people (in all their diversity) feel about the problem, possible interventions and the changes that might be set in motion.

Results and evidence: As highlighted elsewhere by Oxfam’s Duncan Green, results and evidence remain a perennial problem, particularly for approaches to development that work with (not against) the messiness of social change processes. The tyranny of the logframe continues and militates against designing, measuring and evaluating the kinds of changes we hope development programmes can achieve. Theories of Change may provide a trendy and useful alternative to this dominance. DFID’s new Smart Rules – aimed at countering fear of failure, risk aversion, “projectization,” and a focus on short-term results – suggests there is some space to move in this direction, at least in the United Kingdom. The Theory of Change approach could be a viable alternative – at least when “done well” – that works with these important shifts in development thinking and donor practice.

So what are the problems?

I’ve written about my concerns about Theories of Change elsewhere (see here, here, and here). But here’s a few overlapping points for these similar approaches:

People get better at bluffing: Buzzwords and phrases like “doing development differently” and “theories of change” provoke cynicism among some practitioners who have seen such concepts rise and fall before. This can lead to a piecemeal approach to new approaches, whereby ultimately the same programs get funded and function in the same way. We can easily imagine a future where every new project proposal will begin with “we do development differently…” supported by a lengthy Theory of Change, but where the programs is the same in essence as previously funded programs. This has been one of my key concerns with the Theory of Change approach: it may look and feel different to a log frame, but ultimately may not change practice. In fact, the extent to which theories of change should be informed by “evidence” (and if so, which forms of it) remains unclear and may allow for ambiguous and overly optimistic assessments of how programs may contribute to social change.

Institutional barriers prevent genuine change: The cynicism outlined above is underpinned by a recognition that systems rarely change quickly, or in the direction we may wish for. As ODI’s Arnaldo Pellini asked recently, what difference can new approaches make “if the systems around us due to organizational culture, history, circumstances, and traditions struggle to embrace flexibility, uncertainty, untested experimentation, and slow incremental changes?” The day-to-day lives of those seeking to make change is often dominated by bureaucracy, with a lack of time and incentives to reflect on how to challenge their own and others’ assumptions, or shift their practice. Even if we believe (as Matt Andrews has argued elsewhere) that this is a battle worth fighting, this does not escape the day-to-day challenges practitioners face in getting new approaches to gain traction. The overly optimistic Theories of Change highlighted above are a reflection of the clash between this reality and the ideals (or narratives) that many wish to promote.

Power and politics need a closer focus: There is value in suggesting a process-focused approach that brings tangible benefits to those on the receiving end of development programs. However if we’re in development because we care about social justice, then it’s clear that not just any “local problem” fits the bill. There is, as James Putzel once argued, a “dark side” to some civil society missions. This presents dilemmas for this new approach: Who decides on the content of a program? How do power relations distort what policy choices are promoted? There is a difference between “working politically” and taking a broader look at whose politics are being promoted (and who the winners and losers might be). “Development” is not a process with a singular narrative, but a process of contestation. Theories of Change can potentially help with this, by making various actors assumptions about power and politics explicit; but the problem remains that there are a variety of hidden, contested and contradictory agendas in development which are unlikely be captured by an aid organizations theories of change.

Conclusion Are either of these a “big idea” that’s going to save development? No, almost certainly not. The many contradictions and tensions in the work of development actors will likely continue. But this is not surprising nor a reason to abandon either: both of these approaches do speak to a better way of thinking about and working for social change. Importantly, this marriage of convenience between these two approaches offers benefits to both. Being linked to a broader reflective approach to development may keep theories of change “on track,” focused on learning and local context, rather than accountability and donor narratives. Equally, Theories of Change offers an increasingly popular way of challenging the assumptions we bring to development, and potentially helping design, monitor, and evaluate adaptive programs. Both of these things are important if there is a genuine commitment to reflective practice, which ultimately aims to work for social justice across diverse contexts.

Craig Valters is a research officer at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). He tweets at @craigvaltersThe views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Craig,

    In an organisation that is currently investing time in strengthening our theories of change, I find your critical analysis thought-provoking.

    I wondered if you could share any resources to help an organisation use its theories of change for what you describe as “double loop learning”? For example, workshop exercises to guide people to critical engage with the theory of change, challenginf its assumptions, looking for the logical gaps. It seems your research has found some strong examples of this.

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