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A Theory of Change

Frans Bieckmann | 18 March 2015

Another Perspective is The Broker’s new blog. The title reflects The Broker’s ambition to look at globalization issues in different ways. Through this blog, we also keep our followers up to date on matters that concern us. This first blogpost will be about the discussion on a Theory of Change currently being conducted at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. How do you prevent your perspective from becoming too narrow and how do you take account of changing contexts in formulating and implementing policies?

On 2 March, I attended a conference on ‘Theory of Change’ at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is very welcoming that the ministry – not to mention the many NGOs at the conference that have had to draft their own theories of change (ToCs) and will probably be working them out in more detail in the coming months – is thinking about the assumptions underlying its policies. That has been missing in recent years, after earlier attempts some ten years ago, in which I was also involved (see here, here and here, PDF). Unfortunately, I saw no signs at the conference that anything had been learned from these previous experiences, or even that the participants were aware of them. What is needed is a consistent policy theory, a deeper reflection on the values and principles underlying policy, a thorough analysis of the context and the stakeholders, and a logically thought-out theory of how you can achieve valuable results in a continually changing and complex reality. I found the importance attached to continual context analysis at the conference particularly encouraging. DGIS policy officers all gave this a central place in their main presentations and it would be good to pursue this discussion further, as the ToCs are of course not yet complete. This was explicitly recognized by the presenters themselves, who introduced their ToCs as drafts. I found this a positive sign, too: it takes courage as a ministry to share your ideas with the outside world, especially before you have worked out all the arguments to support them in detail. Other ministries could follow this example.The draft (PDF) ToC for Security & Rule of Law policy devoted no attention to regional and transnational influences (compared to The Broker’s living analysis on Mali, in which we do attempt to integrate cross-border factors in our context analysis). To my surprise, the draft ToCs for the other two policy priorities did take these factors into account.
Furthermore Jeroen Rijniers, who presented the ToC for Food Security, placed the required context analysis within complexity theory. And Maarten Gischler, who presented the ToC on the policy priority River Basin Management, laid considerable emphasis on systems analysis as the basis and starting point of the ToC in this area, as well as reserving a substantial role for political economy analysis.The question is, of course, whether this ToC conference was not just a one-off. Such open reflection is not in the ministry’s genes (or in those of any other ministry) and the initiative came from outside.The absence of the members of parliament who had requested the conference in the first place did not help in this respect: a ministry that is not accustomed to working according to a policy theory will only make moves in that direction if politicians give it a push in the right direction.But this initiative certainly deserves following up. I would like to see the draft ToCs discussed by a series of experts, to see if we can move them forward.It would be even more interesting if other areas of foreign policy were to publicize their own theories of change, so that we could compare them and see where the win-win potential lies and where principles and current policy clash. For a start, I would be interested to see the ToC of the Directorate-General for Foreign Economic Relations (DG BEB), which is responsible for the trade aspect of Minister Lilianne Ploumen’s policy. And I would like to compare that to the ToC of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and, last but not least, of the Ministry of Finance. I have a slight suspicion that these areas of policy might be more significant for the goals of development policy than the policy priorities discussed at the conference.

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About the author

Frans Bieckmann

Co-founder, CEO and authority on international development

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