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Theory of change: from targets to meaningful effects

Rojan Bolling, Karlijn Muiderman | 12 March 2015

On 2 March the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a conference on ‘Theory of Change’. Two members of parliament, Eric Smaling of the socialist SP and Ingrid de Caluwé of the liberal VVD, had earlier called on the Ministry to specify its use of this concept and how it sees it contributing to the ministries’ policies and those of its implementing partners. The Theory of Change is intended to herald a new way of working in the ministry’s Directorate General of International Cooperation (DGIS), which is in need of a change in its organizational culture and faces the challenge of how to base policy on dynamic context analyses.

At the conference, representatives of knowledge institutes and civil society organizations recently selected by the ministry as strategic partners in its 2016-2020 policy framework were invited to brainstorm with officials from DGIS policy theme departments. The day was divided into a plenary session in the morning, at which the policy theme departments (Stabilization and Humanitarian Aid Department  and the Inclusive Green Growth for Water and Food Security Department) presented their own theories of change (ToCs). During the afternoon, the ToCs of the various theme departments were discussed separately in greater depth.

At the conference, ministry officials presented interesting approaches to a theory of change in their own areas of policy. Ellen van Reesch, strategic policy advisor in the Stabilization and Humanitarian Aid Department (DSH), presented a draft ToC that put social cohesion in societies and the social contract between state and citizens at the centre of DSH’s approach to stabilization. Their assumption is that these two factors are needed for stability that is based on legitimacy of institutions, which the department sees as a precondition for wider development and the achievement of the global development agenda (MDGs and SDGs). 

Discussing the ToC for the policy priority Food Security, Jeroen Rijniers explicitly placed policy in a broader, global context and identified various levels at which policy must be implemented, ranging from the world as a whole (climate) through regional, national, provincial and local, to the household and the individual. And Maarten Gischler of the policy priority Water looked beyond purely technical solutions to water and sanitation problems and laid considerable emphasis within, for example, the priority area River Basin Management, on systems analysis as the basis and starting point of the ToC in this area. According to Gischier, a thorough and continually updated analysis of the context and the political economy in the river basin of, for instance, the Nile or the Niger is the core of the theory of change.

In her introduction Reina Buijs, Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation said that a theory of change must be based on a broad context analysis, which also looks beyond the well-trodden paths. As a concrete example, she referred to the Netherlands’ goal to reduce maternal mortality in Nicaragua, which takes insufficient account of the changing cultural and religious circumstances in which such a policy has to be pursued. It is therefore important, Buijs argued, to “continually look at the context to see if it has changed and whether we need to adjust our assumptions. A ToC is not a plaything or a buzzword, but an instrument to enable us to continually change our goals and our policy”.

Maarten Brouwer, Dutch ambassador in Mali, also referred to the rapidly changing context in ‘his’ country. In 2011, Mali was still a beacon of stability and democracy in the Sahel, but descended into chaos and violence in 2012, and in 2015 the situation is yet again completely different. Why did we not see that coming? “Achieving results depends entirely on the context,” said Brouwer. “And that context is far from stable. We have to continually learn and adjust; the dynamics of the situation are your starting point, so you have to know it through and through.”

A theory of change as a response to rigid, linear planning

A theory of change is an approach that maps an organization’s assumptions, ambitions, values and vision and then links them to a policy strategy that can be monitored flexibly to maximize effectiveness. It starts by making your assumptions explicit: How are you going to make positive change happen? What are the causal links? And why will it work like this? Results lead. In Maarten Brouwer’s words, “We are not looking for the result, but for a result.”

A ToC is a response to tick-box exercises, like the ‘logframe’ approach (fixing measurable goals prior to an intervention), because in reality contexts change. This is why it was especially promising to see DGIS emphasize that a theory of change should enable an organization to adapt its strategies according to the dynamics of a context. A situation can deteriorate (for example as a result of conflict or a natural disaster), innovative solutions can present themselves, or the need can arise to include new partners.

This requires a different approach, one that does justice to the interaction between real-life situations (social, political, cultural and economic dynamics) and development interventions; an iterative approach that centralizes the learning process based on continual context analysis and prioritizes effectiveness over fixed planning. And if a strategy needs to change mid-way through a programme, its underlying assumptions can be re-examined and, if necessary, the programme can be adjusted.

Common understanding of dynamics

There is no grand theory of change that can be applied to every intervention. Instead, there should be much more clarity on how external interventions will impact local dynamics, and vice versa. This means that a good context analysis is crucial, and must include monitoring mechanisms to track dynamics and the shifting interests of stakeholders (for further reading, please find the conclusions of a comparative study by the Broker on context analysis). 

Several participants gave examples of how interventions can impact a context and how context and intervention interact. Ellen van Reesch stressed that interventions can have an effect at different levels, saying “Our assumption is that, by investing at local and national level, we create resilience that will allow actors to deal with external influences like transnational violent groups or climate change.” Oxfam’s Tom van der Lee emphasized that interventions can change the political playing field, making continual context and stakeholder mapping crucial.

Reina Buijs argued that policies should aim to achieve meaningful results. This was welcomed by many of those present, who had experienced the tension between responding to a dynamic environment and being evaluated on the basis of outdated assumptions (see also the Vice Versa report, in Dutch).

Suggestions for moving beyond the ToC blur

  1. Start by identifying needs in the local, regional or global context. The first challenge is obtain a clear understanding of the context, which people to include and the interests at play.
  2. Include all partners and/or stakeholders at an early stage; a joint understanding of the ambitions and potential pitfalls of a strategy is very important. The similarity in name to ‘drivers of change’, a model for context analysis developed by DFID, is not coincidental since understanding local power dynamics is a crucial part of being effective.
  3. Continuously analyse the context in which you work and update the ToC correspondingly.
  4. A ToC should describe how change works not only on the practical level but also on the conceptual level. For instance, explain your assumptions on how civil society relates to a democratic state. From there, start explaining how building capacity allows people to influence processes of governance and accountability.
  5. Be clear in defining a hierarchy between different ambitions in an integrated approach (for example a trade and aid agenda). Synergy between goals is not always possible. Having your priorities straight will benefit coherence between policies.

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About the author

Rojan Bolling

Knowledge broker for Sahel Watch

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Karlijn Muiderman

Former knowledge broker and coordinator of Sahel Watch and the Migration Trail

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