Theory of Change as a tool for development research

At its essence a Theory of change is quite simple: An approach to think through, articulate and scrutinise ways to reach our goals, and surface the underlying beliefs and biases that shaped our thinking.

We are looking to work backwards from the change that we want to see and think about the possible pathways to get there. However care is needed. Vun (2021) in ‘Analysing the Credibility of Theories of Change’, states that current interpretations and applications of the Theory of Change concept have drifted so far from their origins as to render them useless.

A good Theory of Change will be:

  • Meaningful – representing action that is valued and worth doing; influences the design, management and M&E of an intervention.
  • Plausible – makes good sense; it is logical, comprehensive, clear and understandable
  • Feasible – it can actually be carried out; it is practical and focussed
  • Testable – results chains and assumptions can be verified and evidence gaps are noted

Unlike other Results Based Management tools there is no shared definition and format of Theory of Change across our sector. One risk is the over-elaboration of ToC to something so complex that no-one understands it anymore, or ‘death by diagram’. The time and resource needed to work effectively with theory of change also need to be taken seriously – this is not a quick job. In the words of Vogel ToC thinking requires a commitment to take a:

…reflective, critical and honest approach to answer difficult questions about how our efforts might influence change, given the political realities, uncertainties and complexities that surround all development initiatives. Vogel (2012)

CIDT explored some of these questions with a team from the UK Collaborative on Development Research, who were considering how ToC can help in their remit to harness the power of UK-funded research for global development. By promoting coherence, collaboration and joint action among UK research funders, UKCDR provides a coherent picture of the UK’s spend on international development research and work through three pillars:

  • Mapping, analysis and foresight
  • Convening for joint action
  • Sharing information and best practice

CIDT’s Ella Haruna had the pleasure of facilitating a two-day training on the Theory of Change with the UKCDR team, thinking through the impacts, outcomes and outputs of their work and the assumptions of which these are based. Participants reflected that:

“Really enjoyed the interactive/collaborative factor and activities.”

“Much clearer understanding of how all the components fit together and how they are different.”

“The training was friendly, participatory and interactive. I really liked the hands-on exercises and the quiz game.”

“I liked that Ella was able to adapt the training to fit our needs, and deftly identified the gaps in our work. She was honestly a brilliant trainer.”

“I liked the idea of ‘surfacing assumptions.”

“Good tools to help break down the process of developing a ToC.”

“Outside the box thinking and learning to zoom out to see the big picture.”

Read more about CIDT’s Theory of Change training here: So what is ‘Theory of Change’ anyway?

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