Part 2 of 2 – Demystifying development jargons
The Theory of Change
What is the theory of change?
Simply said, it is a storyline.
The ‘theory of change’ of a project is what a plot is to a novel: how and why will the ‘happy ending’ come true? What factors and circumstances influence the characters?
A good (and verifiable) storyline will convince project donors and other stakeholders! It forms the basis of a persuasive proposal.
A more academic definition of the theory of change is as follows:
- It is an approach to articulate the sequence of activities and outcomes that lead to the long-term goal (the ‘happy ending’) of a project, describe the assumptions behind these series of activities and outcomes, and define an evaluation strategy to track whether these expected outcomes are actually achieved.
- It is also a research tool applied to practice that is developed through participatory methods with the different people involved in the intervention, to jointly identify and decide what to evaluate and how to evaluate it.
A bit of history…
The “Theory of Change” (TOC) was likely to have originated from the challenge faced by social initiative practitioners in evaluating their programs and projects. Social and community issues are often complex; whether and how programs achieved targets are often not easily traceable and verifiable.
The term “Theory of Change” was popularized in 1995 through a publication written by Carol Weiss and published by the Aspen Institute, a US-based think tank.
Connell and Klem (2000) neatly listed the key elements of a theory of change:
- It traces the pathway and makes explicit the series of actions and resulting outcomes that will lead to to the long-term goal of an initiative
- The quality of a theory of change is judged by four criteria: how plausible, doable, testable, and meaningful is your theory of change?
- A theory of change is generated by “moving backward” from long-term goals to the necessary and sufficient conditions (i.e. intermediate outcomes) and finally to the very first action needed.
- A good theory of change considers not only whether change will happen, but also: how much change is expected, for whom, where, and when.
- It examines the underlying assumptions, such as available and potential resources.
- It encourages inclusion of perspectives from multiple stakeholders to contribute to its articulation.
- The approach recognizes that the ‘theory of change’ of an initiative is not set in stone. It can change over the course of the initiative (for example, if an unexpected intermediate outcome is discovered during midterm review, the course of a project is bound to change).
Why should development practitioners be familiar with it?
The use of Theory of Change (TOC) in project design and impact evaluation is increasingly mainstream in the international development sector. Thus, knowing and being able to practice it would improve their overall evaluation plans of a project/program/ initiative, and would strengthen their ability to claim credit for predicted outcomes and results of their initiative.
Is the theory of change the same as Logical Framework approach (Logframe)?
However, they belong to the same family of approaches, the “programme theory”.
The Logical Framework approach was originally developed and applied in science and the private sector for the planning and management of complex projects. It was first formally adopted as a planning and evaluation tool for overseas development activities by USAID in the early 1970s, following which it was also used by other agencies.
An exercise of TOC and a Logframe look different on paper. The Logframe matrix is neat, linear, and tidy. It consists of a table with well-established headings at the top row and the left-side column. On the other hand, a ToC diagram lacks a specific prescribed format—it is pictorial, and tends to look messier.
For more details on the Logical Framework Approach, have a look at our blog post here, or check out or training courses for hands-on practice on the method.
So… Which ones are used?
It depends on donor requirements. However, at the project design stage, time and resources permitting, it may help to carry out both.
Theory of Change in Practice
A theory of change is developed in a participatory and interactive way, generally in a workshop format and with the support of a facilitator.
During that workshop a “backwards” logic is used, that is, starting from the objectives to be achieved and going backwards to identify the intermediate results necessary to achieve it, and finally the actions necessary to obtain those results are established. Once all the actions have been identified, it is also important to plan them, detailing the necessary resources, the times and the people responsible for the action.
If the theory of change is developed during the planning phase of an intervention, its purpose is to ensure that all the components of the intervention and their interrelationships are identified (to ensure coherence between objectives, actions and results), and that each action is planned based on the best possible evidence, which may involve searching for evidence-based interventions. This also makes it possible to generate a common language among the people who are designing the program, to check whether it is intended to act according to what the evidence suggests and to increase the effectiveness of the intervention.
If there is no evidence to support actions, the theory of change can be a space for innovation in practice, as long as these practices are the result of experience and are based on theoretical models that support the intervention model.
Connell, J. & Klem, A. (2000) You Can Get There from Here: Using a Theory of Change Approach to Plan Urban Education Reform, Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 11:1, 93-120
European Integration Office (2011) Guide to the Logical Framework Approach, 2nd ed. Belgrade: Republic of Serbia & Government European Integration Office. URL: http://www.evropa.gov.rs/Evropa/ShowDocument.aspx?Type=Home&Id=525
Ringhofer, L. (2019) Has the Theory of Change established itself as the better alternative to the Logical Framework Approach in development cooperation programmes?, Progress in Development Studies 19:2, 112–122
Stein, D. & Valters, C. (2012). Understanding Theory of Change in International Development. London: Justice and Security Research Programme, International Development Department, LSE. URL: https://www.alnap.org/system/files/content/resource/files/main/stein.pdf
The Aspen Institute (2020). A Brief History of the Aspen Institute. URL: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/about/heritage/