Theories of Change in international development: communication, learning or accountability?

Theories of Change in international development: communication, learning or accountability?

This paper examines the use of the Theory of Change approach in international development work and considers how it might be better understoodin order to improve development policy and practice. It does so through an analysis of the emerging findings of a collaboration between the JSRP and The Asia Foundation.

Six key findings are described:

  • A Theory of Change approach can create space for critical reflection, but there is a danger that this is an illusory process.
  • Personalities matter—they change whether a Theory of Change is seen as a tool of communication, learning, or a method of securing funding, or some combination of these. 
  • Power relations between donors and implementers in the international development industry discourage critical reflection and therefore constrain Theory of Change approaches.
  • A Theory of Change approach needs to focus on process rather than product, uncertainty rather than results, iterative development of hypotheses rather than static theories, and learning rather than accountability.
  • Politically expedient Theories of Change may be useful, but are unlikely to encourage critical reflection.
  • If the aim is to encourage critical reflection and learning, the use of Theories of Change should be supported only so long as they remain useful in that respect

Ultimately, the paper argues that a Theory of Change approach represents a good space for those in the aid industry to critically reflect on (and then change) their policy and practice; however, this space can be heavily constrained if the correct incentives are not in place for that to happen. We need to be wary of Theories of Change simply becoming another corporate stick to beat people with: the onus is therefore 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.

[Summary adapted from author]