How useful are theories of change in development programmes and projects?

FAO Evaluation
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From the EvalForward community How useful are theories of change in development programmes and projects?

In the past few years we have witnessed an increased application of theories of change (ToC) in the design and evaluation of development projects.

Nowadays many donors, international organizations, government agencies and NGOs promote their use as a way to ensure that their day-to-day activities are aligned with their ultimate aims. I raised this topic with the Community and asked members about their experience with their use, and their views on the main value added of ToCs. Several members shared their experience and volunteered ideas for ensuring adequate use of ToCs, such as the following:

  • ToCs add value when they are co-generated in a participatory manner with project managers, technical experts, implementers and beneficiaries.
  • ToCs can be powerful communication tools to share the project’s intervention logic with stakeholders.
  • ToCs help systematize experience and promote critical review of the programme/ project expected and actual outcomes.
  • When formulating ToCs is important to ensure the ownership of those involved in the project implementation.
  • ToCs are a more powerful tool than logical frameworks, as they focus on changes in the well-being of populations instead of focusing on specific project outputs.
  • ToCs can be particularly helpful for programs that have multiple interacting components, diverse stakeholder perspectives, and uncertainty in outcomes.
  • ToCs allow having a solid understanding of how a programme works, can be made available in an easy-to-share format, and can provide evaluators with a strong head start.
  • ToCs can be useful at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of an intervention. Their main use and applications will be slightly different, but it is never too late to develop one.
  • ToCs can also be valuable when evaluating cross-cutting themes, such as local stakeholder and civil society engagement, governance and gender, as they facilitate exploration against the envisioned process and outcomes.
  • Organizations should strengthen capacities for conceptualization of programme theories of change.
  • Awareness raising of key constituents on ToC is important to ensure “buy-in” and expand their use.

All of the above are important aspects to consider when using ToC in development programmes and projects.

Among the negative aspects, some discussants noted that a ToC can instead become a complication if it is seen as a bureaucratic step; and/or developed in a way that is not professional and inclusive (the latter being often the case when time and budget for evaluations do not allow for proper consultations during ToC development/validation). ToCs are also not meant to be a one-time exercise, and could eventually be reviewed and modified overtime.

Several members highlighted that ToCs are mainly developed due to a donor request and never used by project implementers for a number of reasons (i.e., top-down development process, too high level/abstract, unclear/unrealistic, etc.), while others noted widespread confusion between ToCs and logic models, and to certain extent also with logical frameworks. This confusion, which can lead to a “misuse” or a different understanding of what a ToC is, can affect its effectiveness.

A contributor to the discussion (Emma Nthandose Gausi) provided an example of ToCs’ value addition to development projects, which captures the essence of the whole discussion.

“I have worked with projects where a ToC was drafted during programme conceptalisation and planning and i have worked with projects where there was no ToC. I have found that when there is no ToCs, project interventions tend to be more focused getting the activities done other than on the change the intervention is expected to bring. In this case, it feels like doing the work without the vision. However with ToC present, change aspect of the intervention is much more pronounced and it affects the way things are done during project implementation. Logframes and results chains are also important. But they are much more useful when their design is also informed by a ToC.”

Participants to the discussion: Silva Ferretti, Diagne Bassirou, Idowu O Oladele, Mustpha Malki, Joseph Toindepi, Emile Houngbo, Stevan Lam, Lal Manavado, Eltighani Mirghani Elamin, Roberto Borlini, Svetlana Negroustoueva, Ravinder Kumar, Collins Okoth Ogundo, Emma Nthandose Gausi, Jackie (Jacqueline) Yiptong Avila and Richard Tinsley.