RE: Can we use an evidence-based, evolving Theory of Change to achieve "local learning” during project design? | Eval Forward

Dear John, Thank you for your feedback and very good follow-up questions. 

The answer to both questions is YES. In addition, I would like to indicate that, in USAID perspective, interventions (activities or projects) are designed within both local assumptions and evidence; and that assumptions are one of the components of the Theory of Change (TOC). For those with the need to know, let’s first define USAID development, CLA framework, and then explain how TOC may be reviewed along with examples:

USAID development Context

For USAID to operate in any country, it first of all defines a strategic plan (called country development cooperation strategy-CDCS) aligning it with partner country priorities. CDCS lays its foundation on country risks analysis and consultations with different Government and partners institutions. The CDCS portrays a county development goal with sector development objectives supporting that goal and intermediate results falling under DOs. Every DO is described along with respective risks and assumptions.  Let’s note that the performance monitoring plan (PMP) is designed along with the strategic plan.

In line with the strategy, one or more projects are designed to contribute to the achievement of development objectives.  A "project" refers to a set of complementary implementing mechanisms or "activities," over an established timeline and budget, intended to achieve a discrete development result, that is often aligned with an intermediate result in a CDCS. This one goes with its associated project MEL plan.

Finally, the activity which is the level of implementation. USAID implements its strategies and projects through activity design and implementation. An activity carries out an intervention or set of interventions, typically though an implementing mechanism such as a contract, assistance program, or partnership. This goes with its associated activity MEL plan.

Putting in simple terms, any activity is viewed within a certain project which at in turn responds to a certain development goal. Activity MEL plan feed into project MEL plan which also feeds into PMP.

CLA Framework

To cope with an evolving environment, USAID integrates Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) into is program life cycle to ensure that interventions are coordinated with others, grounded in a strong evidence base, and iteratively adapted to remain relevant throughout implementation. CLA framework consist of managing adaptively through continuous learning. 

USAID definitions:

  • Collaborating is the process of strategically identifying key internal and external stakeholders and deciding how best to work with them in order to add value, fill gaps, and avoid duplication while working towards a shared goal.
  • Learning is the intentional process of generating, capturing, sharing, and analyzing information and knowledge from a wide range of sources to inform decisions and adapt programs to be more effective.
  • Adapting is an intentional approach to reflecting on learning, and making decisions and iterative adjustments in response to new information and changes in context.

Pausing and reflecting on a regular basis helps identify what’s working and what needs adapting and it allows USAID to consider the impact of changes in the operating environment or context. Examples of pause and reflect opportunities include portfolio review, learning events, team meetings, communities of practice, learning networks, etc.  

TOC review

In USAID context, the underlying logic of a project/activity is captured in the TOC. A strong TOC is a narrative that summarizes the context, identifies points of leverage for change, specifies the needed outcomes, describes the interventions expected to realize those outcomes, and states the associated assumptions.

The process of developing the TOC should be participatory, involving broad engagement with local stakeholders and a series of dynamic critical thinking exercises to examine the body of evidence, draw out different viewpoints, and reach consensus on the best possible approach given the available information.

Therefore, TOC design is always based on local evidence and assumptions; and given the rigorous process, it is less likely to be poorly understood. Even if this may happen or assumptions change, regular pause-and-reflect actions will help realize that gap and adaptive management should follow. For instance, for Food for security activities, there is a requirement for partners to develop a Theory of Change (TOC) for their activities and to review it “whenever there is new evidence, or when there are changes in the context that affect assumptions or hypothesized pathways of change” and, at a minimum, annually.

We have examples where TOC was reviewed:


In conclusion, USAID has different options to adapt its interventions: at activity, project or strategy level. Through its collaboration, USAID may also co-create. For this to be possible, its learning should be strengthened.


Janvier M