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

It seems that both at individual and organizational level there are attempts to ensure the ToC is not “cast in stone” as mentioned by Jackie Yptong, and that there are some good examples of using ToC for learning like in CGIAR. 

I thank all of you for your contributions and describing how you or your organization are using ToCs.

I would like to go a little further and ask you if you know actors / donors that would be ready to start projects at local level with no assumptions and to develop a ToC as they develop their understanding of what is needed on the ground? 

In this case the project would not start with pre-defined outputs but only with a general / broad outcome, the causal pathways to reach it not defined yet. 

Below my feedback to Erdoo and Janvier and follow up questions for their consideration.

Erdoo Karen Jay-Yina says that CGIAR agricultural research programs are learning to use Theories of Change more effectively. Their ToCs focus on “the mechanisms of change by which the new agricultural product gets adopted by a farmer. Can farmers use new technologies? Do they even want to? TOCs should identify the mechanisms of change based on evidence and testable hypotheses. Stakeholder farmers should be involved from the outset of the research.” (ISPC 2012 pp. 14, 23, 7, 25) Erdoo says, “When the underpinning ToC and the evidence are revisited, captured and tracked coherently, then process tracing or contribution analysis of particular causal pathways is made easier.”

My follow-up questions for Erdoo:

Does CGIAR use process tracing to make evidence-based predictions? Have you encountered others in the development / peacebuilding community that are using ToCs as a learning tool?

Janvier Mwitrehe cites two reviews of USAID’s use of ToC. In Tanzania, “USAID/Tanzania did not anticipate the need to revisit the foundational Theory of Change. However, after its second year, it became clear that the original Theory of Change and the reality of implementation were not aligned. Some of the activities were not implementable, due to changes in the local context. The original Theory of Change was a binding constraint to the Activity’s successful implementation.” A 2019 review of TOC as an Adaptive Management Tool confirms USAID’s use of ToC as a contractual binding constraint: “The main purpose of a TOC review is to ensure alignment of the TOC with the goals you are trying to address. Factors that might prompt a special review of a theory of change include failure to influence the next level outcome as expected, previously unknown causal pathways, and significant changes in the political or environmental conditions of the local context.”

I think these two examples show that for USAID, a ToC is a contractual binding constraint rather than a tool for learning. My new follow-up question is this: Janvier, are you aware of any discussion within USAID of the need to adapt to a local context, rather than just adapting to changes in the context?

John Hoven