by Gerard Emmanuel Kamdem Kamga
A previous article provides detailed information about the origin, meaning, objectives and the rationale behind the rise of theory of change (ToC) as a mainstream paradigm in use by various organisations, branches of governments and United Nations agencies. The current reflection which is an excrescence of the previous piece put strong emphasis on the practical aspects of ToC. I have mentioned in the previous reflection that the Toc approach generally follows two steps process, that is a theory about how this change will come about and a theory about how the actual intervention will trigger this change. It is this process that is at the heart of the current paper but before looking at the stepwise approach to ToC in organisations, it is crucial to briefly summarise what this approach is about. ToC is used in designing, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of projects and programmes. The main purpose of ToC is about the nexus between the assumptions, objectives and strategies put forward to produce a desired change following the implementation of a mission or vision. In other words, ToC amounts to a comprehensive description of processes of how and why an intended result is to be achieved in given circumstances. Weiss (1997) argues that many programmes working for social change are difficult to evaluate because the assumptions which underpin such programmes are unclear or unspecified. Stakeholders involved in complex community initiatives are often vague about how a change process is expected to evolve, and so they do not think critically about early and mid-term changes to take place in order for the long-term programme goals to be attained. It can then be argued that ToC aimed at understanding the effectiveness and mechanics of change that influence the relationships between a proposed intervention and the intended results. As currently observed, ToC started as a theory of how and why an intervention works, exploring underlying assumptions about change processes and beliefs about how an intervention contributes to these changes (Weiss 1997, 2000). ToC is currently referred to as a road map, a blueprint for getting from ‘here to there’ (Stachowiak, 2013: 2; Stein & Valters, 2012:3). It is a relevant tool designed to think and monitor the entire life cycle of a project and programme whether at the early stage (planning and designing) at the implementation stage (execution) or at the end of the cycle (monitoring and evaluation). Having said that and as already mentioned, the current reflection focuses on the practical dimension of ToC. To understand a stepwise approach to ToC, it is crucial to firstly look at its principles before moving to its practical aspect.
There are five principles, including participation in toc development, comprehensive analysis, power and gender analysis, articulation of assumptions, regular update of the toc and active use in planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning. These principles were set out by Marjan van Es, Irene Guijt and Isabel Vogel in a 2015 study and the upcoming developments strongly derived from the findings of this study.
Participation in ToC development
The participation of a wide range of stakeholders including local stakeholders in the development and reviews of a ToC is recommended, for this may increase the chances of effective use. In addition, the inclusion of various stakeholders contributes in the diversification of perspectives which result in improving the quality of the thinking, and consequently of the programme. Similarly, at the inception stage, a ToC may further be improved if actors who are not directly involved in the project or programme are given opportunity to participate and provide their critical feedback.
This principle is about avoiding the traps of routine an understand that each project has its own specificity and may be dealt with differently as compared to similar interventions. In so doing, a ToC process must be informed by stakeholder perspectives and local knowledge in order to ground the conversation in real and specific circumstances on the spot, and in multiple knowledge. It is therefore crucial to be knowledgeable about the project itself but also to rely on other available knowledge and skill to inform the assumptions and desired change.
Power and gender analysis
Inequalities in power and gender relations remain one of the key drivers of gender inequalities and strong causes of social injustices. Power and gender analysis are, therefore, central to any ToC process. The ToC approach should make explicit the nature, sites and distribution of power including gender relations.
Articulation of assumptions
The ToC process actually requires a clear description and illustration of people’s conception and expectation about change. This is an important element of the design and planning stage of the intervention. Making them explicit allows them to be debated and validated, contributing to mutual understanding and a genuinely strategic discussion.
Regular update of the ToC and active use in planning
During the life cycle of a program or project, some dysfunctionalities may occur and impose revisions. As currently observed, ‘a review of the ToC can be triggered by context changes, stakeholder shifts, operational problems, or when there are indications that a key assumption might not be valid’ (van Es et al in 2015). Monitoring appears therefore to be a necessary tool that must always be available to amend or update the initial assumption or desired change to accommodate unexpected or unforeseen circumstances and keep the intervention on track.
After the review of the principles for ToC practice, the following section focuses on its practical steps.
There are various studies on the practical steps to design a ToC approach. In this section, I will be focusing on eight steps which are the result of the above mentioned study by Marjan van Es, Irene Guijt and Isabel Vogel. Like the previous section, the upcoming developments are indebted to this study entitled theory of change thinking in practice: a stepwise approach published in 2015. Each of the eight steps provides information about its aim and role and how to use it in the ToC process.
This step is crucial, for its purpose is to provide information about the parties and stakeholders to be involved in the process, the desired change, intended outcome and consequences. Two questions must be asked at this stage: Why are we doing this? And What is the intended product of this ToC process? The answers to these questions should be provided by the stakeholders and other group of participants
Desiring a change means that we do not accept the current conditions and circumstances. Therefore, the point is to portray the changes we wish to occur in people’s lives and the society through our actions. One important factor is the careful consideration of the people to benefit in a positive future situation. In so doing, a desired change should be articulated through clear, specific and plausible assumptions. Achieving change in a situation deemed necessary or desirable can be done in two ways including by defining and analysing the problem or by articulating the desired change.
Bringing change to a current situation requires its full evaluation and understanding. If one cannot figure out what is wrong with the current circumstances it might be tricky to think that some random strategic choice can improve it. The questions to be answered here is what are the internal and/or external factors influencing the current situation? Are there any socio-economic, political or cultural factors that impact or may play a key role in altering or improving the current situation? What about the role of stakeholders and other parties involved or not? It is there any relationship of cause and effect? The challenge in this case is to assess the current situation with sufficient depth without losing focus on what really matters; and the answer to these questions may be a starting point in analysing the current situation to explore the possibilities of bringing change.
It was mentioned that the challenge in analysing the current situation is to keep focusing on what really matters. The key element in this step is identifying what need to be changed effectively. When that which need to be changed is identified, then the complexity collapses. It might be that some key stakeholders are not playing their role or are not collaborating properly, it might also be that some norms or rules need to be changed in the political system or state’s institutions. That which need to be changed could be a single factor, a combination of factors, or an entire area or domain. The main challenge in this step is that it may not be possible to identify all that which is dysfunctional and require change. In any case, it appears that there are changes that must happen and sometimes do not depend on a single actor and requires a concerted approach.
Identifying strategic priorities is important, for in case there are several factors or domains needing change, the point would be how to go about them. The goal in this step is to identify those areas that need change and not how to change them. At some point it is highly likely that certain problems may go unnoticed and negatively impact the entire ToC process. In such instance, a selective approach will be necessary to assess the main priorities and firstly deal with them.
After the previous step, it is time to start the thought process about how the desired change can be brought about. The thought process should take into account knowledge of the current situation and envision the future about how the process of change is actually going to take place. As it was observed, ‘mapping “pathways of change” is done by working backwards from the long-term desired change, asking ourselves what needs to change for the desired change to occur’ (van Es et al. :2015). The process involves another assessment of the role, place of key contributors as well as the interest of the people, the different internal and external spheres of influence.
The question here is how do one know whether the desired change is actually happening. Is the current situation has changed or has remained the same since the launch of the program and project? Monitoring and evaluation is a process allowing the tracking and collection of data necessary to assess the change process following an intervention. The validity of the ToC process can be tested through monitoring, evaluation and learning.
A ToC is a relevant tool that may not be used occasionally and sporadically. It is an approach that one may have recourse to on a regular basis. It can even be combined with existing alternative methodologies such as monitoring and evaluation, qualitative and quantitative research methods, inductive and deductive reasoning. It is crucial that ToC be embedded in the culture of organisations. It is a suitable tool for various programme’s and project’s life cycle from design and planning, to implementation and monitoring and evaluation.
In this reflection, I have provided information as how organisations and governments agencies can improve their work through a stepwise approach to ToC. I have explained the five principles and eight practical steps to design an effective ToC process that can be determinant in improving the work we do on a daily basis. Yet despite these developments, I confess that the ToC approach might not be the magic formula to overcome and solve all issues inherent to interventions especially in the areas of development and social change conducted by organisations and government agencies. As a matter of facts, there is still no overall consensus regarding the value of this approach and the methods that are necessary to implement it effectively. There is even confusion in some organisations about what the term ‘theory of change’ actually means. Despite these observations, it remains that the ToC approach has been welcomed and implemented by numerous organisations, government branches and United Nations agencies. Even though ToC is not a guarantee, the strict observance of the above principles and steps in its design may likely reduce the risk of poor performance and unsatisfactory outcome and instead contribute to a sound achievement. In sum, and as already observed in my previous reflection on the same topic, ToC is a long-term process which requires significant investments not only in terms of efforts, skills and time but it also depends on the will of programme leaders, project managers and coordinators to turn it into an organisational culture.
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