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Theories of Change in International Development: Communication, Learning, or Accountability?


About this resource

Resource type:Research, reports and studies
Keywords:Accountability, Accountability and Participation, Communications, media & information, Standards, System-wide performance
Agency:The Justice and Security Research Programme
Author(s):Valters, C.
Date published:August 2014

Critically analysing assumptions is a much needed endeavour in international development policy and practice: existing management tools rarely encourage critical thinking and there are considerable political, organisational and bureaucratic constraints to the promotion of learning throughout the sector. The Theory of Change approach – an increasingly popular management tool and discourse in development – hopes to change some of that. This approach explicitly aims to challenge and change implicit assumptions in world views and programme interventions in the lives of others, yet little is known about the extent to which it really does so. This paper provides a much needed analysis of how Theories of Change are used in the day-to-day practice of an international development organisation, The Asia Foundation. They use the approach in three ways: to communicate, to learn and to be held accountable, which each exist in some tension with each other. Creating Theories of Change was often found to be a helpful process by programme staff, since it provided a greater freedom to explain and analyse programme interventions. However, the introduction of the approach also had some troubling effects, for example, by creating top-down accounts of change which spoke more to donor interests than to the ground realities of people affected by these interventions. Ultimately, this paper argues that while a Theory of Change approach can create space for critical reflection, this requires a much broader commitment to learning from individuals, organisations, and the development sector itself.

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