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Review of the use of ‘Theory of Change’ in international development

Author: Isabel Vogel (for DFID)
Publication Date: 2012 

'Theory of change' is an outcomes-based approach which applies critical thinking to the design, implementation and evaluation of initiatives and programmes intended to support change in their contexts.

It is being increasingly used in international development by a wide range of governmental, bilateral and multi-lateral development agencies, civil society organisations, international non-governmental organisations and research programmes intended to support development outcomes.

DFID commissioned this review of how theory of change is being used in order to learn from this growing area of practice. DFID has been working formally with theory of change in in its programming since 2010. The purpose was to identify areas of consensus, debate and innovation in order to inform a more consistent approach within DFID.

A methodology which maps the assumptions which inform planned interventions within all stages of an initiative, Theory of Change (ToC) is increasingly regarded as an essential tool in designing and appreciating the complex network of factors which influence project outcomes.

Information was gathered through interviews with staff from 25 different development organisations, nine donor agencies, seven international NGOs and nine research and training organisations. The data was then assessed and evaluated within the review, structured around nine topics:

  1. Who is using theory of change in international development?
  2. What is ‘theory of change thinking’ in practice?
  3. Why are the ‘assumptions’ so important in theory of change?
  4. What makes a good quality theory of change process and product?
  5. Representing theories of change
  6. Using evidence to support a theory of change process?
  7. Using theory of change thinking to support evaluation, impact assessment and learning
  8. Using theory of change to address complex aspects of programmes and emergent strategy
  9. Embedding on-going theory of change thinking and learning

The review considers the practical aspects of ToC implementation; the purpose of the report being, to develop a more consistent approach within DFID to a concept which is gaining in reputation and use within the international development community.