Design, Monitoring and Evaluation for Peacebuilding

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Theories of Change in Peacebuilding

One of the more recent developments in peacebuilding DM&E has been the increasing emphasis on developing explicit theories of change as part of project or program design. In our upcoming interview with the Senior Technical Advisor for Justice & Peace at Catholic Relief Services, Tom Bamat suggests that the emphasis on Theories of Change has been one of the more exciting developments in peacebuilding DM&E in the last ten years.

Increasingly incorporated into donor requirements for proposal development, theories of change (TOCs) are an important way of bringing to the surface our implicit assumptions of how and why change will occur in a given context. Doing so will ultimately strengthen not only our project or program design (and therefore increase chances at receiving funding), but more importantly, if utilized properly can lead to greater peacebuilding effectiveness by ensuring clearer, logical and practical connections between in the design hierarchy (inputs-activity-output-objective-outcomes-goal-impacts).

But first, what is a theory of change, and how does it differ from (and connect with) the logical framework approach?

Log Frame v. Theory of Change

A logic model is a graphic illustration of project/program components. It demonstrates how activities will logically lead to a particular or set of particular outputs, which result in the accomplishment of objectives, which then accomplish the goal.

Hot Resource! Designing for Results: Integrating Monitoring and Evaluation into Conflict Transformation Activities, Chapter 2 by Cheyanne Church and Mark Rogers

A theory of change explains the how and why of the logic framework – how and why a set of activities will lead to the accomplishment of project/program objectives and goals. It is the explicit expression of oft unstated assumptions of how change will or will not occur in a given conflict context.

Hot Resource! Peacebuilding with Impact: Defining Theories of Change by CARE International UK

Both the log frame and theory of change are important for good peace work. The OECD-DAC, for example, wrote in 2008 that “aid work in relation to conflict and peace is often based on approaches and tactics that are rooted in implicit TOCs. In many cases such theories are subconscious and unstated.”1 Leaving such critical assumptions unstated can potentially create dramatic gaps in project/program logic, thus resulting in a less effective project than what might otherwise be possible. This was keenly demonstrated by CDA Inc. in 2006 when they attempted to assess the changes peacebuilding activities made in Kosovo. The study found that many, if not most, of the peacebuilding interventions were not making a significant contribution to the prevention of violence.2

Similarly, a recent study by CARE International on theories of change in peacebuilding programming found that projects with TOCs helped to improve project logic by highlighting tenuous assumptions, and clarifying the aims of activities and their measures of success. The study also found, however, that TOCs can encourage an overly linear approach, so there is need to remain firmly grounded in the organic and non-linear change processes that are taking place on the ground. One of the major recommendations of the study was that “theories of change need to be as precise, nuanced and contextually specific as possible and be based on broad conflict analysis.”3

Hot Resource! Theories of Change in Peacebuilding: Learning from the Experiences of Peacebuilding Initiatives in Nepal by CARE

Generic Theories of Change

While there are a whole range of resources relating to the development of theories of change—on the Learning Portal alone there are over 80 related resources—there are, unfortunately, only a few documents which will explicitly and clearly state examples of theories of change. Personally, I am aware of two resources that do this:

  1. Designing for Results: Integrating Monitoring and Evaluation into Conflict Transformation Activities, Chapter 2 by Cheyanne Church and Mark Rogers
  2.  Theory of Change and Indicator Development in Conflict Management and Mitigation by USAID-CMM

The first two resources offer ‘generic’ (for lack of a better term) theories of change – broad categories, or ‘families’ of theories of change. The USAID document can be quite useful, particularly if you are submitting a proposal to CMM, in which case it is highly recommended that you cite their developed theories of change. But still, these remain broad and generic.

Developing Your Own Theory of Change

While the generic theories of change are incredibly useful in framing the discourse of peacebuilding theories of change, and it is important to acknowledge their contribution to moving discourse forward, they frequently require adaptation in order to make the theory highly relevant to the project. Generic lessons and tools such as these are important, but it is equally important to consider the unique context in which the theory is operating, and to include such considerations in theory development. As the CARE study on peacebuilding theories of change found, and as mentioned above, “theories of change need to be as precise, nuanced and contextually specific as possible.”4

Hot Resource! Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring and Learning Toolkit, Chapter 6 by John Paul Lederach, Reina Neufeldt and Hal Culbertson for Catholic Relief Services

There are, generally, four potential levels of change that any TOC might focus on (or explain the relationship between): personal, relational, structural, and cultural. Assuming you have already identified a set of activities you wish you implement, you can then identify the changes that might be brought about by those activities, based on the conflict and context analyses.

What is interesting about the Reflective Peacebuilding theory of change model is that it explicitly states that a project may include multiple theories of change, and their theory of change development example includes this as well. Doing so certainly adds greater complexity to the project logic, and could assist in ensuring that change is brought about at all four potential levels (personal, relational, structural and cultural).

Hot Resource! Reflecting on Peace Practice Manual by CDA Inc.

It should be noted here, however, that developing your own theory of change rarely means starting from scratch: it often involves building on or tweaking an existing theory to fit the context, conflict and your project. So check out the more ‘generic’ (for lack of a better term) theories of change, and adapt them! Draw on theories of change from other disciplines—remember, peacebuilding is an inherently inter-disciplinary field, and cross-fertilization can be incredibly useful in expanding how we think about and approach our work.

Hot Resources

Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring and Learning Toolkit by John Paul Lederach, Reina Neufeldt and Hal Culbertson for Catholic Relief Services Asdf

Designing for Results: Integrating Monitoring and Evaluation into Conflict Transformation Activities, Chapter 2 by Cheyanne Church and Mark Rogers

Theories of Change in Peacebuilding: Learning from the Experiences of Peacebuilding Initiatives in Nepal by CARE

Peacebuilding with Impact: Defining Theories of Change by CARE International UK

Jonathan White is the Manager of the Learning Portal for DM&E for Peacebuilding at Search for Common Ground. Views expressed herein do not represent SFCG, the Learning Portal or its partners or affiliates.

Thanks for this post.  I really appreciate the way you explicitly make connections between the two, while simultaneously defining how much they differ.  When I envision a logic model, our graphic representation of what we hope to do, neatly contained in boxes and parameters, I see theories of change (represented within that model) as the arrows and boxes themselves.  We contain, define, and relate our objectives, outputs, goals, etc. with theories of change.  

An interesting addition to this conversation might be Peter Coleman's The Five Percent, which details conflict mapping as a graphic model to help us better understand relationships between stakeholders, events, and so on, within any given intractable conflict.  I think if we were to value the arrows (or the direction) that we use in our logic models, as Coleman does in his conflict maps, we may be able to further the work of the logic model through the theories of change within it.

I appreciate your analysis on the log framel and theories of change. It's certainly true that the explicit use of theories of change is not something that is mentioned with frequency and understanding in our field; it's often the case that many institutions to which we submit fundign for projects have no idea what an actual logic model looks like or how specific theories of change are related to what they're trying to accomplish implicitly. It would definitely be interesting to see a greater focus on the specific use of theories of change specifically when requesting funding for grant proposals in the international arena, as having the added knowledge to really know how to impact a specific group of people would undoubtedly bring about greater direction and change.

More on the subject of theories of change, this blog post by Duncan Green on "What use is a theory of change" is also very useful:

I found the following excerpt to especially ring true: 

"(With theory of change) we are into something more experimental and iterative – come up with some initial hypotheses to test, but the smart thinking will be around taking stock and correcting courses as the project evolves. This is true because our understanding of a context improves as the project evolves, requiring adaptation."

It is encouraging to see a growing number of international organizations thinking about, and articulating their intervention's theory of change before submitting proposals, which shows us that there has been some definite success. 

However there is still room for organizations to be more thoughtful about their theory of change especially when it comes to the assumptions that inform that theory. Assumptions must be based off extensive research and rooted in the implementor and/or funder's deep knowledge of the issues and context. 

It is interesting to compare the Theory of Change with the Logical Framework concepts. The concept of Theory of Change is to encourage critical thinking in our many assumptions of peacebuilding. It is important not to assume our theories of change are correct, but to carefully test them for optimal success. Untested theories will often fail. Theory of Change aims to show the logic between activities and expected results (OECD 2012, doi: 10.1787/9789264106802-2-en, ).In other words, if I do X, I expect Y to be the result. The result may or may not actually be Y, which leads to reflective practices and evaluation.

Theories of Change defines short-term and long-term goals, and then moves backwards to develop strategies to reach these goals. It is very logical and systematic in its approach as it follows the following steps: defines long term goals, backwards mapping and connecting outcomes, identify assumptions, develop indicators and identify interventions. Logical Frameworks on the other hand begin with programs, and moves forward in development. The Logical Framework Approach has a very systematic and logical methodology.

In a peacebuilding situation those developing Theories of Change strategies need to do their research and establish “what’ and “how” the change should occur. Each community and culture is unique and severe damage and trauma can be the result of an over zealous, and under researched project. However, in the field of peacework flexibility is important, as we cannot  control all the elements of a projects.

The Logical Framework Approach provides a structured framework for design, monitoring and evaluation of a project. It is important not to become too rigid, within this framework, but it does provide a clear cut structure which funders often prefer. When using either system it is important to use the strengths and be aware of the weaknesses.