Theory of Change:
All international aid projects align with a ‘theory of change’. In other words, implied within any project strategy is a ‘theory’ about how we anticipate “changing the world”. The role of project appraisals is to make informed judgments about the appropriateness and feasibility of proposed theories of change. Most aid project theories of change can be broken down into three stages of change effected by three respective classes of human actor:
- What the project implementation team will actually do?
- What change(s) in knowledge/attitude/practice (KAP) are anticipated in the lives of direct beneficiaries (or ‘boundary partners’) as a result of the work of the implementation team?
- What significant and lasting changes in the lives of ultimate beneficiaries (or the ‘wider community’) are likely under the influence of the direct beneficiaries?
Hypotheses of Change:
Each of the three stages in the change process may be considered to be a kind of social experiment; each with its own hypothesis:
- Management hypothesis: concerned with the capacity of the implementation team to efficiently deliver on the technical and managerial requirements of the project.
- Intervention hypothesis: concerned with the efficacy of the of the project deliverables in fostering the anticipated changes in the direct beneficiaries.
- Development hypothesis: concerned with the effectiveness of the broad strategy/policy/approach with which a given project is aligned.
The overall theory of change of a proposed project may be expressed by precisely defining the three hypotheses of change. Consider the following as a guide:
- Management hypothesis: # [implementation team members] will efficiently deliver # [outputs] of the required quality with the resources budgeted and within [life of project].
- Intervention Hypothesis: # [outputs] will foster [outcomes/effects] in the lives of # [direct beneficiaries].
- Development hypothesis: [outcomes] will contribute to [Impact] among # [ultimate beneficiaries] in [geographic/demographic boundary]
Each of the italicised terms in the three hypotheses above has precise meaning:
- Implementation team: refers to the key project team members involved in the actual process of delivering project outputs; e.g. “10 Agricultural Extension Officers”.
- Outputs: these are the measurable deliverables of the project for which the implementation team will be held responsible by the end of the project; e.g. “100 Farmer Training Sessions” 1 N.B. In making sure that the ‘outputs’ are measurable, they should not be confused with the number of ‘direct beneficiaries’ that are expected to benefit from the ‘outputs’. For example, while the statement “500 Farmers trained” quantifies the number of ‘direct beneficiaries’, it does not define the number of ‘outputs’ actually delivered. A correctly phrased ‘output’ statement might be: “100 training sessions facilitated (for 500 farmers)”. .
- Life of project: the agreed period for which donor funding will be supplied; e.g. “3 years from project start-up”.
- Direct beneficiaries: the individuals or groups with whom the implementation team will interact with directly in the course of delivering the project outputs. The direct beneficiaries are the recipients of the outputs; e.g. “500 Farmers”.
- Outcomes/effects: the changes in knowledge/attitude/practice (KAP) in the lives of the direct beneficiaries anticipated as a result of the implementation team delivering the planned outputs; e.g. “improved farm productivity”.
- Ultimate beneficiaries: the wider community (of which the direct beneficiaries may be members) where a critical mass of sustainable change is anticipated as a result of the intervention; e.g. “30,000 households who are vulnerable to food insecurity”.
- Impact: the significant and lasting changes anticipated among the ultimate beneficiaries; e.g. “improved household food security”.
- Geographic/demographic boundary: the boundaries within which the impact of the project may be plausibly evaluated. Boundaries are likely to have a geographic element usually defined by an administrative border (e.g. “Murumba District”); and sometimes a demographic identify (e.g. “Female-headed households”).
The success of any proposed theory of change may be affected by myriad factors or risks. It is important to identify these risks in order to mitigate their impact on overall project performance. As noted above, the overall performance of a project is determined by the extent to which the three hypotheses of change are appropriate. Hence, each of the three hypotheses may be affected by three classes of risk: management, intervention or development risks, respectively. The relationship between the three hypotheses of change and the three classes of risk within the logic of a project strategy may be depicted as follows:
Within each of the three classes of risk, five domains of risk can be further defined: Social, Technological, Economic, Ecological and Political (STEEP). These five domains represent the logical possibility of factors likely to affect project performance at each stage of the change process. The relationship between the three hypotheses of change, the three classes of risk, and the five domains of risk may be depicted as follows:
The nature of the impact of each risk domain within each of the three classes of risk may be summarised as in the following matrix.
Footnote 1: N.B. In making sure that the ‘outputs’ are measurable, they should not be confused with the number of ‘direct beneficiaries’ that are expected to benefit from the ‘outputs’. For example, while the statement “500 Farmers trained” quantifies the number of ‘direct beneficiaries’, it does not define the number of ‘outputs’ actually delivered. A correctly phrased ‘output’ statement might be: “100 training sessions facilitated (for 500 farmers)”