Practical Approaches to Theories of Change in Conflict, Security & Justice Programmes: Part I: What are they, different types, how to develop and use them

Peter Woodrow, Nick Oatley


This document aims to improve the effectiveness of DFID programmes and the measurement of their impacts by providing DFID Advisers with the practical skills to develop high quality theories of change, and to understand the role they play in programme design and assessment. It is intended for DFID advisors to more clearly and explicitly articulate their theories of change as a means of improving the effectiveness of interventions.

Part I first explores the fundamentals of theories of change: what they are, why they are important, and how to create a theory of change. It explores theories of change at different levels, and concludes with advice on how theories of change can enhance the effectiveness and relevance of programming.

Key questions this document addresses: What are theories of change & why do we care? What are the different types & levels of theories of change? How should I develop theories of change? How should I use theories of change?

Key Findings:

  • A basic definition applicable to all initiatives that seek to induce change is as follows: A theory of change explains why and how we think certain actions will produce desired change in a given context. In their simplest form, Theories of change are expressed in the following form: “If we do X (action), then we will produce Y (change/shift towards peace, justice, security)” or “We believe that by doing X (action) successfully, we will produce Y (movement towards a desired goal)”. It is often helpful and clarifying to extend the statement a bit further by adding at least some of the rationale or logic in a “because” phrase. This then produces the formula: “If we do X…, then Y…, because Z….”
  • Making a theory of change explicit allows us to reveal our assumptions about how change will happen, how and why our chosen strategy or programme will achieve its outcomes and desired impacts, and why it will function better than others in this context. Revealing these assumptions also helps identify gaps and unmet needs, including additional necessary activities or actors that should be engaged. We may also detect activities that are extraneous, weak or that fail to contribute to achieving the overall goal.
  • Theories of changed are embedded in a particular context and should be considered in context. How change can or will occur in one context cannot be automatically transferred to another setting. Theories of change must therefore be linked to a robust conflict analysis, in order to ensure that programming addresses the key drivers of conflict and fragility in the context.
  • Theories of change can be developed or identified at several different levels. These range from the strategic or policy level, through broad sectoral or program levels, to project-level theories, and finally micro-level theories about specific limited activities.
  • It is never too late to develop a theory of change; it can be useful during all stages of the programming cycle.


Woodrow, P. & Oatley, N. (2013). Practical approaches to theories of change in conflict, security and justice programmes: Part 1: What they are, different types, how to develop and use them. London: DFID/CDA.