Theories of Change in international development: communication, learning, or accountability?

Craig Valters


The Theory of Change approach – an increasingly popular management tool and discourse in development – aims to challenge and change implicit assumptions in world views and programmes, yet little is known about the extent to which it really does so. This paper analyses how Theories of Change are used in the day-to-day practice of an international development organisation, The Asia Foundation (TAF).

The paper is based on the emerging findings of a collaboration between the Justice and Security Research (JSRP) and TAF, which began in April 2012, with the aim of exploring Theory of Change approaches in international development practice. JSRP’s primary research looked at the Foundation’s use of Theories of Change for community mediation programmes in Nepal and Sri Lanka, for conflict management in the Philippines and for sub-national governance and community policing in Timor-Leste. The paper also draws on interviews with TAF and DFID staff members.

Theory of Change is understood in different ways. For some, it is a precise planning tool, most likely an extension of the ‘assumptions’ box in a logframe; for others it may be a less formal, often implicit ‘way of thinking’ about how a project is expected to work; or an approach aiming to encourage a politically informed, reflexive and complex approach to development.

The Asia Foundation’s approach to Theories of Change has been a ‘learning through doing’ process, to deepen their understanding of the contexts in which they work and the effects their interventions may have. TAF use the approach in three ways: to communicate, to learn and to be held accountable, which each exist in some tension with each other. Different offices balanced these issues differently depending on a range of factors: some bureaucratic, some organisational, some political. 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.

The 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. How Theories of Change are approached is closely related to the prevailing development discourses of ‘results’ and ‘evidence’. With this comes a considerable danger that the approach will privilege a linear cause and effect narrative of change. The paper also highlights that:

  • A Theory of Change approach can create space for critical reflection, but there is a danger that this is an illusory process, with inadequate reflection on how power dynamics change in practice and how local people see change happen.
  • Personalities matter – they change whether a Theory of Change is seen as a tool of communication, learning, or a method of securing funding, or some combination of these.
  • Power relations between donors and implementers in the international development industry discourage critical reflection and therefore constrain Theory of Change approaches. The tendency to view a Theory of Change as predominantly an upward accountability mechanism considerably constrains attempts to learn from the process.
  • A Theory of Change approach needs to focus on process rather than product, uncertainty rather than results, iterative development of hypotheses rather than static theories, and learning rather than accountability.
  • Politically expedient Theories of Change may be useful, but are unlikely to encourage critical reflection.
  • If the aim is to encourage critical reflection and learning, the use of Theories of Change should be supported only so long as they remain useful in that respect.


Valters, C. (2014). Theories of Change in international development: communication, learning, or accountability? Justice and Security Research Programme Paper 17. London: LSE