Theories of Change: Time for a radical approach to learning in development

Craig Valters


A Theory of Change approach demands a radical shift towards more and better learning in development thinking and practice. This paper outlines growing and diverse ways in which Theory of Change approaches are understood, and highlights four key principles. Recognising the need not to obsess over the latest tool/buzzword, it calls for a shift towards learning as a norm and highlights the ways in which a Theory of Change approach can enable this.

How change happens is an ongoing debate within the sector, yet how little practitioners recognise their own biases and assumptions has strengthened the case for serious reflection on the state of learning within the industry. The paper draws on recent research and a workshop held at ODI.

Four key principles of a theory of change approach:

  1. Focus on process and avoid thinking of Theories of Change as a product or document to be completed at the start of a project.
  2. Prioritise learning and have accountability for it. Move away from looking to match theories to donor narratives and explore change in ways embedded in local contexts. Three questions to ask: learning for what?; learning for whom?; and what kind of learning?
  3. Be locally-led. Participation should occur throughout the process, not just at the start, to ensure causal assumptions are grounded in local realities and to increase the chances of success.
  4. Think compass, not map. While the latter assumes a Theory of Change approach can take you from A to B, the former acknowledges complexity and that context is not static.


The paper highlights that the results agenda constrains space for the approaches advocated within the paper, but, as always, there is room for manoeuvre:

  • Play the game to change the rules – reshape or subvert misguided practices and focus on what is important for programme success.
  • Develop strategic accountability – the focus should be on effectiveness, not only on whether objectives were met.
  • Find clarity on the kind of learning that works, its purpose and how it can be done better – a useful Theory of Change approach should force people outside their comfort zone.
  • Encourage greater collaboration between researchers and practitioners – the learning process needs to be accompanied by longer-term action research which requires a high degree of willingness and transparency from organisations and agencies, and greater modesty and openness from researchers.


Valters, C. (2015). Theories of Change: Time for a radical approach to learning in development. London: Overseas Development Institute