Understanding Theory of Change in International Development

Danielle Stein, Craig Valters


This paper reviews the concepts and debates within donor, agency and expert guidance ‘Theory of Change’ (ToC) documents. It finds confusion surrounding ToC definitions and use, but that ToC is commonly understood as an articulation of how and why a given intervention will lead to specific change. The paper identifies four main (overlapping) purposes of ToC – strategic planning, description, monitoring and evaluation, and learning. It summarises best practice recommendations from the literature and highlights key issues for discussion. If ToC is to be more than another development ‘fuzzword’, greater clarity is needed regarding common terminology, use and expectations of ToC approaches.

Given organisations’ varied perspectives on the purposes of ToCs, ToC approaches could be understood across a continuum: on one side is a very technical understanding of ToC as a precise planning tool, most likely as an extension of the ‘assumptions’ box in a logframe. In the middle is ‘ToC thinking’, understood as a less formal, often implicit, use as a ‘way of thinking’ about how a project is expected to work. On the other side is an approach which emphasises the need for practitioners to develop ‘political literacy’, a complex and nuanced understanding of how change happens, allowing them to respond to unpredictable events.

A key issue emerging from the review is the need to ‘sell’ a ToC to a funder. This might privilege the inclusion of donor requirements or politically preferable approaches in the ToC and in wider project planning. Further issues that require discussion include the following:

  • How one can know which ‘level’ a ToC should operate on (e.g. organisational to societal; conceptualisation to implementation): Developing a ToC that covers ‘all levels’ may be a near impossible task, but limiting a theory too much may render it one-dimensional.
  • The relationship between ToC and evidence-based policy: Many donors both emphasise evidence-based policy and require ToCs from their grantees, but projects based on ToCs often rely more on conceptualisation and narrative than evidence. Clearer ways of assessing the value of different forms of evidence, including formal research and lived experience, are needed.
  • The potential for accuracy, honesty and transparency in the use of ToC approaches: Organisations that honestly present their understanding of the change process might at times risk alienating partners and local communities, losing country access and endangering staff.

Recommendations from the literature for ToC ‘best practice’ relate to both content and process. The process of developing a ToC should be grounded in an accurate analysis of the context and an understanding of the role of the intervening party. This ensures both the plausability of achieving the goal, and the extent to which this goal is realistic. Proper grounding will also ensure that the ToC is useable or doable, meaning that the resources, expertise, and external conditions necessary for change are identified and present. In addition:

  • The process of articulating ToCs should allow for the participation of a wide range of stakeholders, and should be based on a variety of forms of rigorous evidence, including local knowledge and experience, past programming material and social science theory.
  • This process should also reveal the appropriate boundaries, scope, and level of complexity needed for each ToC.
  • ToC is intended to be a set of theories relevant to a specific setting that is articulated, tested, and improved over time.

In terms of content, the literature suggests the following as the main components of a comprehensive ToC approach:

  • Summary Statement: One sentence describing the expected link between the intervention, the change process and the ultimate goal, often an “If…then…” statement.
  • Problem Statement: The problem and examine its underlying causes
  • Overall Goal: The goal to be achieved and how success will be identified
  • Change Process: The mechanism of change linking the inputs to short-term output/outcomes and long-term goal
  • Change Markers: Milestones, indicators or other tools to assess/measure extent of change
  • Meta-Theory: The underpinning theory that justifies the chosen change process
  • Inputs: Actions intended to catalyse the change process and corresponding timeline for change
  • Actors: The actors in the change process, their roles and relationships
  • Domains of Change: If applicable, various strands or thematic areas that must be addressed in order to achieve the change
  • Internal Risks: Potential impacts of the programme that may undermine its success
  • Assumptions: Beliefs, values, and unquestioned elements for each step of the change process
  • External Risks: External risks to the programme with the potential to undermine its success, and plans to overcome them
  • Obstacles to Success: Obstacles likely to threaten the change process, and plans to overcome them
  • Knock-On Effects: The potential unintended consequences of the project, positive and negative.


Stein, D. and Valters, C. (2012) Understanding Theory of Change in International Development, JSRP Paper 1, Justice and Security Research Programme, London: LSE