Using theories of change

Theories of Change (ToCs) are important to programming in fragile and conflict-affected contexts because of the political dynamics and risks involved in bringing about change. There are few proven approaches or models to security and justice programming, and in many cases interventions are based on implicit theories, or are embedded in the skills, approaches, capacities, preferences and perspectives of individuals and organisations. ToCs provide a testable hypothesis, can help make theories explicit, and articulate assumptions about how change can occur and the impacts that certain actions will have (Woodrow, 2013).

Experience from Uganda, Nepal and the Democratic Republic of Congo shows that ToCs can help address key programming challenges by identifying appropriate actors to work with, identifying gaps between local and national level changes, highlighting ineffective activities, and identifying synergies and linkages with other efforts (CARE, 2012).

ToCs are also important for monitoring and evaluation processes. They can provide feedback on whether programmes are on track to achieve desired changes, and whether the context is evolving as anticipated. ToCs are also useful for monitoring assumptions to help determine if the right factors and dynamics were considered in the initial design, if unforeseen changes have occurred in the environment, or if there are gaps in the strategy to bring about change (Corlazzoli & White, 2013a).

The importance of analysing and evaluating ToCs – lessons from community-based dispute-resolution support in Liberia

A post-civil war programme in Liberia supported the development of Community Peace Councils (CPCs), a community-based mechanism for dispute resolution. The underlying theories of change were:

  • Establishing a new community-level mechanism for handling a range of dispute types will contribute to keeping the peace and avoiding incidents that have the potential for escalating into serious violence
  • Creating inclusive structures for community problem solving can improve communication, respect, and productive interactions among subgroups in the community, and improve the access of disenfranchised groups to decision making
  • Creating a new leadership group infused with democratic concepts and provided with critical skills can foster more effective and responsive leadership.

The theories of change were analysed as part of a programme evaluation to see if they were appropriate and how they were playing out. As part of this, an updated conflict analysis was conducted and the programme was examined to determine whether it was having the effects predicted in the theory of change. This included examining the kinds of conflicts the CPCs handled, and whether those conflicts had potential for escalation to widespread violence.

The evaluation found that the CPCs were not handling the most serious and volatile disputes, which were related to land issues. While the CPCs were set up and trained well, they were excluded from handling land issues as communities were repopulated and leadership patterns re-established. The theory regarding alternative leadership patterns proved unfounded, as traditional leaders gained control over CPCs or used them to address issues that they did not want to deal with themselves. The evaluation recommended that the programme should expand the mandate and capability of the CPCs for handling land disputes by connecting them to land commissions and other government structures.

Key lessons

  • The accuracy and validity of ToCs can determine the impact, effectiveness, relevance, efficiency and sustainability of activities in fragile and conflict-affected contexts.
  • Accurate ToCs are based upon empirical evidence and up-to-date conflict analysis.
  • The analysis and evaluation of a ToC can help bring about a more nuanced understanding of how change occurs in a particular context.

Source: OECD-DAC (2012, p. 81-82).


Oversimplification: ToCs can encourage oversimplification of how an initiative will bring about change. In complex environments, the validity of a ToC depends on issues far removed from the scope and influence of a project. Furthermore, it is likely that ToCs will not be relevant or useful if underlying theories are vague, or if the sensitivity of issues being addressed makes it difficult to clearly articulate theories openly (Corlazzoli & White, 2013a).

Validating ToCs: Gathering evidence to validate or test ToCs is difficult and adequate time is sometimes required for results to be demonstrated, which may extend beyond the life of individual projects. It is often easier to gather evidence about activities undertaken than about the outcomes resulting from those activities (CARE, 2012).

Lack of communication: Programme designers often have implicit or explicit ToCs in mind that are not communicated to those responsible for implementation (Corlazzoli & White, 2013a).


ToCs are a collaborative tool: ToCs should be seen as a collaborative tool involving a variety of partners, including beneficiaries,in order to better incorporate local knowledge and understand how change can be brought about (Stein & Valters, 2012).

ToCs must be used in conjunction with other tools and concepts: ToCs need to be tested using evidence, and if necessary alternative theories should be developed for explaining change (Corlazzoli & White, 2013a). ToCs should be critically reviewed, and an important element of this is the use of conflict analysis to underpin project design and ensure that theories are based on an understanding of the conflict context (CARE, 2012).

Periodic reviews: ToCs need to be reviewed periodically throughout project implementation. Monitoring and evaluation systems should capture evidence on the results (outcomes) as well as the actions undertaken. A clear data collection plan for ToC indicators is essential (Corlazzoli & White, 2013a).

Retrofitting: Corlazzoli and White (2013a) state that retrofitting ToCs at the implementation, monitoring and evaluation stages is frequent, but not best practice. The theories behind an intervention can be deduced when they are not explicitly stated at the design stage by:

  • Reviewing documentation such as project proposals and then considering what needs to be known in order to develop a ToC.
  • Collecting additional information beyond project documents through informant interviews and focus group discussions; a ToC can then be proposed and validated through further feedback from key stakeholders.

Tools and guidance

Practical guidance on ToCs produced for DFID under the Conflict, Crime and Violence Results Initiative include:

  • 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 (see Woodrow, 2013)
  • Practical Approaches to Theories of Change in Conflict, Security and Justice Programmes – Part 2: Using Theories of Change in Monitoring and Evaluation (see Corlazzoli and White, 2013a)
  • A Theory of Change for Tackling Violence against Women and Girls (DFID, 2012a)
  • CARE (2012). Defining Theories of Change. London: Care International UK / International Alert.
    See document online
  • Corlazzoli, V., & White, J. (2013a). Practical Approaches to Theories of Change in Conflict, Security and Justice Programmes: Part 2: Using Theories of Change in Monitoring and Evaluation. London: DFID / Search for Common Ground
    See document online
  • DFID. (2012a). A Theory of Change for Tackling Violence against Women and Girls. CHASE Guidance Note Series No. 1. London: DFID.
    See document online
  • OECD-DAC. (2012). Evaluating Peacebuilding Activities in Setting of Conflict and Fragility: Improving Learning for Results. Paris: OECD.
    See document online
  • Stein, D., & Valters, C. (2012). Understanding Theory of Change in International Development. London: The Justice and Security Research Programme, LSE.
    See document online
  • Woodrow, P. (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.
    See document online