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​Theory of Change: what is it and why should we use it?

08.2018 / Justine Boillat, Academic Intern, Quality Assurance and Poverty Reduction Section, SDC

Theories of change (ToC) are an increasingly important results-based management tool, for which there is a growing interest within the SDC.

In order to unpack what a ToC is and to promote its use at the SDC, the Quality Assurance network organised two learning events in collaboration with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in June. In the following, we present the key takeaways, and the reasons why a ToC approach presents many opportunities for the SDC.

A ToC enables development practitioners to understand how change happens in a given context and the role an individual or organisation can play in contributing to this change. It is both a product (a visual depiction or narrative) and a process, which takes place along the different stages of the project cycle management (PCM). The ToC process entails seven key steps, as illustrated below.


The ToC process should involve all relevant stakeholders across the programme, including intended beneficiaries: this helps to understand change from different perspectives in a comprehensive and transparent manner. This process is also iterative: a ToC and the assumptions it entails need to be periodically tested against the reality of the context, revisited and adapted accordingly. This approach is key to fostering critical thinking, continuous learning and steering of programmes.

Most of SDC’s programmes are complex: they have non-linear causal pathways and there is a low level of certainty and agreement about how to achieve the intended impact in the given context. A ToC can help the SDC and its partners to navigate this complexity. A ToC process enables understanding and implementation by exploring uncertainty and building a consensus among stakeholders. Unpacking the causal linkages between activities, outputs, outcomes, impacts and the underlying assumptions gives a better sense of the evidence causal linkages are based on and the degree of uncertainty around logframes. This is crucial to improve programmes and learn as we progress towards intended impacts.

ToC thus offer an alternative and/or complementary tool to the logframe. Both are appropriate for different purposes and they are best used together. While the logframe is more focused on accountability, a ToC process is oriented towards learning and allows us to engage with a bigger picture of the programme and its contributions to change. The SDC results-based management system allows for using a logframe and/or a ToC, as appropriate for the given the programme and context.

The learning events reflected the growing interest for ToC and their relevance for SDC’s work. Following-up on these discussions, the Quality Assurance and Poverty Reduction Section will take some steps to further integrate ToC into SDC’s results-based management. More information will follow!


Related references
Briefing Note: State of the art on use of Theory of Change in the development sector, by IDS (here)
Briefing Note: Opportunities for using complexity-aware approaches to Theory of Change, by IDS (here)