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

September 2015

The Theory of Change approach, with its focus on continuous critical reflection, demands a radical shift towards more and better learning in development thinking and practice. No new tool or approach can in itself address problems of institutional incentives in the sector that block such learning. However, a Theory of Change approach may be able to create a productive (albeit small) space for critical reflection.

This paper draws on recent research and a workshop held at the Overseas Development Institute in April 2015. It outlines the growing and diverse ways in which Theory of Change approaches are understood. It takes the key findings of recent research a step further by outlining and justifying four key principles to guide the use of the Theory of Change approach, tied to a deeper analysis of the development sector.

The paper highlights throughout examples of the organisational use of Theories of Change, each of which attempts to go some way towards addressing the criticisms of the approach to date. It also analyses possibilities for taking these principles forward in light of the ‘results agenda.’

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