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Theory of Change and Theory of Action: What’s the difference and why does it matter?

August 1, 2019

I have been fortunate enough to spend much of the last three months working on the designs of several health and governance programs across Papua New Guinea (PNG), South Asia and Africa.

One thing that has struck me, regardless of which donor or country we work in, is the ongoing confusion in the aid industry regarding theories of change and theories of action. And why it is so important we get the distinction right at design.

For those out there who don’t subscribe to the development jargon (good for you): Theory of Change or Action (ToC and ToA) are two common, but not always well understood or defined, tools used by donors and implementers when designing aid projects.

ToC/ToA helps donors and project teams understand what it is they are trying to achieve, whether it is possible for them to achieve it and how they plan to do it. They are tools that try to make sense of complexity – so that activities, budgets and partners can be designed and ‘stuff’ can happen. Inevitably they constitute simplifications – or ‘approximations’ – of reality, but their power lies in selecting the key drivers of change.

  • As Coffey points out – a ToA “describes how a project or program is designed and set up.” What mix of: (a) activities (e.g., training, technical assistance), (b) delivery modalities (e.g., a grant or budget support), (c) partners (e.g., faith-based groups, international non-governmental organizations [INGOs]) will you use to try and achieve your outputs or intended changes?
  • Whereas a ToC “describes the processes through which change comes about for individuals, groups or communities.” It is an assumption (or series of assumptions) about how change will happen in a country, regardless of what a donor or project does or doesn’t do.

In a little more detail…

theory of change graphic

Importantly, ToAs are good at explaining the bottom of the log frame, where we can be fairly certain about the relationship between cause and effect (or input and output). See diagram below. By comparison, ToCs are useful at explaining what’s happening (or what’s not happening) higher up the log frame: the point at which outputs are meant to translate into outcomes and goals, when change is unpredictable, messy and complicated and is often far outside the project’s control. They focus on testing assumptions and the relationship between cause and effect.

Yet despite their differences, ToAs and ToCs cannot exist without the other. There is no point selecting delivery modalities, partners or activities (ToA) without knowing how change happens and what the most likely interventions are a project can use to try and nudge things in a certain direction. Conversely, a ToC is useless without something to give it meaning (a ToA).

Bringing it back to our health and governance program designs, this distinction is helping teams make some hard decisions about where to put resources. For example, is the most likely path to eliminating a certain disease through government systems or by working through third parties in parallel to government? The assumptions we are making in our ToCs (about how public servants are incentivized to perform, where the potential for collective action lies or whether procurement systems follow the rules, etc.) are informing these judgments. Our ToA is then guiding decisions about grants vs. technical assistance, local vs. INGOs and activity choice, depending on what we assess is the most likely pathway to change (again back to our ToC assumptions). In some countries, our ToCs are leading the program to work alongside the state, whereas in others, to work through government systems or a combination of both.

We’ll report back in a year and let you know how we get on.

Visit the Governance Soapbox to read the original posting of this blog.

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