By Duncan Green 

Theories of change (ToCs) are a bit of a development fuzzword at the moment, used in lots of different and sometimes baffling ways. But Oxfam finds ToCs extremely useful, provided they address issues of power and politics, avoid linear ‘logframe on steroids’ or exclusively technical approaches, and embrace the messy realities of the world in which we are trying to support the search for social accountability. Here are four ways in which they can help.


Exploring the context, going beyond your assumptions and spotting new possibilities: Before jumping into ‘what do we do?’, a good ToC starts with deep observation of the political or social system in which you are working: broad stakeholder analysis, understanding of power (both formal and informal), the coalitions (actual or potential) that drive or block change, the windows of opportunity that might arise. This is particularly helpful when operating in systems very different from the ones you are used to (eg staff from stable democracies working in one party systems or fragile states).

Power Analysis is at the heart of Oxfam’s theory of change work. Power is the invisible force field that connects (and divides, and excludes) individuals, households, communities and nations. It is in constant flux, endlessly renegotiated, whether in a progressive or regressive direction. Tools like stakeholder mapping, and thinking about both formal and informal power, reveal an ecosystem of power spreading well beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of SA work (citizens’ groups, the state). In Tajikistan, a brief mapping of village-level relationships added religious leaders, teachers, doctors, truck drivers and others (including officials’ lovers!), greatly expanding the possibilities for building progressive alliances.
Power analysis also explores the incentive systems that operate within the political economy. In Vietnam, a league table approach has proved influential in encouraging accountability at municipal level – no-one wants to be bottom of the league.


Beyond technical fixes: All too often, SA can get stuck in an infatuation with IT and access to information. In Tanzania, the innovative Twaweza programme has stepped back to ask why these were not enough to trigger citizen demands for better performance from the state – the answer seems to lie in a deeper exploration of power and incentives. Power analysis also helps SA programmes get beyond ‘supply’ (training officials) or ‘demand’ (supporting protest movements). Often progress lies in brokering conversations between the two, bringing in other players identified by power analysis, and creating the spaces in which searches for common solutions can emerge.

Embracing Complexity: Real life is messy: change is unpredictable and rarely conforms to the project plan. Surfing the waves of events in a complex system requires different ways of working to grinding through the plan, but has enormous potential. A few examples:

  • Positive Deviance: rather than assume you have to develop innovative ideas, why not spend some time finding the ones that already exist? In Eastern DRC, Oxfam staff began research on security sector reform and civilian security by identifying outliers – which army command posts appeared to be more respectful of civilians than others, and then researching why that might be.
  • Multiple parallel experiments: if you don’t know what will work, why not try several different things at the same time, like a venture capitalist funding start ups? In Tanzania, Oxfam’s Chukua Hatua project employed an evolutionary approach of variation, selection and amplification in its governance work in two provinces: start 7 or 8 different governance projects in parallel, sit down with partners after 9 months and agree which were most successful, then scale those up (with some new variations to add to potential learning).
  • Iteration and course corrections: In complex systems, you need to ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’. Call regular time outs in any programme, perhaps with an external facilitator, and encourage staff and partners to be as honest as they can about what is working, and what isn’t. Then think about ‘course corrections’ to the work.
  • Windows of Opportunity: Change is seldom smooth – windows of opportunity open and shut, often around events, whether foreseeable (elections) or unpredictable (shocks, scandals, sudden changes of leadership). Yet too many project plans chart an illusory world of steady state ‘roll out’ of training, capacity building, campaigns etc. Preparing for windows of opportunity, spotting them as rapidly as possible, and reacting can greatly improve the impact of SA work, (while presenting management challenges to avoid hopping from one issue to another in an entirely unfocussed way!).




Related links
From Poverty to Power
Duncan Green’s Blog


Duncan Green
Senior Strategic Adviser at Oxfam GB

Duncan Green is the author of From Poverty to Power and Oxfam GB’s Senior Strategic Adviser. He studied Physics at Oxford University, graduating with a first class degree, but then devoted his career to journalism. Duncan traveled in Latin America for 15 years, writing several books including Hidden Lives: Voices of Children in Latin America and the Caribbeanr (1998); Silent Revolution: The Rise and Crisis of Market Economics in Latin America (2003, 2nd edition) and Faces of Latin America (2006, 3rd edition). These were written while he was working as a journalist and writer, mainly at the Latin America Bureau, a not for profit think tank. In 1997, he moved to CAFOD, the Catholic aid agency for England and Wales, as Policy Analyst on Trade and Globalization. While at CAFOD he published many papers, including The Northern WTO Agenda on Investment: Do as we say, not as we did (with Ha Joon Chang, South Center/CAFOD, 2003), and Dumping on the Poor: The Common Agricultural Policy, the WTO and International Development (with Matthew Griffith, CAFOD, 2002). He was seconded from CAFOD to the UK government’s Department for International Development in 2004, as a Senior Policy Adviser on Trade and Development where he covered agricultural and non-agricultural trade in goods. From 2004 and 2012 he was Head of Research at Oxfam.

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1 responses on "Four ways in which a good theory of change can help your social accountability work"

  1. Duncan,

    I think this ties very nicely with the recent seminar here on the Platform by Anuradha Joshi from the Institute of Development Studies on ‘How to Account for Context? Using a Causal Chain Approach in Social Accountability’. Anuradha discussed how causal chains help highlight the different potential pathways towards reaching desired outcomes, and can help develop a theory of change for intervention.

    Many CSOs feel such pressure to implement and deliver, that there is little time and space for this kind of critical analysis and planning. We are working hard in the GPSA to make sure we, as donors, facilitate and enable our Grantees to do this type of analysis (which they are equally keen to undertake, and many of them already do). We are trying to better understand power relations and dynamics, the incentives of various stakeholders, and build interventions that are flexible and able to grow and change.

    Thanks for the blog, and the various links and resources. We have all so much to share and learn from each other.

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