Complexity, Theories of Change and Aid Impact

Development implies change. A lot of talking and thinking takes place among development practitioners as to what this means, but it is less common for space and time to be made to focus explicitly and overtly on challenging and querying theories of change and applying these directly to our practice.

When agency interventions seek to make development happen in a certain way, they often identify risks and preconditions, however fewer enquire as to the theoretical assumptions they are making about change when designing development interventions and aid strategies. This is even the case with work explicitly interested in change, such as the UK Department of International Development’s (DFID) Drivers of Change initiative where the country studies rarely make explicit or interrogate the theory underlying the analysis.

IDS has been working with Action Aid on its Critical Stories of Change (pdf) project as a new way of critically learning about its work and creatively documenting. We have also been working with Oxfam (Great Britain) on enquiring into how their theories of change inform strategic choices and with DFID to explore how complexity theory can inform thinking about aid impact. More recently we have facilitated workshops for Oxfam Novib, IFAD, the Norwegian Volunteer Service and Just Associates helping them explore their theories of change.

Organised efforts to direct change confront the impossibility of us ever having a total understanding of all the sets of societal relationships that generate change and are in constant flux. New inter-relational processes are constantly being generated that in turn may affect and change those already in existence. Complexity theory challenges aid organisations to scrutinise their own behaviours and histories. It privileges a concern for process rather than targets and supports an approach that seeks to make a difference by working through relationships rather than focusing on pre-set outcomes. It encourages being explicit about values and a concern for how an organisation’s intervention is judged by others.

Theories of change are also central to the Research Programme Consortium on Pathways of Women’s Empowerment which includes a programme of work with international aid agencies and other global actors.

Project details

start date
12 February 2005
end date
20 November 2010