Thursday, 12 December 2013

Theories of change: A debate

Last week I took part in a panel debate at the Institute for Global Justice in The Hague on the role that theories of change could or should have in determining how donor countries design their interventions in the affairs of others. Specifically, do we understand well enough the situation we are trying to change and the likely impact of the change we are trying to bring about? And do we recognise that our analysis is sometimes even unconsciously shaped by our own assumptions, preferences and values - even when we have tried not to let that happen. And is that a bad thing anyway? Big questions, all.

It followed a review of Dutch foreign policy in fragile states from 2005-2011, carried out by the Ministry's Policy & Operations Evaluation Department (IOB), which made a number of challenging findings, including the suggestion that some programmes lacked an explicit theory of change, in place of which a "neo-liberal paradigm" had been adopted, and which prevented critical analysis, reflection and the adoption of theories and insights that might result in a more scientifically robust policy. On the other hand, their report found that a strength of the Dutch approach was to remain flexible and adaptable to often volatile and changing situations, which a rigid theory of change approach might mitigate against, particularly if it was generically applied across large spaces. In recognition of the tension they were bringing out, that of local theory of change versus flexibility of approach, the authors recommended that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs increase its investment in context analysis and the capacity to translate that analysis into programme design.

Heavy stuff. But I was hugely impressed. Not only with the strength of the research that had gone into the report but also the response of the Dutch Government to it. In it's formal response to the Dutch parliament the Government suggested that it wanted to learn from the report but do so in a manner which invited contributions from a wide range of perspectives - academic, practitioner and policy maker - and this event, hosted by the Knowledge Platform on Security & Rule of Law was part of that. The Knowledge Platform was established a year or so ago in order to bring these communities together to shape research agendas that ultimately support more informed Dutch policy making in some of the most challenging and complex parts of the world, and it has been a huge privilege to facilitate one of its five working groups in the last year. Other donor countries would do well to learn from this approach and adopt a similar initiative.

Ronald Wormgoor, of the MFA: introducing the report with some perspectives of a policy maker
So, what did we think? Highlights for me included our exploration of the tension between theory and practice. We didn't need to spend long convincing each other that a theory of change based approach was a good thing. It clearly is, and its absence creates a vacuum which as the report found is quickly filled by other agendas not necessarily suited to the context. A neo-liberal approach to economic reform in a country beset with structural inequality could be a recipe for disaster. It's all about understanding the power and the politics. But here's the challenge - what if our own domestic politics are the problem?

There was consensus among us that you can only really gain local understanding through long term engagement: analytically sound, flexible in application and strategically relevant. I pointed out the World Development Report of 2011 talked about change taking place in time brackets of three decades, let alone the arbitrary 15 years that seems to be the assumption behind the next set of MDGs. Jeroen de Lange, our chair for the day and himself a former Dutch MP, pointed out that domestic political considerations would act against that level of commitment, and went on to make the very honest point that debates in parliament were often shallow and lacking any kind of serious analysis. Not something restricted to the Dutch parliament, clearly. So this is a case that needs to be made more publicly, perhaps, the message being simply: if you want a return on this investment, you'll need to invest in stability for the long term. Tough sell.

Dr Willemijn Verkoren, Head of the Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM) at Radboud University Nijmegen, challenged the absence of the global or at least regional dimension of the debate; pointing out that political dynamics rarely respect national boundaries and that any context analysis worth the name would need to reflect that. She also argued that there was a disconnect between science and policy, with policy makers ignoring theory and analysis and instead adopting essentially off-the-shelf packages of "statebuilidng" - institution building, civil society promotion and rule of law for example - which bore little reality in either its design nor its sequencing to the political realities on the ground. This was not a good use of public money, she suggested. Hard to disagree.

Geert Geut and Julia McCall, of IOB, spoke to the practical challenges that they acknowledged their report threw up. In particular they both agreed that time was rarely available for policy makers to adopt a sufficiently long term analysis, approach and engagement. It was part of a wider conversation, they argued, that needed to be had if the Government was to gain the results it was seeking to achieve with its partners on the ground, while maintaining public confidence in the wisdom with which they were spending their money. 

At the end of the debate Jeroen de Lange asked a blunt question. Did it all really matter, he asked? Was enough at stake? The passion with which that question was answered for the remainder of the day in the workshops that followed involving by my count around a hundred practitioners, researchers and policy makers indicated that yes, actually, it really did. 

These are precisely the sort of difficult, challenging and at times hugely frustrating conversations we all need to have if we are serious about fundamentally achieving a world in which people are able to reach their potential; free from violence, poverty and able to shape their lives and that of their countries with dignity and respect. The Dutch have kicked it off by measuring themselves against those ambitions: will other donors be brave enough to follow? 

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