Although UKRI Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) calls increasingly require applicants to provide a Theory of Change (ToC) (Caven & Read, 2019), it is not a new concept. ToC has its origins in programme theory and informed social action and participatory approaches (both from the 1960s) and has been adopted by the development community relatively recently (Vogel, 2012). ToC might be best conceived of as a holistic and collaborative and dialogical project planning approach.
While ToC is useful at any project stage, it is particularly suitable as a basis for other Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) tools, such as Pathways to Change and the logframe. Vogel (2012) suggests taking a ToC approach when brainstorming for the proposal, as it helps to explain “what is behind the arrows” (ibid.: 20) and is “a theory of how and why an initiative works” (Stein & Valters, 2012 in: Valters: 2014: 3). It thus appears adequate for the open-ended nature of development-related research as it helps to build a more robust yet adaptive case. Vogel's report of ToC user feedback from the development community provides an insightful summary:
“The mapping of the logical sequence is strengthened by critical thinking about the contextual conditions that influence the programme, the motivations and contributions of stakeholders and other actors, and the different interpretations (assumptions) about how and why that sequence of change might come about…Theory of Change is best kept flexible, not prescribed…it is both a process and a product.” (Vogel, 2012: 3/4)
The above comment touches on the tension between ToC as “precise planning tool, most likely an extension of the ‘assumptions’ box in a logframe or ‘way of thinking’ about how a project is expected to work” (Valters, 2014: 3). In other words, ToC can be as used formalistically, or holistically and collaboratively as the user wishes to make it. It certainly has the potential to shape project planning, the interactions with partners and the monitoring framework. The ToC literature referred to in the resource bank may help the reader with finding a position on that continuum.