Theories of change are obstacle courses

A theory of change is a recipe that tells you step-by-step how to take people from a statu quo in which they are economically disadvantaged to a situation in which they are better off. We use it a lot in development economics and international cooperation.

Some time ago, I wrote an article about how theories of change can be pictured as Rube-Goldberg machines. Today I learnt another nifty analogy that can be used when explaining what a theory of change is.

A theory of change is an obstacle race:


Many people start the race, but few people actually finish it. The obstacles in the course are the milestones that people have to conquer in order to get to the next stage. It is critical that you collect data at each of those milestones in order to see if your theory of change makes sense in the real world.

For instance, if you want to increase income through a career development programme, every obstacle between the person's situation today and that imaginary future higher income must be part of your theory of change: people can't attend the sessions, the topics covered aren't relevant, not everyone has access to the Internet or knows how to use a computer, the job market can't take in any more professionals, and so on.

If you include in your theory of change everything that can go wrong in your programme, then you will have a clearer picture of what you will need to do in order to mitigate the risk of your project failing.

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