Ten Theory of Change Tips for SSR

by Kai Schaefer · July 4, 2016.


“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a long time.” André Gide

Theory of Change (ToC) is more than the latest kid on the block of cooperation jargon. When it comes to SSR support, ToC can be used effectively in several ways.

ToC emerged from two kinds of thought: evaluation theory and practice, and participatory social action. Theories of Change are used most often in three ways:

  • a) as a planning tool in the programme cycle to make explicit assumptions connecting activities, outputs and outcomes;
  • b) as a way of thinking about how a project is expected to work; and
  • c) as an approach to understanding of how change happens.

In combining these three purposes, ToC not only can help us in monitoring and evaluation, but could also lead to more learning and continuous adaptation, discovering a path as we go along in a complex system, if we use ToC as an evolving tool. In SSR support, we can link those three purposes to the three dimensions of SSR: technical, holistic, political. ToC can help us to reflect on how power dynamics change in practice, a crucial element of any SSR programme. ToC should underline the political nature of SSR support, as SSR processes affect power relations, income and privileges.

Similarly, ToC can be used at different levels of intervention: At the individual level, it involves attitudes and perceptions; at the organisational level it makes explicit changing structures and relationships; at the socio-political level, it may be aimed at management and oversight strategies. A tool, such as the Capacity Integrity and Sustainability Framework (CIS), often used in SSR support highlights these levels addressed in a ToC. This is also particularly relevant, as any ToC should be grounded in a context analysis, which could include the CIS and allow for the participation of a wide range of stakeholders.

Here are ten tips that may assist in using Theory of Change in SSR support:

  1. Theory of Change stands for a hypothesis – how we think our programmes work and why and how we think certain actions produce desired change.
  2. A robust discussion during development of the Theory of Change can reveal our assumptions, and help to identify gaps and unmet needs.
  3. Theory of Change should be context specific, and therefore be linked to a robust conflict analysis. In line with the New Deal, conflict analysis should be done together with the host nation in the spirit of local ownership.
  4. The key question in a Theory of Change is: “What kind of change do we want”?
  5. Focus on the socio-political level when attempting to change behaviour.
  6. Within a project cycle, Theory of Change should be consistently used, from the design, through implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.
  7. Building yearly re-analysis of the Theory of Change can help a programme address the continuing relevance of their theory, and help identify monitoring gaps. 
  8. Theories of Change that are adapted throughout the process can help to ensure institutional learning.
  9. With qualitative and quantitative indicators for the intermediate steps, you define the change you want as well as what you measure right from the outset of the process.
  10.  Theories of Change with their graphic representation can be used for monitoring, but also for communicating effectively.


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Swisspeace, Theories of Change in Fragile Contexts Training, Basel, Switzerland