Theories of Change: Understanding and Clarifying Action and Difference

The Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University (in the UK) recently hosted a workshop to “collectively strengthen relationships, learning/analysis and collaboration for people who are involved in research and knowledge work that advances movements for agroecology and food sovereignty”. This blog post is part of series of posts written by attendees to convey some of the ideas that unfolded during the workshop. For previous entries see here and here.

By Josh Brem-Wilson

Dancing, laughing, lots of table tennis. These somewhat unexpectedly will be amongst my enduring memories of a fascinating and stimulating two-day workshop organised by AgroecologyNow! on the outskirts of a picturesque Bedfordshire village, late spring. Convening a diverse range of participants working in different ways – though with a bias towards academia – on food sovereignty and agroecology, the purpose of this gathering was to foster collaborations and perhaps also deepen understandings of key issues, opportunities and challenges on the agroecology horizon. The location, enthusiasm of the participants, quality of the facilitation and deliciousness of the food meant that – although concrete outcomes were difficult to anticipate at the time – we left with a deep sense of positive, collective energy, and smiles on our faces.

And yet, in the shadows of my particular experience, a discomfort lingered. Why? Because I felt that we had somehow managed to avoid a pressing conversation, a conversation that has the potential to both strengthen our collaborative efforts, and our individual contributions to them. This conversation, for want of a better phrase, would be about ‘theories of change’.

A theory of change is essentially a framework for action that establishes some sort of causal relationship between an intervention (e.g., a mobilisation, a project, a workshop) and an outcome (e.g., more agroecology, more food sovereignty). Why is it important? Because without making explicit the assumptions that we hold about the relationships between the things we do and the change we seek, we can’t a) make our choices intelligible to ourselves and other people, and b) evaluate the accuracy or not of our assumptions.

A bit of personal background.

Peace studies and a missed opportunity

I spent 11 years as a mature student (undergraduate-to-PhD) in a Department of Peace Studies, in which a normative commitment to (some kind of) peace, and an ongoing programme of activity to attain that, were absolutely integral to the Department’s historical mission and identity (and why I was there). It was not uncommon to hear senior Professors celebrating, for example, the Department’s contribution throughout the Cold War as the unofficial ‘intellectual wing’ of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Community peace building, small arms control, biological and chemical weapons management – staff at the Department were engaged across a wide range of areas via projects in which a commitment to increasing peace, or at least minimising violence, could be discerned.

However, the Department had no processes in place for making the theories of change that underpinned this work explicit. Over time, a number of recurring issues communicated the problematic nature of this absence, including:

  • The Department’s normative mission having to compete as a determinant of staff behaviour with externally imposed performance criteria (e.g. the Research Excellence Framework).
  • Obvious – and sometimes contentious – differences between staff in terms of the goals of their work, and the routes through which they sought to get there.
  • A general lack of reflexivity amongst (some) senior managers in terms of how the Department’s organisation and activities serviced its (apparent) normative commitment to peace.

A practice of making explicit the theories of change that informed the Department’s work could’ve helped navigate these challenges. It could’ve supported staff to understand each other’s positionalities better, allowing for the clarification and negotiation of potentially contentious differences. It would’ve made the assumptions that underpinned different projects and interventions (or teaching programmes) more visible, assisting with their assessment and evaluation and enabling the emergence of a realistic understanding of the potential of academic activity to contribute to peace: notwithstanding the warm glow of moral certainty, what, for instance, was the net impact of the Department’s contribution to CND, or the wider cause of nuclear disarmament? It would also have supported the privileging of the Department’s peace mission in its staff’s work. And finally – by all the above – it would’ve helped foster within the Department a ‘culture of peace’, mainstreaming and operationalising into the Department’s work an ongoing commitment to peace.

Unfortunately, this never happened, and the frailty of the Department’s reliance upon personal predilections and tacit agreements to secure its normative commitments was painfully exposed when an aggressive and ambitious senior manager drove through a restructuring that in its impacts upon both on staff wellbeing, and the identity of the Department, was highly damaging. To be clear, a process for making theories of change explicit in the absence of an underpinning staff commitment to mutual respect and mutual understanding could not by itself have avoided this outcome. But I’m certain it would’ve helped.

Theory of change and food sovereignty: a recurring tension

With this set of experiences in the background, having worked for the past 11 years with food sovereignty activists, and transitioning from Peace Studies (student) to the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (staff) where normative commitments to food sovereignty and agroecology are deeply embedded, I’ve continued to maintain a sensitivity to the importance of theories of change processes. Though without, I confess, operationalising this within my own work, which, because of its normative orientation deserves exactly the type of assessment that a theory of change framework could provide.

The AgroecologyNow! Workshop was the prompt for these reflections, because it hosted a theories of change disagreement that I’ve observed elsewhere bubble up without being addressed in the midst of food sovereignty activists. This disagreement is about the means through which food sovereignty is to be realised, and the strengths and weaknesses of two apparently contradictory routes: local, community activism vs. global, public policy work within the UN system. When I say that the disagreement between these approaches was hosted by the workshop, I mean that over our two days together, whilst some were discussing and recruiting contributions for UN-based public policy work, elsewhere this work was being denounced.

These disagreements however were not acknowledged and brought into conversation with each other. This was not an intentional omission, and I’m sure that most workshop participants (including the facilitators) weren’t even aware that there was a disagreement. I was, only because I happened to participate in the two break-out sessions in which each position was articulated. And it was only retrospectively that I mourned the missed opportunity for this theories of change discussion (I hadn’t thought to suggest it during the planning process, for example). This, echoing the above, is for two main reasons. Firstly, because if we don’t understand each other, and are not able to value each other’s investments (in certain activities) and critiques (of that activity), how effectively – and enduringly – can we work together? And secondly, if we don’t scrutinise the assumptions that underpin our work, and the impacts of that, how can we know how effective we are?

Thankfully, colleagues at CAWR have been quick to recognise this omission, and on October 16th we will be convening our first Theories of Change session. Needless to say, for historical reasons, and for its potential value for our current work, this is something that I’m very much looking forward to.

If you’re interested in attending the Theories of Change workshop at CAWR on the 16th October, please email Josh or Chris for more details.