ToC Academy > Using ToC for Learning > Post: Understanding Theory of Change in international development: A review of existing knowledge
Understanding Theory of Change in international development: A review of existing knowledge
by Danielle Stein & Craig Valters
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This paper reviews the concepts and common debates within the ‘Theory of Change’ literature, resulting from a detailed analysis of available donor, agency and expert guidance documents. A number of key issues are highlighted in the paper and these inform the collaborative research.

Following this review of the literature, Stein and Valters undertook fieldwork in Sri Lanka and Nepal hosted by the local TAF office. This paper is the first output from a collaborative research project between JSRP and The Asia Foundation (TAF).


This is a review of the concepts and common debates within ‘Theory of Change’ (ToC) material, resulting from a search and detailed analysis of available donor, agency and expert guidance documents. The review was undertaken as part of a Justice and Security  Research Program (JSRP) and The Asia Foundation (TAF) collaborative project, and focuses on the field of international development.

The project will explore the use of Theories of Change (ToCs) in international development programming, with field research commencing in August 2012. While this document will specifically underpin the research of this collaboration, we also hope it will be of interest to a wider audience of those attempting to come to grips with ToC and its associated literature.

From the literature, we find that there is no consensus on how to define ToC, although it is commonly understood as an articulation of how and why a given intervention will lead to specific change. We identify four main purposes of ToC – strategic planning, description, monitoring and evaluation and learning – although these inevitably overlap.

For this reason, we have adopted the term ‘ToC approaches’ to identify the range of applications associated with this term. Additionally, we identify some confusion in the terminology associated with ToC. Of particular note is the lack of clarity surrounding the use of the terms ‘assumption’ and ‘evidence’. Finally, we have also drawn out information on what authors feel makes for ToC ‘best practice’ in terms of both content and process, alongside an exploration of the remaining gaps where more clarity is needed.

A number of ‘key issues’ are highlighted throughout this review. These points are an attempt to frame the literature reviewed analytically, as informed by the specific focus of the JSRP-TAF collaboration. These issues are varied and include the confusion surrounding ToC definitions and use, the need to ‘sell’ a ToC to a funder, how one can know which ‘level’ a ToC should operate on, the relationship between ToC and evidence-based policy, and the potential for accuracy, honesty and transparency in the use of ToC approaches.

This paper does not aim to give definitive answers on ToC; indeed there are many remaining important issues that lie beyond the scope of this review. However, in highlighting a number of key issues surrounding current understandings of ToC approaches, this review hopes to pave the way for more constructive and critical discussion of both the concept and practical application of ToCs.