Chapter contents

5a. Learning from “worst practices”

We’ve all heard of “best practices”: this expression refers to wisdom that has developed over time for doing a particular task or achieving a particular goal. Best practices are very useful for learning and for the development of projects. However, we can also learn a great deal from what has not worked in the past and also from the mistakes that people tend to make over and over again. We can refer to these as “worst practices,” and we are going to start off this chapter with an example of a worst practice.

But first we need a little technical background. Virtually all funding application templates will ask that you develop a project design plan. This is sometimes referred to as the logical framework, or logframe for short.1“Logical framework” is a fairly general term for this tool. Different organizations sometimes use different names for the logical framework. You may see it referred to as a “results framework” or a “design and monitoring framework.” Despite differences in formatting and language, these terms all have the same meaning. Some organizations use the term “theory of change” to refer to the logical framework, but this is somewhat misleading. The logical framework lays out the activities, outputs, and outcomes of the project, describing specifically what the project is going to do (see Chapter 6). You have probably seen a logical framework before, and you may have developed one or more yourself. The logical framework can be compared to a blueprint for a building’s construction; it describes how to implement the project.

A mistake that is commonly made in proposal development is to begin with a logical framework, rushing to lay out the workshops and training activities, equipment purchases, and other procedural elements. This approach is a worst practice because when you begin with the logical framework in this way, you are not thinking about the gaps, barriers, obstacles, and weaknesses that the project is going to address. In other words, in these cases, project proponents spend more time thinking about how the project is going to work and not enough time thinking about why the project is going to work. This can lead to projects that do not live up to expectations or projects that fail altogether. This is primarily because such projects are attempting to solve the wrong problem or because they are built upon an incomplete understanding of the nature of the problem. In most cases, these kinds of proposals will not receive funding in the first place.

In order to avoid this, we need to make sure that we have a complete understanding of the nature of the problem we are trying to solve before we begin to consider the project’s activities and workplan. This is where the theory of change comes in. This is a confusing concept for many people, especially because the term is sometimes used to refer to different things by different organizations. However, the concept is simple:

The theory of change is simply an explanation of why you think your project is going to work and why it is the most appropriate way to address the problem.2USAID (2017) defines the theory of change as “a narrative description, usually accompanied by a graphic or visual depiction, of how and why a purpose or result is expected to be achieved in a particular context.”

There are two key elements here. The first involves describing why the problem exists and what changes are necessary to eliminate or reduce the problem. This requires you to think about current conditions and also to imagine the future conditions under which the problem will no longer exist.

The second element involves describing the feasibility and appropriateness of your proposed solution. Most people will agree that there is usually more than one way to solve a particular problem. Among these different approaches, however, there are some that are likely to be more effective and efficient than others.

The theory of change demonstrates to the funder that your team has considered different approaches and that based on careful analysis, you have determined that your proposed project is the best among them. To put it in everyday terms, you have to choose the right tool for the job. The “theory of change” is an explanation of why you chose the tools that you did for the job at hand.

The theory of change begins by identifying the core problem3The “core problem” is the main problem that your project seeks to address. and then describing all of the direct and indirect causes of the core problem. As noted in Chapter 2, in the case of climate change adaptation problems, changes in the environment caused by climate change will be among these direct and indirect causes. However, as we have seen, most problems also have non-climate aspects that interact with one another and with changing environmental conditions in complicated ways.

A good theory of change will incorporate interactions between different factors and drivers4“Drivers” here refers to the direct and indirect causes of the core problem, and “factors” refers broadly to conditions that may make the core problem worse. and will describe all the barriers, gaps, and obstacles that are preventing the problem from being solved. The theory of change will also highlight how a project might influence (i.e., “change”) the direct and indirect causes of the problem. The diagram below illustrates the theory of change concept.

Problem statementContributing factorsTherefore…Enabling factorsResult
This is the core problem that we need to address, and this is why it is importantThis is a problem because [Factor 1, Factor 2, Factor 3].If we bring about a change in [Factor 1, Factor 2, Factor 3]We should see a change in the core problem, which will have positive impacts on the community

Thinking about your problem in this way has a number of advantages. It will reveal the elements of the problem that are possible to change and the elements of the problem that cannot be changed. For example, as noted in Chapter 2, in most cases it is not likely that you will be able to change sea level rise. However, you might be able to change some factors that make people or things susceptible to harm from sea level rise.

The elements of the problem that can be changed are things that you may have some influence over. You can think of these as “leverage points” or “control knobs.” These are the potential entry points for your project. Once you have identified the leverage points, it is much easier to come up with activities that focus on these leverage points, which will lead to a much more effective and efficient project design.

The diagram above may make it seem simple. But remember that, much like your climate rationale (see Chapter 2), all of the statements and assumptions you make should be supported by some sort of data or information. In other words, the theory of change should be built on a solid evidence base. This includes collecting data and information about the nature of the problem from a literature review, surveys and censuses, from inclusive stakeholder consultations, and other methods.

These are not tasks that can be completed without leaving your office (another worst practice). Rather, they require research, and your conclusions need to be validated through consultative and/or review processes that provide an opportunity for people in the target community to review your findings and logic. You should develop your explanation of the problem and your theory of change before you develop your logical framework and project workplan. The next section will provide some guidance.

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5b. How to “theorize your change”

Fortunately, most of the data, information, and know-how for developing a good problem statement and theory of change is available in your target area. It is just a matter of identifying the appropriate information and making sure that you have drawn on a variety of perspectives to explore the relationships between the different aspects of your core problem.
Example questions from actual proposal templates include:

  • Please describe the adaptation problem, root causes, and barriers that need to be addressed and the proposed scenario with the project,5A common practice in project design is to describe a “without project” scenario, which is a description of what the future would probably look like if the project is not implemented, and compare this with the “with project” scenario, which is a description of what the future would probably look like if the project is implemented. This makes it easier to clearly describe the benefits of the proposed project. including a brief description of the expected outcomes of the project.
  • What are the realistic obstacles to project outcomes, and how will those obstacles be addressed?
  • What challenges does the project seek to address?

There are a number of different methodologies to guide problem mapping.6“Problem mapping” refers to the process of exploring and describing in detail the causes and effects of the core problem. Each of these can be used effectively, but like any tool, they can also be misused. The following steps are based on the problem tree/objective tree7Sometimes referred to as a “solution tree”. methodology. This is a very commonly used technique for unpacking the complexity of development and climate change problems. There are many excellent and comprehensive guides to problem tree/objective tree analysis available on the internet. You will find links to some of these in the appendix of this guidebook.

Step 1: Based on your earlier work to select a project topic, identify your core problem.

The core problem should be something that can be changed or improved. In the case of climate change problems, choosing a physical process, such as increased rainfall or sea level rise, as a core problem is generally not a good idea because it is not likely that you will be able to change or improve a physical process. Remember also that sometimes it is more difficult than it might seem at first to identify the core problem. At this and every stage of developing your theory of change and problem statement, be open to revision.

For example, consider our taro farmers from Chapter 2. We can frame the problem in different ways. If we define the core problem as “extreme rainfall events”, we do not have much chance of success because extreme rainfall events will likely continue regardless of our project. If we define the problem as “damage to taro crops from heavy rainfall,” we may be steered in a different direction than if we define the problem as “taro crop production not resilient to climate change impacts.” In the first case, we may focus on project activities aimed at preventing flood damage to taro patches, whereas the second instance may open up additional options to increase the resilience of the entire production system.

Step 2: Identify the direct drivers (i.e., the direct causes of the problem) and direct consequences of the core problem.

Remember that for a climate change adaptation project, one of the major drivers of the problem should be some aspect of climate change. But you should also focus on the non-climate factors that make your community vulnerable to climate change. To the extent possible, make sure that there is a direct relationship between the core problem and the drivers. If there is not a direct connection, you are missing part of the puzzle. Remember that your driving factors should have an evidence base to substantiate them.
In the case of taro cultivation, in addition to the increased rainfall, direct drivers of flood damage to crops or a lack of resilience might include the location of the taro patches, the agricultural techniques and practices of the farmers, a lack of flood-control measures, and many other factors. Direct consequences might include decreased taro production.

Step 3: Identify the indirect drivers (i.e., the indirect causes of the problem) and indirect consequences of the core problem.

In many cases, it is difficult to identify options for addressing the direct drivers of the core problem, so you will need to dig a little deeper to determine what is causing the direct causes. These are the indirect drivers of your core problem, and in most cases, this is where you will identify your leverage points. Continue to identify indirect drivers until the leverage points appear. At each step of the way, make sure that there is an evidence base to support the connections.

For example, in examining the direct drivers of the taro problem, we may conduct research into why farmers are not using climate resilient cultivation techniques. We may learn that the farmers have no knowledge of climate resilient techniques because there are no guides, manuals, or extension services. We may find that they have inadequate access to seasonal forecasts to help them in deciding when to plant. Or we may find that they do not have access to loans to make improvements in their taro patches that would lead to better productivity.

Step 4. Identify leverage points.

In our taro patches example, we can see that once we start to identify the indirect drivers of the core problem, we can start to identify the parts of the problem where we may be able to make a difference. These are the leverage points. Once you have identified the leverage points, you can identify the kinds of changes that might be made to the indirect drivers of the problem that could transform them into enabling factors that will bring about an improvement in the core problem. Once you have done this, you will have identified your theory of change.

In the case of our taro problem, “lack of extension services” is an indirect cause of the core problem. This would become “extension services provided,” which, according to our theory of change, should lead to some improvement in the core problem. “Farmers have no knowledge of climate-resilient cultivation techniques” would become “Farmers have improved knowledge of climate-resilient cultivation techniques”. If our theory of change is based on good research work and inclusive stakeholder consultations, designing the specific activities to create the change should be straightforward.

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5c. Conclusion

Approaching your project design process in this way will help you to identify the most effective activities to address your core problem. For example, once we recognize that one of the indirect drivers of our core problem is “lack of awareness of climate-resilient agriculture methods”, then it makes sense that our project should focus on increasing awareness of climate-resilient techniques. According to our theory of change, this should decrease the vulnerability of the agricultural system to climate change.

At this point, we just need to figure out how to increase awareness of climate-resilient agriculture methods. There are dozens of ways to increase awareness, and many resources exist that describe best practices and case studies of what has worked in other places. The specific approach you use will depend on what approach is most appropriate in the local context. For example, if many of your local farmers are functionally illiterate, then producing written materials is probably not the best approach. Likewise, if your community lacks internet connectivity, developing an online training course will probably not be effective.

It should be clear that a good theory of change is extremely important, not only to the success of your proposal, but to the ultimate success of your project. In the next chapter, we will demonstrate how the theory of change helps the project design team determine the appropriate project activities.

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