Please comment on this draft paper: theories of change on empowerment and accountability in fragile states

August 23, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

theoryofchange-300x300Ouch. My brain hurts. I’ve spent the last month walled up at home writing a paper on ‘Theories of change on empowerment and accountability in fragile and conflict-affected states’ (acronym heaven – ToCs on E&A in FCAS). Pulse racing yet? It’s one of a series of inception papers for a big research consortium on E&A in FCAS, which Oxfam is a member of (IDS is leading, plus various other partners – more detail as the work progresses). The deadline is next month, but I’m off on holiday next week, then swanning around Myanmar, so I thought I’d put up a pretty rough 10,000 word draft and invite FP2P readers to contribute some free consultancy their insights. Here it is – ToCs for E&A in FCAS, Duncan Green, draft for comment, 19 August 2016 – comments by 9th September please, to dgreen[at]

Headlines? Aid agencies (both big donors and INGOs) tend to conflate how endogenous change happens in the social, political and economic system (theory of change) with the process of designing their own interventions (theory of action). There is little apparent interest in how E&A occur in the absence of aid, or in what we can learn from history – basically, it’s all about us.

The lack of attention to context matters because such an institutionally self-centred approach has led to a series of weaknesses and oversights in the design of interventions, which a proper theory of change could help correct. In particular, the greater relative importance in FCAS of critical junctures, non-state actors and informal power.

It's been a while

It’s been a while

There is very little overlap between the literature on FCAS and that on E&A – in fact they routinely ignore each other. That’s part of the rationale for the research programme of course (and props to DFID for spotting the gap and funding the research).

Turning to the Theories of Action, there’s a big gap between theory and practice – aid agencies may talk an increasingly good talk on flexibility, being politically smart and locally led etc, but with the exception of a few highly publicised Potemkin Projects, there’s an awful lot of bog standard E&A work going on with questionable impact. Institutional barriers within the industry are probably the main obstacle to closing the gap.

All the standard approaches to E&A are more difficult and risky in fragile states – citizens shouting at governments (aka demand side) are more likely to be shot, seminars for civil servants don’t work if they have no interest in serving the public in the first place (though I’m sure they’re grateful for the per diems). The responses to that seem to fall into two broad camps – ‘do more’ and ‘do less’ (IDS is going to hate that level of simplicity!).

Do more: Regular FP2P readers will be familiar with this approach: thinking and working politically, doing development differently etc. Study the system, abandon blueprints, find out how things actually work and then ‘work with the grain’ to strengthen E&A when you can.

Do less: two responses here. Either pursuing E&A is a fools’ errand when the risks are this high and the chances of success so low, so just concentrate on influencing ‘elite bargains’ and cross your fingers that stability and growth will eventually lead to ‘trickle down E&A’. Alternatively, abandon the insane hubris of assuming that outsiders can come in, identify the appropriate entry points and engineer reforms in the right direction and concentrate on the ‘enabling environment’, eg via access to information.

The paper is trying to come up with some hypotheses to test in the course of the project – here’s my first stab:unity-is-strength-cartoon

Critical Junctures: E&A work in FCAS will be more effective if it gives greater priority to detecting and responding to critical junctures (whether predictable or not) as drivers of change

Positive Deviance: Including positive deviance as part of due diligence in programme design will lead to a wider range of potentially effective ToAs

Non-State Actors: If different external aid and development agencies can overcome their institutional and ideational obstacles to working with NSAs, their E&A work will have more impact

Theory v Practice: The main obstacle to turning evolving theories of action into programme practice is the institutional design of the aid business. There are examples of re-engineering of incentives and processes that can help overcome these barriers

Lessons of History: More research on the politics and critical junctures that gave rise to ‘turnaround states’ could contain valuable lessons for current approaches on E&A in FCAS

Over to you