Using a Theory of Change approach
The ESPA programme aimed to positively influence research users and decision makers through the generation of cutting-edge evidence on ecosystem services, their full value and links to sustainable development. As a result, ecosystems were to be conserved and managed sustainably, contributing to poverty alleviation and enhanced well-being. In this context, the term ‘impact’ referred to the changes in the lives of poor people in developing countries – these were ESPA’s ‘ultimate beneficiaries’.
Research achieves impact, benefitting ultimate beneficiaries, through non-linear and iterative pathways. Though this is true (to some extent) for any development intervention, the pathway for research investments is indirect, typically longer-term and tends to occur in more complex contexts. As such, in most instances, it was expected that ESPA research would be contributing to observed outcomes alongside a range of other interventions / factors, rather than wholly and directly causing observed outcomes.
These challenges are unavoidable but ESPA used of a ‘Theory of Change’ approach to overcome them by illustrating plausible links from activities and outputs in the short-term, through outcomes in the medium-term to longer-term impact. This Theory of Change formed the foundation of a revised Impact Strategy , launched in 2016, to refocus programmatic work globally, regionally, nationally and locally, within the ESPA Directorate, among research teams and their local partners, to amplify impact during the final phase of programme delivery. More than a faddy tick-box exercise ESPA experience suggests that the use of a Theory of Change approach can be incredibly beneficial, both at the programme- and project-level.
Specifically, the participatory and inclusive creation of a Theory of Change enables a research team to:
• Ensure that all stakeholders have a shared understanding in terms of specifying the end goal, the constituent steps involved in moving towards and their role in achieving it.
• Communicate the story and logic of their intervention in simple terms, and be explicit in recognising the complex context, assumptions, potential and challenges of the intervention.
• Understand, reflect on and navigate the trade-offs involved in delivering innovative ‘Research for Development Impact’ interventions. Importantly, the use of a Theory of Change approach can and should establish a strong foundation for project- or programme-planning, and for the creation of a meaningful and effective Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning (MEL) framework. When revisited and updated on a regular basis, this ensures that the activities and priorities of various team members – who are often geographically or thematically dispersed for an intervention like ESPA – remain aligned appropriately with impact goals.