Four ways in which a good theory of change can help your social accountability work

Theories of change (ToCs) are a bit of a development fuzzword at the moment, used in lots of different and sometimes baffling ways. But Oxfam finds ToCs extremely useful, provided they address issues of power and politics, avoid linear ‘logframe on steroids’ or exclusively technical approaches, and embrace the messy realities of the world in which we are trying to support the search for social accountability. Here are four ways in which they can help.

Exploring the context, going beyond your assumptions and spotting new possibilities: Before jumping into ‘what do we do?’, a good ToC starts with deep observation of the political or social system in which you are working: broad stakeholder analysis, understanding of power (both formal and informal), the coalitions (actual or potential) that drive or block change, the windows of opportunity that might arise. This is particularly helpful when operating in systems very different from the ones you are used to (eg staff from stable democracies working in one party systems or fragile states).

Power Analysis is at the heart of Oxfam’s theory of change work. Power is the invisible force field that connects (and divides, and excludes) individuals, households, communities and nations. It is in constant flux, endlessly renegotiated, whether in a progressive or regressive direction. Tools like stakeholder mapping, and thinking about both formal and informal power, reveal an ecosystem of power spreading well beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of SA work (citizens’ groups, the state). In Tajikistan, a brief mapping of village-level relationships added religious leaders, teachers, doctors, truck drivers and others (including officials’ lovers!), greatly expanding the possibilities for building progressive alliances.
Power analysis also explores the incentive systems that operate within the political economy. In Vietnam, a league table approach has proved influential in encouraging accountability at municipal level – no-one wants to be bottom of the league.

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