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DFID/International Development Research Centre/Thomas Omondi

Chapter 18.3 Monitoring and evaluation

Sustainability and theory of change

Photo: DFID/International Development Research Centre/Thomas Omondi

It can be difficult to judge a project’s long-term sustainability and replication, but this can often be inferred from other evidence. For example, DRR initiatives are more likely to be sustainable where extensive time and effort have gone into preparatory work with communities, partners and other local and national actors. Another indicator is the level of stakeholder contributions of financial and other material and human resources to the project (on the assumption that sustainability is linked to the degree of local ownership).

In community-based projects, the strength of community organisation is central to sustainability. Evaluations often place great emphasis on the creation or revival of local groups such as disaster management committees. The mere existence of such groups is a weak indicator of their capacity, whilst attitudinal analysis may only demonstrate short-term enthusiasm. Evidence of group activity should be collected (e.g. risk assessments, preparation of emergency plans, building of mitigation structures). The frequency, nature and quality of such activities and the degree of community involvement can be monitored and evaluated. Evaluators should also consider external factors that may affect sustainability, such as changes in official policy, staff turnover and economic changes.

Whatever their focus, evaluations – and projects – should be based on a ‘theory of change’. Theory of change is understood and approached in different ways, but the key idea is that individual initiatives should be underpinned by broader thinking about how change happens generally, as well as the overall, longer-term changes the initiative itself seeks to achieve (or to contribute to, where the desired changes are very long-term). These ideas need to be acknowledged, debated and made explicit by project participants, and projects should be clear about how they contribute to change. This generates a shared vision or rationale at the start, provides clarity about roles and ways of working during the project and makes it easier to assess and communicate findings at the end.+C. James, Theory of Change Review: A Report Commissioned by Comic Relief (London: Comic Relief, 2011), http://www.theoryofchange.org/pdf/James_ToC.pdf; I. Vogel, Review of the Use of ‘Theory of Change’ in International Development (London: DFID, 2012), https://www.gov.uk/government/news/dfid-research-review-of-the-use-of-theory-of-change-in-international-development.

Formal planning, monitoring and evaluation tools, such as logical and results-based frameworks (see Section 18.9: Identifying cause–effect links) can capture some of this, but they tend to be linear and compartmentalised, and may be less effective in complex programmes or in explaining how individual projects relate to the larger, more complex socio-ecological and socio-political systems in which they are located. Uncertainty, which is an important element in risk assessment and long-range planning for sustainable development, DRR and climate change adaptation, is another issue that conventional M&E approaches may not be able to capture adequately.

Box 18.2 Differences between theory of change and logical frameworks

Theory of change:

  • Captures the complexity of change much better – it is less linear and can take into account relationships and the interdependence between different programme elements.
  • Acknowledges an initiative’s starting point (captures existing change processes).
  • Is broader than just a project: it takes into account programme and non-programme factors affecting change.
  • Focuses on change and how to get there, rather than programme components.
  • Is simpler and more flexible – more ‘organic’ and less ‘mechanistic’.
  • Is not rigid in its terminology and so is more free-flowing.
  • Is an exercise or process, rather than a tool.
  • Enables organisations to think about their work and their organisation more deeply.
  • Is more interactive and fun.
C. James, Theory of Change Review: A Report Commissioned by Comic Relief (London: Comic Relief, 2011), http://www.theoryofchange.org/pdf/James_ToC.pdf.