RE: How useful are theories of change in development programmes and projects? | Eval Forward

As I look at the theory of change (TOC), particularly as it applies to development and more particularly smallholder agriculture, I wonder if we are getting an accurate analysis of its effectiveness, or is it getting caught in the implementers' need to appease the donor to assure project extensions and future projects.  This results in projects appearing far more successful than they really are with a lot money invested for limited benefit and the intended beneficiaries being left with little impact.  

I think a lot of the TOC being applied to smallholder communities is derived from academia and based more on what is socially desirable than effectiveness in sustained change and implying a wider use in the donor home country than reality which is misleading to the host country. Much of the TOC being imposed on smallholder communities is based on organizing and relying on farmers organizations or peopleware instead of hardware or software. The idea is people can be organized to work in their collective vested interest, even when this conflicts with individual vested interest. Unfortunately, individual vested interest usually will eventually take priority, so these TOCs require continued external facilitation, if not direct subsidies to survive and collapse as soon as the last advisors departs, perhaps before the they clear the departure lounge for the flight home.

The best example of this is the nearly 40 years imposition of cooperatives to provide business services to smallholders in terms of consolidated inputs and markets. This is done with blanket, but never substantiated thus slanderous, vilification of private traders. This is imposed even while the cooperative movement in the USA, which had some major positive impact a century ago, has been in decline for several decades and when last reported 20 years ago represented less than 30% of agriculture business activity. I would image the same would be true for cooperatives in the EU or other donor bases. The problem with the cooperative model is that it is administrative cumbersome which translates to high overhead costs that, in the financially suppressed developing world, will quickly exceed the financial benefits of bulking inputs and marketed produce. When this happened relying on cooperatives will force smallholder farmers deeper into poverty.  The result is that cooperative based projects only attract a small percent of the potential beneficiaries, perhaps 10 to 12%, and even then, the bulk of the members production is side sold to the vilified private traders, leaving the cooperative with little more than in-kind loan repayments. Not what you could objectively refer to as a successful project. Yet, with some creative accounting they are always considered successful at least while someone is facilitating them.

Another example is the use of Water User Associations (WUA) to manage irrigation water and maintain canals. They are based on the Ditch Companies of Colorado (where I am writing from) and other western USA states. Ditch companies’ success is based on very strict and rigidly enforced water law that is not available in most irrigation schemes in which WUA are imposed. Thus, while there is a common vested interested in maintaining irrigation canals, the individual vested interest does a 180-degree shift once you pass the individual’s inlet. Again, they can exist while there is external assistance but will collapse once that ends.

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