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Unpacking M&E with Kanyamuna: Embrace the Theory of Change thinking to transform Zambia from poverty

THE Theory of Change (ToC) thinking and practice is missing in most of what we do in African development processes. In Zambia, this lack is also predominantly evident. This has costed us huge resources in form of money, time, expertise and leaderships. More so, real development gains have gone aloof. The notable absence of the ToC thinking among those tasked with providing goods and services in public and private organisations has evidently shown that there is a lot of trial and era in the way programmes, projects and policies are pursued. In many cases, these are merely ad-hoc arrangements and we end up having rhetorically grounded development songs and re-assurances. The masses also continue wallowing in abject poverty entrenched in hopelessness and helplessness.

What am I saying? High level RESULTS are what Zambians and stakeholders desire to see and sustain in all efforts of development. Outputs (immediate volumes of our work), outcomes (intermediate long-term behavioural changes in the target groups arising from the use of the outputs) and the impacts (long-term desired and sustainable changes society enjoys) are the results we pursue when implementing programmes, projects and policies. A good understanding of these different, yet crucial levels of results by all leaders and implementers of development interventions is needed. For that matter, even citizens are expected to know exactly the type of results expected from public and private development interventions. That is the only way a country can practice good governance. It is for that reason that today, I am bringing in the concept of ToC to make this important development management perspective clearer. This, by the way is not my mere opinion, belief or conviction—research and practice have proven that ToC can shift transformatively individual institutions, countries and indeed any development entity.

The pursuit of development RESULTS in whatever we do should be the preoccupation of all players. By this I mean all governments, civil society organisations (CSOs), the private sector, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), cooperating partners, citizens and all other state and non-state actors must work towards realising measurable results for development. The ToC is the theory upon which the practice of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is anchored. It is the thinking that guides how development results can be conceptualised, initiated, structured, implemented, monitored, evaluated and realistically attained. To practically hold an end in mind as we start and implement programmes, projects or policies can be made possible through the use of the ToC thinking. It is a perceptive, a skill and practice which lacks in many developers and implementers of both public and private development interventions. Even many policy reformers and leaders lack the understanding and applicability of the ToC and why and how it may bring about positive changes to the welfare of the majority poor. Said differently, champions of the ToC and functional M&E are what Africa and Zambia particularly requires in their many numbers if the transformational development agenda was to be possible.

Essentially, the ToC demonstrates how a development intervention’s inputs lead to executing activities and how these activities help to achieve the high-level results of outputs, outcomes and desired impacts. The main thrust and logic behind the ToC comprises the following:

• Inputs/resources – certain resources are needed to operate your programme or project.

• Activities – if you have access to inputs, then you can use them to accomplish your planned activities.

• Outputs – if you accomplish your planned activities, then you will hopefully deliver the amount of product and/or service that you intended.

• Outcomes – if you accomplish your planned outputs to the extent you intended, then your participants will benefit in certain ways (change in behaviour).

• Impact – if these benefits to the participants are achieved, then certain changes in organisations, communities and systems might be expected to occur.

Thus, the ToC is a construct based on outcome-level results in which critical thinking is applied when designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating development initiatives. Worldwide, ToC is used by stakeholders such as multi-lateral and bilateral development agencies, CSOs, governments, international non-state actor organisations and research programmes to support development outcomes. It is the process by which change comes about for an individual, organisation or a community. We should consider the ToC as a programme logic model that represents a roadmap or pathway of programme highlights in terms of how it is expected to work and the required activities, including how desired outcomes and impact will be achieved. As long as there is full stakeholder participation when developing development interventions, ToC may guarantee shared planning and understanding of organisational and programme goals. In addition, rigorous testing of assumptions may be made in the process of planning, budgeting and implementing such deliverables, thereby improving accountability and learning functions.

Governments and development agencies often have ambitious goals, and so planning and implementing specific on-the-ground strategies to address those goals is not an easy undertaking. In such instances, the ToC becomes vital to development programming and evaluation success for a number of reasons. To gain desired results, development programmes need to be grounded in good theory. Therefore, by developing a ToC, managers and implementers can be better assured that their programmes are delivering the right activities for the desired outcomes. Thus, by creating a ToC, programmes are easier to sustain, bring to scale, and evaluate, since each step—from the ideas behind it, to the outcomes it hopes to provide, to the resources needed—are clearly defined within the theory.

My plea to African governments and especially our own Zambian government is that, using the ToC thinking, we must build stronger whole-of-government M&E system(s) which will capture data and information from all activities of government interventions up to impact level. And to ensure that the ToC leads to a culture of results, M&E systems should be public systems that allow actors such as the civil society, academia, parliaments and donors take an active part in analysing government operations and in utilising M&E information.

Dr. Vincent Kanyamuna holds a Doctor of Philosophy in Monitoring and Evaluation and is lecturer and researcher at the University of Zambia, Department of Development Studies. For comments and views, email: vkanyamuna@unza.zm

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