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It IS a theory, it DID exist at the start, now let's learn from it!

Published on: 13/03/2012

My name is Deirdre Casella. I am a Programme Officer and have worked in various capacities at IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre since December 1999. My current focus is coordinating the monitoring and learning work of the Triple-S project.

In Triple-S we aim to ‘proceed with good intent’, as our friend Chris Mowles is known to incant, while giving our utmost to achieve the goal of sustainable services for the poor. That said, we remain human and have the associated strengths and weaknesses that accompany this state of being. Perhaps one of the most pervasive qualities that I observe in myself and peers here at the office (virtual office that is, as IRC staff are located across countries in East, West and Southern Africa, South Asia, Latin America and Eastern, Southern and Western Europe...with other regions soon to follow!), is that of being overly humble – which is what I think Ton was being in his post of 1 March 2012.

In his post Ton wrote ‘We did not have a theory of change when we started Triple-S.’

If strictly understood as a finely articulated logic model known in project planning circles as a theory of change (known also as programme logic or as an alternative to the logical framework approach), Ton’s statement may be taken in the literal sense to mean we did not start Triple-S with such a logic model in hand replete with requisite diagrams and tables. As such, his statement is not entirely untrue.

However, to take the statement at face value would do a tremendous disservice not only to Ton’s work, but that of a host of other colleagues – including an inspired and supportive Grant Donor – working from the outset to give Triple-S operational shape, contextual relevance and the greatest potential for impact. I thought it worthwhile to mention here some contextual details Ton omitted in his humbleness:

Flash back to late-2009: I joined a growing Triple-S team to find they had succeeded in reshaping the original project proposal into strategy and implementation plans using an ‘outcomes-based approach to project management’. I also found a team composed of individuals that each held clear, practice-based beliefs and insights about changes needed to achieve the project’s goal of rural water services that last – systemic change of an entire sector, no less! As Patrick noted in February, given that Triple-S seeks to affect change in a sector we understand as a complex adaptive system, one may imagine that, like the sector itself, the beliefs about change, and how to achieve it, within the team were multiple, multi-faceted, divergent, convergent AND emergent.

Given that description of the situation, it may make sense to borrow Pythagoras’ use of the concept of ‘theory’ as meaning ‘passionate sympathetic contemplation of knowledge’ – in which case I’d say we were pretty well covered on that front, and the task awaiting the team – to align its multiplicity of passionate contemplations of knowledge about the sector, its shortcomings and promising solutions to achieve systemic change into a relevant and useful monitoring & learning framework, was quite a tall order.

Flash forward to 2012: the last three years have seen Triple-S work intensively with partners and sector stakeholders at project-, international-, national- and district-levels simultaneously to develop tailored strategies, plans, tools and knowledge products including the Principles Framework, Building Blocks, a Learning Principles & Practice framework and the Multi-Country Synthesis Report (both available below) to name a few resources designed to make accessible the what / why / where / how aspects of Triple-S’s work, including the underlying thinking (the passionate contemplations) about achieving water services that last.

Ton’s draft Triple-S Theory of Change (which by the way received a standing ovation from the team upon its premier presentation in January – my humble colleague would never divulge such a detail!) allows us to now broadcast that a set of passionate contemplations did exist. The work weaves together the multiple views and beliefs existing from the outset of Triple-S to form ‘a framework in which change can happen: a framework for creating intent, for making things happen in a specific context’. This framework is the foundation of how we have intently proceeded with intent in Uganda, Ghana and in the international arena – and now it’s captured in text for reflection, sharing and uptake in new contexts.

The spheres of control, influence and interest of complex development interventions (after Hearn, 2008)

What a relief that’s sorted then! As I write the draft Theory of Change has gone into the publishing pipeline and will be publically available soon.

But, we’re far from being out of the woods yet. The awkward nut we still struggle to crack for once and for all is intricately related: reaching final agreement on indicators, measures, methods and learning processes that enable us to give contextually relevant meaning to the signs of change and progress that Triple-S and others observe taking place now in the sector – whether related to our theory about how to affect change, or not. Our good intention is to ensure a measure of rigour acceptable to ourselves and our peers which enables the project to continue proceeding ‘with good intent’ while instilling confidence in our Grant Donor that the initiative is making progress towards its stated goals in a sector not known for embracing systemic change.

Our touchstone on decisions of this nature is expressed best by The Network of Networks on Impact Evaluation (NONIE): ‘the rigour is determined by the match between the methods and an interventions’ theory of change’ (NONIE, 2008).

So, happy day, the Triple-S theory of change is now a fact! Next up: making crystal clear its link to Triple-S’s 5 impact and 9 process indicators, reaching final agreement on the metrics and most suitable mix of qualitative and quantitative methods and how to make sense of the forthcoming monitoring data to support our learning and we’ll be on our way...that is until the mid-term assessment rolls along and possibly indicates a dramatic rethink of the project’s goals and outcomes for the next three years...who knows? It’s emergent, I expect, and we’ll keep you posted.

More from the Learning Team in our April posting about exciting areas of innovative approaches to monitoring & learning such as working with Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge and Irene Guijt from Learning by Design to adapt and implement SenseMaker® as one of Triple-S’s monitoring and learning methods for ‘navigating complexity’! (links below).


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