More changing Theories of Change, and the importance of flexible and trusting donors

I wrote recently about the how the Triple-S sustainable rural water services initiative has tried to promote change in the sector:

  • Relationship-led (i.e. using champions to mobilise change)
  • Value-led (i.e. leveraging peer pressure and creating coalitions for change)
  • Evidence-led (i.e. providing proof that the current approaches don’t work and proof that other ones do)

These were the approaches originally identified with the external learning facilitators from the Impact and Learning team at the Institute of Development Studies. The Triple-S team and the “ELFs” have just held a further learning retreat, and agreed on the need to improve external communication: more blogging and more resources on the Triple-S website.

So, good news:  more members of the team active on the Water Services That Last blog. It’s great to see the self-reflection and insights on the internal process involved in trying to create external change. Here’s Ton Schouten, previous project director of Triple-S:

We did not have a theory of change when we started … but a lot became clearer in the first year of Triple-S. The clarity did not come out of a planned, linear process; it was not done in a well-organised workshop of two days. It took hours of talking in corridors, meetings, waiting areas and trains to sharpen our ideas of how to make a difference. And it was gut feeling, years of sector experience and good intuition that fed our thinking. For a long time it concentrated on how NOT to do Triple-S.

But how to fit these ideas – an “anti-project” as Ton puts it – into something that donors will fund? Here’s Patrick Moriarty, the new project director:

Triple-S exists in a sometimes productive, often uncomfortable, zone of tension. Between, on the one hand, the demands of our donors and our own ideas of ‘good project management’ with all the inherent requirements for clear goals and objectives that are monitored over time; and, on the other, our own understanding of the rural water sector as a complex adaptive system in which the one thing we can be sure of is that whatever predictions we make now for five years down the road – are bound to be wrong!

The internal management solution? Patrick Moriarty again:

We have adopted (and been permitted to adopt by our donor) a flexible and outcomes based approach to project management. While maintaining a broad set of overarching project goals (expressed as outcomes) that focus on the improved delivery of water services, we have a relatively free rein to develop intermediate outcomes annually, informed by frequent (4 monthly) learning and reflection meetings that involve not only project staff but also important members of ‘learning alliances’ of key sector actors and champions.  This allows us, in a nutshell, to remain focussed on our overall vision while being flexible as to how to achieve it – exploring multiple possible actions and following up on those that work while dropping those that don’t.

This reminds me of Tim Harford’s ideas in Adapt (for a discussion on how they apply to development, see his interview with Owen Barder on the Development Drums podcast): plan for some things to fail, but in a way that does not endanger the entire enterprise.

I think there are two key messages. Firstly, as Ton and Patrick emphasise, an initiative like this relies on a flexible and trusting donor – in this case, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While the Gates Foundation is perhaps best known for its funding of less complex interventions such as vaccination programmes, it also gives money to riskier ideas with less predictable outcomes – see reinventing the toilet. Secondly – as we discussed at the recent learning event on sustainability in London – not all donors are like this, so as sector actors we need to look at how we can piece together enough flexible funding from different sources to create the kinds of movements that are necessary for wider change.

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