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Unpacking the Impact of International Development Research

In today’s blog, Isobel Marr, GCRF Project Officer talks about why Theory of Change, logframes and monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) frameworks are important tools in international development research and how you can learn more through an upcoming webinar series

International development research has been gaining momentum in the UK, with schemes like Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund proving popular. If you’re one of the many researchers who’ve been pursuing opportunities with these schemes, you might have recently been asked some of the following questions: “Did you write your Pathways to Impact based on a Theory of Change approach”, “Have you got a logframe?” or “What have you budgeted for MEL?”

These unfamiliar concepts might well be off-putting and you may have found yourself wondering whether it’s worth your while learning what they are?

Do you actually need to include them in your proposals?

If you apply for Department for International Development (DFID) funding, then a Theory of Change, logframe and a monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) framework will be a requirement. This isn’t the case for the majority of GCRF calls yet but the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS, who oversee GCRF and Newton) are heavily influenced by DFID, and we’ve seen calls becoming more technical in their requirements. An increasing number have specifically asked for a Theory of Change or logframe at proposal stage and we expect this trend to continue.

Whether a requirement or not, we’d advise engaging, with these tools.  They help you develop competitive proposals and ensure a strong case can be made for why your research will impact on the economic development and welfare of those in developing countries.

So what is a Theory of Change and how is it linked to logframes and MEL?

When planning a project, it’s easy to fall into the trap of deciding what you’re going to do and what you want the long term impact to be, without giving enough thought to how you get from one to another. What changes actually need to happen to get from your activities to the desired impact?  A Theory of Change allows you to build a road map of what (you think) needs to happen and, importantly, who needs to be influenced in order to achieve the changes you want to see.

The internet is littered with pretty pictures of Theory of Changes (as a quick Google search will demonstrate), but a Theory of Change should be considered as a process, rather than just a diagram to include in your proposal. The process of creating a Theory of Change with your partners will allow you to:

  1. unpick the problem you are trying to address and the context in which you’re operating;
  2. map out how your activities, outputs and outcomes link;
  3. understand what is within your sphere of control and what will require buy-in from wider stakeholder (and who those stakeholder are);
  4. and clarify the assumptions you’re making about how change will happen.

There are some great participatory approaches and techniques out there to help facilitate a Theory of Change process.

UKRI indicated at their Collaborative Programme engagement events that they expect Pathways to Impact to have adopted a Theory of Change approach (whether or not you actually include the pretty picture). We have a guide on our website to help you do this.

Once you’ve created your Theory of Change, embracing the complexity and uncertainty of how change happens, a logframe then allows a simpler and more linear way of visualising your pathway to impact. A logframe is essentially a grid where you capture your activities, outputs, outcomes and impacts.

Output Outcome  Impact
What is it? The specific, direct results of the project, delivered by the action.

These should always be within the control of the project

The medium-term effects of the project which tend to focus on the changes in behaviour or conditions resulting from the outputs. The broader, long term change which will stem from a number of interventions, which this project will contribute to.
Example Number of schools built and teachers trained, disaggregated by sex Number of children completing school, disaggregated by sex National girls’ literacy rate improved.
Funder Implications These can be controlled, therefore are linked directly to the Funder’s assistance The Funder’s action will contribute to these changes Development progress in the donors target countries, which their funded action (your project), has indirectly influenced

The logframe allows you to report on outputs, outcomes and impact by putting indicators against them i.e. What will you measure to monitor whether your outputs, outcomes and impacts are being achieved. And this again brings us to MEL… Monitoring, evaluation and learning are different but interconnected:

  • Monitoring – tracking and processing data to understand and report progress against an agreed set of indicators
  • Evaluation – assessment of the achievements and changes resulting from your work to understand the processes that led to change and your contribution
  • Learning – facilitation of feedback loops to reflect on how well we are delivering our activities and whether we are delivering the right activities to make adjustments and improvements

Without employing a strong MEL system, you cannot take stock of the progress made or, vitally, appreciate when something isn’t working – this means being unable to adapt appropriately, which can be detrimental to achieving project success.

How do I learn more?

The International Development Research Hub (part of the Research Support Office) recently teamed up with the Institute for Development Studies to provide training and resources on Theory of Change, logframes and MEL. After running workshops over the summer, we are running webinars through September to introduce each of these topics. The webinars are open to all – UoE staff and their overseas partners.

  • Webinar 1: Introduction to a Theory of Change: why do I need one and how is it useful for my research project? 10 September, 11 am (UK time) – (Recording available shortly )
  • Webinar 2: Seven steps to developing a Theory of Change: practical guidance on theory of change thinking, and facilitation tools to develop impact pathways 17 September, 11 am (UK time)
  • Webinar 3:  Logical Frameworks: How to make the most out of your logical framework and indicators 24 September, 11 am (UK time)
  • Webinar 4:  Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL): Exploring the different components of MEL systems and the practical implications for implementation 1October, 11am (UK time)

Sign up to the webinars here

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Isobel Marr


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