FYI: What We're Reading

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David Jacobstein

Dec 21, 2023, 10:33:52 AM12/21/23
to LCD TA SUB Working Group Mail List (USAID), Adaptive Development | #AdaptDev, TWP.Learning
Hi all,

I hope everyone is having a pleasant end to 2023. As the year winds down, there's usually a nice lull in which folks have a chance to recharge, reflect, and sometimes read. If that's the case for you, here are a few suggestions:
  • To start with, here's an article around how the development community talks about Theories of Change, how that relates to actual theories, and underlying ideas of them. The article looks at 7 clusters of actual "theory" (that is, a transferable idea about how change happens that can be applied to the specifics of an instance and to which project activities can be related) to look at how these underlying patterns might inform the specific approaches we are taking. More than the logic of a project, these are essentially broader beliefs about how and when change happens that inform our understanding of progress in an activity, yet often unstated.
  • Relatedly, another article on a number of theories of change looks at how unpacking narrative reports on how change is happening or what is changing can shed light on the theories practitioners actually believe, and that inform their efforts. Some of these are particularly interesting because they approach specific change as part of longer efforts, something commonly seen in work on social movements. I particularly like the idea of layering or how actors can use short-term projects to play long-term games: "For example, the old project helped build a stronger civil society ecosystem, the next one might help strengthen dialogue between citizens and public officials, over time collaboration through a new project may help unlock results that both older projects would have liked to attain but would have been unable to deliver." More broadly, the idea of stronger storytelling leading to more meaningful evaluation and more robust, transferable learning seems vital to improve the effectiveness of social change efforts, and simultaneously situates more of the knowledge belonging to local stakeholders who can make sense of shorter, more specific changes. (If you want to delve deeper into why it matters whose knowledge counts, and how it can lead to excessive pessimism, consider this article on how differently the quantitative and qualitative metrics see the same projects - fuzziness of constructs and measurement preference is a real issue, with real stakes, and one of the opaque ways in which local and tacit knowledge are limited in development space).
  • A detailed case study around corruption and social norms in natural resource management, this article looks in detail at how different norms relate to a USAID project aiming to protect biodiversity in one part of the Philippines. It illustrates both how systems mapping and understanding social norms matters, as well as the nuanced way in which expectations of "normal" behavior interact with both roles in community and governance structures to constrain or, in this case more so, enable behaviors that matter to the outcome of interest. A really strong, practical application of somewhat abstract but powerful approaches to everyday work.
  • IFPRI published a Sourcebook on Political Economy and Policy Analysis, helping to show how practical insights from PEA can inform efforts to address institutional changes in the agriculture and food system policy space. It's a detailed and well supported review with a number of practical tips and examples.
  • An excellent review on evaluating systemic change, summarized here, with very specific and practical tips to translate that big idea into small, manageable questions and approaches. Relatedly, here are some resources on making more visible the idea of resilient market systems, h/t the brilliant Kristin O'Planick. The market systems space continues to push the boundaries of knowledge and application of systems thinking in practical, meaningful ways that inform programming. 
  • More thought-provokingly around systems, a great article on what the value of the term and approach is, h/t Marcus Jenal, whose own blog here references and responds to it. I particularly like the idea that the ultimate lessons of systems is that we should focus on putting what is good into the world - "if things you do create what you think is a more just and caring world, find ways to sustain those things." It seems simple but the depth, particularly in terms of measurement and evaluation of work in light of some of the other examples listed above, is pretty profound. 
  • An application of systems in the social accountability space, Pact's new Systems Aware Social Accountability toolkit, introduced through an event here featuring Flor Guerzovich, highlights a number of pathways to change that can underpin social accountability efforts and clear, straightforward principles that can enable support for social accountability to be more meaningful and enable greater local leadership. 
  • A blog from USAID/Serbia gets into the nuts and bolts of transforming MEL from an annual "feed the dragon" exercise into a catalyst for mutual learning. Spending Mission resources to help measure difficult concepts that stakeholders are interested in, and facilitate pause and reflect sessions with them, are really meaningful elements of shifting the power from donors to local changemakers.
  • In one of the largest events in USAID history, the Local Capacity Strengthening Policy Forum brought together thousands of people over multiple days of sessions to look at the details of the LCS Policy and its application, and to collectively outline how we can do better in strengthening local capacity. All of the sessions are recorded and there are more great speakers in them than I can count - just a tremendous illustration of these principles and how they apply to multiple sectors and geographies.
  • Finally, a number of promising articles that are on our holiday reading list, so quick teasers only
    • Duncan Green's FP2P blog had a couple of great posts linking to longer papers, one from Srjda Popovic on sharpening nonviolent protest through dilemmas, and one on how vertical representation and hierarchical structures explain why protests sustain or falter.
    • Mercy Corps published some nice articles on their Resilience Action Committees in Uganda, which illustrate well the layering effect of social accountability over time; and a nice brief on their approach to conflict and participatory planning
    • Moses Isooba (one of the featured speakers at the USAID LCS Forum referenced above) publishes his thoughts on language in development and its significance in shaping interactions
    • Marcus Jenal on the importance of understanding that there are no root causes in complexity, just modulators - things that matter, probably worth pursuing, but to which the responses of various other actors in the local system are uncertain, so we have to push for change and also monitor responses and adapt as we see what is unlocked.
    •  A detailed review from Alan Hudson of how systems efforts can inform anti-corruption - overlaps with many of this quarter's specific examples, and is a comprehensive article, sparked by the work on systems mapping and patterns shared last quarter; it is also a gateway to a series of longer articles examining these topics in more depth, a great overall resource.
    • For those who prefer listening to your reading, an excellent episode of the kickback podcast with a number of anti-corruption practitioners describing the state of the sector by answering where their thinking has changed in the last decade and the most significant development in research on the field
Happy New Year!


David Jacobstein 

DRG Policy, Learning and Integration Office

United States Agency for International Development

T: (202) 390-1333

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