Theories of change are essential components of development programming. Yet they are often the last to be developed in the programme cycle – an afterthought to justify activities which have already been planned or to satisfy donor imperatives. This policy memo by Alex de Waal, Aditya Sarkar, Sarah Detzner and Ben Spatz, refocuses attention on the theory of change as a first step to thinking about how and why we think certain actions and strategies will produce desired change or achieve specific policy outcomes.  

This memo focuses on the following question: how can activists and external actors create evidence-based theories of change to end armed conflict, strengthen governance institutions, reform the security sector, and/or promote democracy or justice for political systems that operate as ‘violent political marketplaces’? In answering these questions, the memo provides practical recommendations for democracy activists and external actors.

‘Violent political marketplaces’ are countries that have been known as ‘fragile states’ but could also (and more accurately) be described as open political systems on the margins of global capitalism.  Politics in these countries is transactional and structured according to laws of supply and demand rather than regulated by formal institutions. Moreover, these political systems are often very violent. Examples include Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and arguably Syria and Iraq

We argue that theories of change in these contexts need to focus on the logic of transactional politics rather than on formal institutions.  A key aspect of this is accounting for constant turbulence and unpredictability, while remaining aware of how external dynamics are an integral part of these systems.  Following from this – we conclude that three broad types of interventions are possible: (a) tactically engineering short term outcomes to reduce violence; (b) a top-down reconfiguration of the political system; and (c) preparing the ground so that domestic actors can take advantage of eventual opportunities for democratic transformation. These interventions each come with their own risks, operate across variable time-scales, and may be combined; in all cases, however, they need to be tailored to the particularities of the political system in question. 

Read the full memo “A Theory of Change for Violent Political Marketplaces. Additional research and policy recommendations for engaging in ‘violent political marketplaces’ is available here and here.

The Conflict Research Programme aims to understand why contemporary violence is so difficult to end and to analyse the underlying political economy of violence with a view to informing policy.   Research sites are Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Learn more about the Conflict Research Programme.

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