Paul Klee, Ancient Harmony

Written with Florencia Guerzovich and Alix Wadeson

As we illustrated in the previous blog in this series, funders, fund manager organisations and implementing organisations in the Transparency, Participation and Accountability (TPA) sector are wrestling with the challenge to move beyond piecemeal project-level MEL to evidencing more cohesive programme and portfolio-level results which are greater than the sum of their parts. This is the holy grail, as Sam Waldock of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) put it in the Twitter discussion.

Some grounds for optimism

While we agree that portfolio MEL is challenging, it’s not impossible. Some efforts in the wider international…


Sebastião Salgado, Genesis: Kluane National Park

Michael Bamberger recently offered a very thoughtful two-part blog series on building complexity into development evaluation (blog 1; blog 2). In his view, most evaluations largely ignore contextual complexities and how these affect design and implementation.

I’m listening…

Ignore context at your peril

Bamberger argues that:

‘Most development programs are designed and implemented in complex political, socio-cultural, economic and ecological contexts where outcomes are influenced by many factors over which program management has little or no control. These factors interact in different ways in different project locations. …


Kim Sobat, Cacophony

See the second part of the series on portfolio learning in the Transparency, Participation and Accountability (TPA) sector written with Florencia Guerzovich and Alix Wadeson here.


Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi

Written with Florencia Guerzovich and Alix Wadeson

It’s strategy refresh time

As Dave Algoso reminds us, it’s strategy refresh season. And, this season, the stakes are as high as ever. The Biden administration is figuring out whether and how to walk the talk on anti-corruption, the Open Society Foundations and the Hewlett Foundation’s Transparency, Participation and Accountability (TPA) Programme are doing a strategy refresh. The World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) is conducting a strategic review. These are some of the biggest players in the sector. Each has its own “niche” and approach to build a portfolio. In considering some possible new…


Sam Francis, Around the Blues

I’ve written quite extensively on the use of process tracing in evaluation in the last few years, trying to find ways to make it a little more accessible and useful. This included a paper with Alix Wadeson and Bernardo Monzani on learning from six process tracing evaluations, a blog explaining the logic of process tracing using the Netflix show Making a Murderer, and even a blog series on how to combine process tracing with realist evaluation. Alix and I will also be doing a training on process tracing at the European Evaluation Society (EES) conference.

In short, I’m a fan…


Cai Guao-Qiang, Sky Ladder

In recent months, I’ve found myself in a number a number of conversations with social accountability wonks (like me) who have raised concerns that we’re not having a shared conversation, and instead are talking past one another. There are probably a variety of different reasons for this, but one of them is that we may, in fact, have a different hierarchy of goals and underpinning assumptions.

I want to put it to you that there are really three broad types of goals in the social accountability sector:

  • Addressing corruption and/or impunity;
  • Enhancing citizen participation and voice;
  • Improving the quality of…


Paul Signac, Opus 217 — Connecting the Dots?

Figuring out “what is the work?” we actually do sounds like a simple task, but in fact, it’s surprisingly difficult.

David Jacobstein wrestled with this question about 18 months ago, enquiring into how much to confront donors with the reality of what their work is, versus continued acceptance of the terms on which they receive funding. I’ve also been reflecting on what “counts” as social accountability recently, and reading Brendan Halloran’s piece on the evolution of “accountability ecosystems” as a concept has prompted me to share a few thoughts of my own.

Perhaps the most common definition of “social accountability,”…


John William Waterhouse, Psyche Opening the Golden Box

I finally got the chance to read the Accountability Research Center’s (ARC) recent study on “bottom up accountability” in Uganda. It’s a long read, but worth it because it offers some insights into a “black box of implementation.”

I’ve discussed opening black boxes before, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts on what “opening the black box” really entails in the accountability debate, and what implications this may have for practitioners and donors.

The takeaway I want to emphasise here is that what matters is not just what and how much you do, but when you do it, where


Wolfgang Tillmans, Lux

Theories of change and foresight

A few weeks ago, I wrote a response to Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez’s blog on whether theories of change are still useful? in the international development sector.

While there’s little doubt theories of change have been frequently misused and abused, I argued that when we use theories of change to critically examine our hypotheses and assumptions, they remain very useful. I suggested that they can be most useful when we: 1) set clear boundaries, 2) are problem-driven, 3) are evidence-based, 4) are explicit about testing our assumptions, and 5) review key areas of focus regularly.

One speculative recommendation I made was…


Kandinsky, Colour Theory

Check out my discussion with Matt Bevan on the good, the bad, and the ugly of theories of change on his podcast Measurement Matters here.

Thomas Aston

I'm an independent consultant specialising in theory-based and participatory evaluation methods.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store