News, Systems Thinking



For the last 25 years, design, planning and evaluation have been dominated by the mandate that interventions be based on a theory of change. In January 2020, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food formally adopted a theory of transformation. This conceptual breakthrough comes at a critical time when, in the face of the global climate emergency, the need for transformation has become the clarion call of our times.

Why does it matter?
In 1995, Carol Weiss, a distinguished sociologist and founder of the evaluation profession, participated in an Aspen Institute conference focused on designing community-based anti-poverty interventions. Her commentary there became an article entitled, “Nothing as practical as a good theory.” She criticized large-scale community initiatives that poured millions of dollars into community change efforts with no knowledge of the relevant social science research that should have been informing such efforts. Her article became one of the most influential, if not the most influential, articles in the history of program evaluation. Today, we would say, it went viral.

Theories of change identify and hypothesize the causal linkages that will lead to desired results. To be credible, useful and meaningful, they must be theoretically sound, empirically based, and substantively relevant. The influence of Weiss continues today in that most funders still require a theory of change be included in development proposals. Unfortunately, although the analysis of global challenges in these initiatives tend to be well-informed and frightening — for the trends and insights are dismal — the resulting solutions proposed are often the same old repackaged projects mired in ineffective project thinking.

Transformation is not a project
Transformation is multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, cutting across national borders and intervention silos, across sectors and specialized interests — connecting local and global, and sustains across time. As such, a theory of transformation incorporates multiple theories of change operating at many levels that, when knitted together, explain how major systems transformation occurs.

The Global Alliance’s strategy is aimed at stimulating local and global action and interaction for transformational change in collaboration with other committed stakeholders. To this network of allies, transformation means realizing healthy, equitable, renewable, resilient, inclusive, and culturally diverse food systems shared by people, communities, and their institutions. This strategy is encapsulated in the Global Alliance’s theory of transformation:

Genuine food systems transformation takes place when diverse actions, networks, and individuals intersect across the sector and issue silos, the global and local, the macro and the micro. These intersections facilitate convergence around shared visions and values and, ultimately, build critical mass and momentum behind tipping points that lead to healthy, equitable, renewable, resilient, inclusive, and culturally diverse food systems that dynamically endure over time.

The theory was adopted after a year of reviewing research and evaluations in conjunction with developing the network’s strategy. The draft was then used and tested before the final wording, helping to inform activities and to provide a basis for evaluating products and impacts through the lens of transformational engagement.

The formal adoption by members on 22 January 2020 is a watershed moment. It illuminates what it means to face the global climate emergency with a theoretically sound, empirically based, and substantively relevant theory of transformation.

For more on the nature and importance of a theory of transformation see Blue Marble Evaluation, chapter 13, by Michael Quinn Patton, Guilford Press, 2020.