The third overarching Blue Marble Evaluation principles concerns transformational engagement:
Engage and evaluate consistent with the magnitude,
direction, and speed of transformations needed and envisioned.
That leads to the Blue Marble Theory of Transformation operating principle:
Design and evaluate transformation based on
an evidence-supported theory of transformation.
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 transcended theory of change by formally adopting an official theory of transformation, to the best of my knowledge, the world’s first such formal action by an organization. This historic 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. Let me briefly review how we got from there (theory of change) to here (theory of transformation) – and why it matters.
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, article in the history of program evaluation. Today, we would say, it went viral.
In that classic article Weiss was especially articulate about the theory-practice connection. She wrote:
“It is sometimes said that there are two kinds of people in the world: thinkers and doers. And, of course, the third type: those who neither think nor do, but we won’t worry about them just now. Thinkers are the world theoreticians. They love ideas, many of which have yet to be tested and may prove quite impractical. Doers, on the other hand, are too busy doing to worry about theory. But ultimately, theory and practice ought to connect. Practice is the test of theory. Theory is the explanation of practice. The evaluator’s job is to challenge both practitioners and theoreticians. With the latter we ask, “So, it works in theory, but does it work in practice?” And with practitioners we ask, smiling diabolically, “Yes, it works in practice, but does it work in theory.”
To be credible, useful, relevant, and meaningful, a theory of change must be theoretically sound, empirically-based, and substantively relevant. Theories of change identify and hypothesize the causal linkages that will lead to desired results. The influence of Weiss continues today in that most funders require a theory of change be included in development proposals. The analysis of the global challenges in these initiatives tends to be well-informed and frightening, for the trends are dismal. But the proposed solutions are often the same old repackaged projects mired in ineffective and outdated project thinking.
Theory of Transformation
Transformation involves a different order of magnitude and speed than project-bounded changes. The language of transformation suggests major systems change and rapid reform at a global level. A vision of transformation has become central to international dialogues about the future of the Earth and sustainable development.
A theory of change specifies how a project or program attains desired outcomes. Transformation is not a project. It is multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, and multilevel, cutting across national borders and intervention silos, across sectors and specialized interests, connecting local and global, and sustaining across time. A theory of transformation incorporates and integrates multiple theories of change operating at many levels that, knitted together, explain
how major systems transformation occurs.
The Global Alliance has adopted a strategy aimed at stimulating local and global action and interaction for transformational change in collaboration with other committed stakeholders. Transformation means realizing healthy, equitable, renewable, resilient, and culturally diverse food systems shared by people, communities, and their institutions. The Global Alliance has developed and formally adopted a theory of transformation that informs its activities and provides a basis for evaluating its products, activities, and impacts through the lens of transformational engagement.
Theory of Transformation Narrative Summary: Global Alliance for the Future of Food
Genuine food system transformation takes place when diverse actions, networks, and individuals intersect across 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, and culturally diverse food systems that dynamically endure over time.
This theory of transformation was adopted after a year of reviewing relevant research and evaluations in conjunction with developing the Global Alliance strategy. The draft theory of transformation was then used and tested for a year before final wording and adoption. The formal adoption of this theory of transformation by the Global Alliance members on January 22, 2020 constitutes a watershed moment illustrating and illuminating what it means to face the global emergency with a theoretically sound, empirically-based, and substantively relevant theory of transformation. The Global Alliance is now committed to using Blue Marble Evaluation principles to monitor and evaluate adherence to and results of the theory of transformation.