Originally published January 2005. Current Implications section by Heidi Burgess added June 2020.
Responding to tensions and violence between ethnic groups around the world, a growing number of non-governmental organizations have developed innovative programs and approaches to help resolve conflicts, prevent violence, and promote more cooperative relationships between groups. Each intervention program identifies and interprets the causes and conditions leading to ethnic conflicts, and sets a unique course that, if followed, should result in powerful change to resolve these conflicts. The diverse approaches they use often seek to address both diffuse tensions and specific conflicts, make short- and long-term changes, and influence those who directly participate in the intervention as well as the larger conflict situation.
These programs offer many success stories in transforming people's attitudes and behaviors, intergroup relationships, and social institutions and policies, yet few efforts have been made to recognize and compare the variety of theories of change that shape these interventions. This short essay provides a conceptual framework for articulating and mapping programs' theories of change - or the core, often implicit, assumptions about how change happens that that guide practitioner's intervention design. It briefly reviews a variety of theories of change for resolving ethnic conflict in light of scholarly research and theory -- particularly in the field of psychology.
Drawn from the literature on program evaluation, a theory of change refers to the causal processes through which change comes about as a result of a program's strategies and action. It relates to how practitioners believe individual, intergroup, and social/ systemic change happens and how, specifically, their actions will produce positive results.
For example, a theory of change for a post-conflict healing and reconciliation intervention might suggest that sharing personal stories of trauma and injustice in small, ethnically mixed groups, combined with dialogue, personal reflection, and vulnerability to emotion, can lead to individual transformation. Small group processes help participants develop empathy, recognize common humanity, and build positive relationships across ethnic or group lines. These cooperative relationships are powerful engines for community and structural change. They can also help establish public rituals and symbolic actions that acknowledge group suffering, offer apology, and signify future good will to foster social healing and structural change.
In contrast, a theory of change for a conflict management initiative working on similar issues in the same region might focus on creating new forums that bring influential representatives of stakeholders together to explore a new analysis of the problem, develop cooperative problem-solving skills, and create joint action plans. These new forums, skills, partnerships, and joint action planning interrupt old, habituated patterns of conflictual interaction between individuals and groups and offer ongoing mechanisms for institutional and policy change.
In general, the theories of change have not been adequately articulated or described. This precludes real evaluation of programmatic assumptions and activities, hinders efforts to test the relative effectiveness of different approaches under specific conditions, and ultimately limits the revision and refinement of both theory and practice. Used in combination with Argyris and Schon's (1974) overlapping work on theories of practice, examining programs' theories of change provides a useful framework for differentiating program approaches, promoting the appropriate selection and support of diverse interventions, and advancing research that both refines theoryand improves practice.
Programs often have complex and overlapping assumptions about the causes and effective responses to ethnic conflict, yet a comparison across programs reveals that programs name and frame both the problem and their response in distinct ways. Relatively few typologies exist in the scholarly and programmatic literature to describe these different approaches. For example, in his article, Creating the Conditions for Peacemaking, Ross reviewed the conflict intervention literature and identified six theories of practice for ethnic conflict resolution in international settings. These included: 1) Community Relations, 2) Principled Negotiation, 3) Human Needs Theory, 4) Psychoanalytically Informed Identity Theory, 5) Intercultural Miscommunication, and 6) Conflict Transformation. His analysis compared these theories of practice along the dimensions of: a) the assumed nature and causes of ethnic conflict; b) program goals; c) effects on participants in the intervention; d) mechanisms for achieving effects; e) transfer or impact on the wider conflict; and f) similarities across theories.
Building on this framework, Shapiro conducted field research comparing theories of practice and change for fifteen programs that address ethnic and racialized tensions or conflicts in the U.S. The typology emerging from interviews, observations, and reviews of program documents in that study included six different theories of practice and change: 1) Prejudice Reduction; 2) Healing and Reconciliation; 3) Anti-Racism; 4) Diversity/ Multiculturalism; 5) Democracy Building; and 6) Conflict Management. These theories of practice and change were compared along the dimensions of: 1) problem framing; 2) goals and intended effects; 3) theories of how change happens; 4) intervention framing; and 5) theoretical roots of the program. Differences between approaches examined in that study are summarized briefly in Figure 1.
This typology briefly highlights aspects of interventions addressing racial and ethnic tensions in the U.S., but further research is needed to describe and comparatively evaluate the range of theories of change in conflict resolution interventions outside of the U.S. (See Figure 1)
It is important to note that the theories of change in these typologies are not necessarily contradictory -- they may instead just draw upon different theories and traditions, highlight different aspects of the conflict, and emphasize different priorities for resolution. Typologies such as this one should not be used to confine or delimit any program, nor fuel debates over approaches. Instead, they provide an opportunity for comparative analysis that aims to stimulate further reflection and discussion about the evolving shape and development of this field and deepen understandings about the contributions of each approach.
Mapping Theories of Change
Theories of change can be identified either prospectively as part of planning an initiative or retrospectively as part an evaluative process. In either case, this kind of analysis requires both time and honest reflection from program leaders and practitioners. Because self-reports about change theories often do not surface more implicit assumptions, outside facilitators can help map these theories by observing interventions and analyzing program narratives.
Initial interviews with practitioners can elicit programs' theories of change as well as both the explicit and implicit logic of an intervention design. This includes how they: 1) frame the specific problems to be addressed; 2) frame their intervention goals; 3) identify processes through which change happens; 4) describe their strategies, principles and specific methods for intervention; and 5) delineate short- and long-term intended effects. Graphic representations and written descriptions of these practice and change frameworks can help clarify the relationship between categories. Figure 2 provides an example of how one program's theory of change might be mapped. (See Figure 2)
After an initial mapping, facilitators should focus additional questions on clarifying ambiguous meanings, connections, and inconsistencies, as well as explore the reasoning that leads program leaders to their inferences about how change happens. Descriptions and mapping should be reviewed by program leaders often so that they provide detailed feedback to be used in correcting and refining the description.
Articulating theories of change often requires 'backward mapping' -- or identifying the intended outcomes of a program that often lead practitioners to their decisions about specific strategies and methods of intervention. The scope and specificity of a theory of change -- or the kinds of changes the program does and does not account for - vary considerably among programs. Researchers assert that good theories of change have at least three attributes:
1) they are plausible -- evidence and common sense suggest that the specified activities will lead to the desired outcomes;
2) they are doable -- the initiative has adequate financial, technical, political, institutional and human resources to implement the strategy; and
3) they are testable -- the pathways of change are specific and complete enough, with measurable indicators and specified pre-conditions, to track the progress in a credible and useful way.
Theories of change should also specify short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals. In addition, theories of change should outline intended effects that directly relate to participants in the intervention -- (e.g. development of empathy, new skills, and cooperative relationships among participants) -- and intended effects beyond the context of the intervention (e.g. creation of new conflict resolution education programs in schools; ongoing forum for bi-communal meetings) These goals often overlap with intended changes at individual, relational, and structural levels.
Beyond accurately surfacing and articulating programmatic theories of change, it is essential to review their quality by comparing them with empirical evidence or relevant case studies. For example, empirical evidence might not support program theories about cathartic expression or venting of emotion as leading to personal healing and attitude change. A critical review of program logic and assumptions can seem threatening to organizations and engender resistance where evidence suggests that programmatic conceptions are flawed. The quality review process is not designed to limit freedom or experimentation with new approaches to practice and change, but rather to better integrate research, theory, and practice.
Changing Individuals, Relationships, and Social Structures through Conflict Interventions
Some of the most prevalent distinctions in both the academic and programmatic literatures about theories of change center around levels of analysis - or whether change efforts focus primarily on individuals, intergroup relationships, or structures and systems. While many theories cut across levels of analysis and most programs work at all of these levels to some extent, program's theories of change often focus predominantly on one level as the starting point for initiating change.
Program Goals and Intended Effects
Goals and intended effects often serve as signposts, markers and a vision for programs' change efforts. In examining theories of change, the importance of process and content goals lie in identifying their specific connection to intended outcomes and mapping those proposed pathways of change. Programs' outcome goals usually focus on targeted change in a variety of arenas (e.g. policies and procedures, relationships, attitudes, knowledge or skills.) Figure 3 provides examples of intended effects emerging from research on intervention programs that address racial and ethnic conflict in the U.S. and are loosely sorted into the categories of analysis, alliance, and action. (See Figure 3)
The following section briefly examines a variety of program perspectives on how change happens in individuals, intergroup relations, and social systems and points to some of the divergent theories of change that are prevalent in conflict resolution work. This review also examines theories of change in light of scholarly research and theory -- particularly in the field of psychology. While this short essay cannot provide a comprehensive review of the wide array of change theories, such a review would be useful for situating different programs and assist in developing a framework for appropriate use and evaluation of program assumptions and methods.
Practitioners often view themselves and their programs as change agents, and encourage participants to take leadership roles in their respective communities and organizations in fostering change. Intervention programs tend to have a relatively hopeful vision of change, grounded in optimism both about the opportunities for positive change inherent in conflict situations and about human capacities to change and learn. 
In promoting cognitive, emotional, and behavioral change, intervention programs utilize, though rarely explicitly, a wide array of learning theories prevalent in educational and therapeutic literatures.
- Insight and Awareness: Many practitioners talk about the importance of individual insight or the "aha" experience of discovery in raising awareness and changing attitudes. They also use a variety of tools and methodologies to surface unconscious attitudes and behaviors with the understanding that awareness allows for critical thinking and choice.
- Learning: Programs consistently invoke a wide variety of educational approaches to learning. For example, practitioners frequently elicit participants' existing knowledge in an effort to build upon it and facilitate encoding of new knowledge. They also introduce new information in unthreatening contexts (e.g. analysis of a conflict situation different from the one parties are in) and encourage participants to transfer that learning to their own contexts.
- Cognitive Space and Permission: Practitioners use a variety of methods to establish and encourage a "safe environment" that provides permission for parties to entertain and experiment with new ways of thinking and relating to each other. This cognitive expansion and permission allows for more complex understandings of the issues, other parties, sources of conflict, and possibilities for resolution.
- Cognitive Reframing: Programs also use strategies to facilitate cognitive reframing or reorganization. This often takes the form of confronting individuals with information discrepant [or contradictory to their expressed views, attitudes or self-image to induce cognitive dissonance and create opportunities for reframing and re-organization]. In addition, practitioners often reframe parties' narratives in more neutral or integrative terms to help redirect negative perceptions away from individuals and groups and toward objects, symbols or ideas.
- Emotional Change: While most programs recognize that strong emotions are an inevitable part of ethnic conflict, they exhibit a range of views on the role of emotions in individual change efforts.
- Emotional Control: Drawing on rational actor paradigms, many programs view the expression of strong emotions during an intervention as an unavoidable obstacle to resolution that needs to be effectively controlled or managed. When personal emotions can be effectively controlled, parties are better able to make more rational situation assessments and decisions for resolving conflict.
- Catharsis: Other programs view the expression or discharge of emotion (e.g. yelling, crying) as an opening or a catalyst for individual change. In keeping with cathartic therapies, practitioners believe that surfacing and expressing emotions can release frozen psychological processes, patterns of thought and behavior, and aspects of the self to facilitate healing.
- Emotional Literacy: Yet other programs view emotions as internal messengers about individuals' needs and concerns. These programs focus on helping participants read and interpret their feelings as a form of emotional literacy, promoting self-awareness.
- Emotional Contradictions: Some programs focus on the importance creating emotional contradiction in participants to evoke change. Mirroring cognitive dissonance processes, where parties develop empathy for members of groups that they have generally disliked, the emotional contradiction facilitates reassessment of convictions.
A wide array of theories are invoked to promote behavioral change and learning during interventions. A few of these are mentioned briefly below.
- Modeling and Social Learning: Most programs draw implicitly from social learning theory in emphasizing the importance of modeling and imitation in behavior change. For example, practitioners often mention 'walking the talk' or invoking Ghandi's precept to 'live the change we seek to create' in providing a model of behavior for participants during an intervention.
- Rehearsal: Invoking behaviorist theories of change, practitioners often create repetitive opportunities for participants to practice or rehearse new skills and behaviors. Constructive feedback about performance, the introduction of successively more complex skill sets, and positive reinforcement also facilitates behavioral change.
- Adoption of Innovation: Programs specifically aim to create a reassuring environment to promote adoption of innovative conflict resolution ideas and behaviors. This sometimes involves appealing to an "innovator", "pioneer", or "leader" image that people have about themselves. Alternately, when changes are presented as inevitable or already adopted by many, such appeals may tap into a need for belonging.
- Learning by Doing: In keeping with a wealth of social psychological research demonstrating that action is an effective pathway to attitude change, programs often encourage participants to interact cooperatively and use conflict resolution skills even when they are in deep conflict. Learning by doing invokes cognitive dissonance processes that encourage participants to shift attitudes so that they better align with their behaviors.
- Motivation: Many practitioners discuss the importance of fostering feelings of self-efficacy, empowerment, responsibility, and hope in participants to increase motivation for future, constructive action.
Practitioners who focus on changes in intergroup relations often assert that networks, coalitions, alliances, and other cooperative group relationships are key in promoting both individual and social change.
- Contact Hypotheses: Consonant with the contact hypothesis, many intervention programs try to establish cooperative, equal-status interaction between participants from different ethnic groups. Programs often focus on identifying common ground and working toward super-ordinate goals. In addition, many interventions try to garner support for their work from local authorities to attract participants, improve the implementation of agreements, recommendations, or action initiatives resulting from the intervention, and otherwise enhance the impact of the work. These efforts are designed to help break down prejudices about the 'Other' and build cooperative relationships (cooperative approaches to conflict) across groups that can result in cooperative action.
- De-categorization and Re-categorization: In addition, mixed-ethnic group interventions that are organized around a social identity other than ethnicity (e.g. gender, age, professional group, etc.) can highlight common identities that cut across ethnic lines. When interventions can decrease the salience of ethnic identity and enhance the importance and collective esteem for other, cross-cutting facets of identity, participants can begin the processes of de-categorization and re-categorization that help build interethnic relationships.
- Personal Stories: In keeping with research on shifts in small-group processes, many practitioners recognize the importance and persuasive power of sharing personal experiences or stories in transforming relationships between people. Personal anecdotes often entail significant self-disclosure and indirect emotional appeals. Practitioners suggest that these stories serve to enhance empathy, promote perspective-taking and integrative complexity, and draw connections across racial and ethnic divisions.
- Acknowledgement, Mourning, and Forgiveness: Psychodynamic theories of group change suggest that an essential ingredient of healing and reconciliation involve group processes of acknowledgement, mourning and forgiveness. Explicit acknowledgement and acceptance of moral responsibility for past events that victimized the other group, along with assurances that similar events will not happen in the future can activate a response of forgiveness that releases, on a deeper level, resistance to completing the mourning process and moving forward into problem-solving for a better future.
While social change is at the heart of many conflict resolution interventions, practitioners rarely reference classic social change models such as dialectical processes, progressive or evolutionary processes, or cyclical models. Many practitioners discuss Kuhn's model of paradigm shifts and the role of their interventions (and the conflict resolution field as a whole) in facilitating paradigmatic shifts in understandings of conflict, international relations, and peacebuilding. In recent years, conflict interventions seem to draw more from chaos and complexity theory in understanding dynamic systems as a complicated web of mutually influencing relationships rather than more mechanistic models of isolated causes and effects. For the most part, however, intervention programs draw primarily from a variety of planned change strategies where theories of the person, and the connection between individual, relational and structural change, vary considerably.
- Conflict Resolution as a Vehicle for Social Change: There is much discussion in both the academic and practitioner literature about conflict resolution as an important vehicle for social change and the role of interveners in either fostering social control (status quo) or social transformation. Most ethnic conflict interventions have explicit goals of creating some form of social or systemic change, though their pathways for change differ considerably.
- Empirical-Rational Approaches: Some practitioners implicitly base interventions on assumptions of rational, self-interest focusing on providing the right information, education or training to allow people to change of their own volition; ensuring the right people are in the right place to bring about needed, practical changes; clarifying or reconceptualizing "the problem" to enhance overall understanding; and promoting visioning to stimulate creativity and "best-case" scenarios.
- Normative-Re-educative Approaches: Many others in the field focus on the socially constructed nature of conflict and the non-cognitive resistances and supports for change such as cultural values and norms. Perhaps the most widely used approach in current conflict interventions, these efforts focus on working collaboratively with parties to identify problems and facilitate solutions. It aims to improve problem-solving capacities, forums, and mechanisms within a system, and foster new attitudes, values, skills, and norms for interaction among people who make up the system.
- Power-Coercive Approaches: At times, practitioners also focus on the role of moral, political and economic power to address asymmetries and injustices in conflict situations. For example, they work with disempowered parties to introduce nonviolent action strategies and foster local peace movements. Social justice and peacebuilding is also promoted through institutional, legislative, and policy change as well as influencing or changing leadership or power elite. Because they often create change through processes of confrontation and conflict enhancement, however, these strategies are used more circumspectly for certain conflict stages or conditions.
- Critical Mass: Drawing implicitly on diffusion of innovation theory, many practitioners discuss the importance of developing a 'critical mass' of individuals who have adopted constructive conflict resolution knowledge and skills in initiating positive social change. When this critical mass of individuals exists, change spreads rapidly and crystallizes to become self-sustaining in society.
- Ripple Effects: In understanding how small-group conflict interventions can create large-scale social change, many practitioners discuss the impact that participants can have on those within their personal and professional spheres of influence. Often referred to as a ripple effect or transfer effect, program's suggest that the individual and relational changes that occur during small-group interventions will have ever-widening circles of impact as participants take their new learning back into their respective communities and organizations.
- Overcoming Resistance: Although their methods practically address such issues, practitioners rarely focus explicitly on the importance and difficulties of dealing with resistance to change. Lewin's model of unfreezing-movement-refreezing is useful in focusing on the processes of overcoming resistance to change such as basic conservative tendencies and system justification.
Some divergent understandings of planned social change relevant to current ethnic conflict interventions are briefly discussed below.
Leadership (leaders and leadership)
Program theories differ considerably in identifying who should lead change. In keeping with Lederach's model of leadership and intervention approaches, practitioners generally recognize the importance of working with a variety of kinds and levels of leadership. In practice, however, they usually choose to initiate their interventions at one particular level. For example, practitioners focusing on work with local community groups, grass-roots organizations and community leaders often discuss the role of civil society and social movements in fostering social change. Practitioners using 'middle-out' strategies recognize that mid-level leaders are a natural bridge for influencing both top and local level leaders. Finally, practitioners working with top-levels of leadership, suggest that although these interventions are constrained by political pressures, they are invaluable in creating practical agreements and symbolic gestures that directly impact policy, institutions and public perceptions.
Reformation vs. Transformation
Programs differ in whether they view change as reformation or adaptation of basically effective social, economic and political systems, or as the transformation of existing systems of relations into something very different. Some programs focus on the utility of conflict interventions for reaching agreements acceptable to all parties and averting the immense costs and destruction of violence. For example, some practitioners addressing racial tensions in the U.S. view existing political, legal and economic systems as basically effective and primarily aim to make practical adjustments and additions to help improve the functioning of these systems.
In contrast, others focus on deep-rooted problems embedded in the historical evolution of current social, political, and economic systems and view racial or ethnic conflict as the inherent by-products of such systems. Transformation, rather than mere adjustment, is required to effectively address these issues and their roots, and inclusive processes involving the cooperation of all stakeholders are invoked to help create new systems.
Changing Structures vs. Changing People
Programs also seem to differ in whether they believe the starting point for change is with individual attitudes and behaviors, or with social structures such as institutions, laws, and policies. Some suggest that transformed individuals take leadership roles in creating structural change, while others suggest that directly changing institutional policies and practices should lead to the transformation of individuals who live and work within them. While there is general consensus that both are needed and there is a reciprocal relationship, intervention strategies tend to target different starting points for change.
Similarly, many programs share a popular assumption that awareness and attitude change leads to behavioral change in individuals. Like psychoanalytic theories, this view suggests that when people become aware of a problem and can understand its causes and dynamics, they can make choices to change their behavior or situation. For example, creating a new analysis or understanding of the causes and dynamics of a conflict can lead to important behavioral changes that facilitate conflict resolution. In contrast, others suggest that changing people's behaviors by creating new social norms, laws, and institutional will ultimately be more effective in changing people's attitudes. Individuals' attitudes and intergroup relations will conform to the new structures and behaviors required by those structures. This view draws on the old community-organizing adage, 'where the feet go, the head will follow.'
Future analysis should examine these divergent theories of change in light of existing research to assist in evaluating different approaches. Where existing evidence is inconclusive, new empirical studies that test these discrepancies should be conducted to help improve understandings in the field.
Challenges in Articulating and Differentiating Theories of Change
Clearly articulating a program's theory of change can be difficult because of normal variations and inconsistencies within programs. For example, individual practitioners often interpret aspects of program theories differently which manifests in considerable variation in program implementation. In addition, there are often inconsistencies or incongruities between what practitioners say they do (espoused theory) and what they actually do (theory-in-use).
Interventions are also subject to a host of practical and contextual factors that variably shape theories of change, such as the amount of time participants are willing to commit to the program; a program's access to parties in the conflict; financial resources available for the intervention; practitioners' background and areas of expertise; and the specific contexts and conditions of the conflict. Finally, most programs take a pragmatic approach to intervention design, focusing on 'what works' rather than aligning themselves with any one particular theory of change. Because real-world interventions usually do not represent a "pure form" of any theoretical model, and strategies are often eclectic, overlapping, and evolving, it can be difficult to capture true programmatic differences and compare efforts across interventions.
Despite these challenges, understanding the wide variety of theories of change in current conflict resolution interventions is very useful in helping to:
- Recognize the shared or complimentary elements of intervention initiatives which can promote cooperation and coordination among programs and approaches
- Identify contradictory or competing assumptions and theories useful in testing the relative validity of different approaches or in differentiating the conditions under which each might be most useful.
- Foster stronger links between theory and practice by surfacing the underlying theories of individual, relational, and social change that shape practice.
- Foster reflective practice and conscious choice among practitioners that expands the range and creativity of intervention options.
- Relate the often disconnected discourse and knowledge in this field (e.g. between academic disciplines; between scholars and practitioners; between domestic and international efforts) in order to better communicate with stakeholders, funders, policymakers and others.
Distinguishing the assumptions about change that shape current interventions is important for refining theory, improving practice and ensuring the appropriate use of interventions. At the same time, the distinctions between approaches to change among intervention programs often reflect a different emphasis or focus rather than deep divisions. Acknowledging these differences is useful in comparing program approaches, but should not distract from the larger shared beliefs about the need to change destructive forms of intergroup conflict that unites this field.
We are currently witnessing, in the Summer of 2020, a level of anxiety and action related to race relations (particularly Black-White relations) that we haven't seen since the 1960s. Ignited by a police killing of an unarmed black man (George Floyd) in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. Millions of people have been demonstrating about police brutality and structural racism more broadly around the world. That has led some observers, for instance New York Times columnist David Brooks to muse about the protestor's theory of change. While I was pleased to see Brooks use this term, I was also a bit surprised, as it is not a term that is widely used or understood by a general audience. But it is very important if one hopes to accomplish real change as a result of one's efforts.
Many people have been observing that Floyd's death was just one of hundreds in the last year or two; one of thousands over the last five years.  Few of these have resulted in mass protests, but—some such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 or the brutal beating (but not killing) of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 have sparked widespread protests—though none as large as we are seeing in response to Floyd's death. Yet despite promised changes after both of those earlier incidents, the problem persists. Indeed, several black men have already been killed in suspicious incidents by police in the very few days since the Floyd killing!
The reason that so little has changed, I would argue, is because the people seeking change did not have an effective theory of change—thus they didn't really know how to bring change about. To my surprise, when I re-read this (Illana Shapiro) article (I hadn't read it since we published it in 2005), it talks directly about theories of change relating to racial and ethnic tensions in the United States. Since nothing much has changed since this was written, all of these observations are still valid today (as is the rest of the article). Figures 1 and 2 provide detailed information about six different theories of change that might be brought to bear to bring about lasting, meaningful change with respect to ethnic and racial tension, both in the U.S. and abroad. The text of the article includes many more theories. As Shapiro argues in her essay, these aren't competing theories; rather they work best when combined, bringing many different approaches to bear simultaneously on the same problem. None of these theories, one might note, are "march in the street, singing and holding signs." It's gong to take more than that to have a lasting impact.
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Use the following to cite this article:
Shapiro, Ilana. "Theories of Change." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/theories-of-change>.