Designing and Testing Global and Local Theories of Change: International Committee of the Red Cross

Date Published: June 19, 2024Author:
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In 2019, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) joined InterAction’s Advisory Committee for the design of the Gender-Based Violence Prevention Evaluation Framework (GBV PEF), a resource aimed at helping organizations measure and evaluate the outcomes of their GBV prevention work in humanitarian contexts. ICRC embarked on the process with a commitment to putting the GBV PEF to use internally. Therefore, building on its existing efforts to address sexual violence, ICRC launched the Prevention of Sexual Violence Programme (PSVP) in 2022, with the first iteration ongoing until 2026.

The PSVP is a multi-year, multi-country initiative that seeks to strengthen efforts to prevent sexual violence in areas where the ICRC is present by promoting community-based protection and dialogue with weapon bearers. Specifically, the PSVP strives to remind authorities of their primary duty to protect their populations and, therefore, take measures to prevent sexual violence, support communities to mitigate risks and strengthen their resilience to the threats and consequences of sexual violence, and engage with weapon bearers in order to influence their attitudes toward sexual violence and shift their behaviors.

A critical element of the PSVP is to understand what works in the prevention of sexual violence and how to measure it in order to feed back this learning into the wider GBV humanitarian sector. The program explicitly works to improve methodologies for and monitoring of activities to prevent sexual violence, using, among other tools, Theories of Change (ToCs) to bridge the gap between systematic practices and institutional knowledge, on the one hand, and field implementation and learning, on the other. The initiative is being piloted in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. The resources are being made available to all ICRC staff and Red Cross Red Crescent Movement partners.

Theories of Change (ToC)

Theories of Change (ToC) are descriptions of how a project intends to bring about change for individuals, groups, and communities. They typically seek to map a pathway to change, including activities, outputs, outcomes, and final impacts of the project. Critically, ToCs also explain the assumptions that the project team is making about the causal mechanisms. At its most basic, a ToC is just a statement of the form “IF we do this activity, THEN this change will happen, BECAUSE of these factors.”

Shifting Mindsets

ICRC’s approach to the PSVP was grounded in a recognition that the use of outcome-oriented approaches, such as ToCs, require more than simple training on a specific method or tool—it requires a deliberate shift to nurture a collective appreciation and willingness to adopt complex new ways of thinking and working. Notably, ICRC’s mechanisms for Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) do not rely on dedicated M&E teams in country; rather, they are embedded within the responsibilities of its members across departments. The combination of GBV, M&E, and prevention was, therefore, a daunting prospect for many. In order to overcome these barriers, ICRC engaged multidisciplinary teams and Movement partners in each pilot country to conduct a series of workshops on planning and measuring change aimed at encouraging teams to recognize the importance of shifting from process-driven programming to results-driven programming

Colleagues really appreciated the mindset shift. It allowed them to feel more confident on many fronts – professionally and personally – since they have an understanding of what are their individual contributions to the broader protection work.

Zuleyka Piniella, Global Coordinator, Prevention of Sexual Violence Programme, ICRC

While ICRC used the GBV PEF as the primary framework for the workshops, participants reported that the most useful sessions were those that linked elements of the GBV PEF to existing ICRC models. The sessions centered primarily on risk analysis as the foundation for designing and measuring context-specific and outcome-oriented interventions. ICRC found that this use of risk analysis not only generated a nuanced understanding of local dynamics on which to develop their ToCs, but also served as a meaningful process to value the practice-based knowledge that field teams—and especially local staff—already have. As a result of the workshops, ICRC has observed continued enthusiasm among its teams to employ the ToC approach.

Building Context-Specific Theories of Change

As an initial output of the PSVP, ICRC produced a global-level ToC on prevention of sexual violence. The unique role of the PSVP was to further contextualize this ToC for each delegation and to subsequently harness lessons from the country-level ToCs to deepen global good practices in an iterative process of double-loop learning. ICRC was particularly deliberate in ensuring that the global ToC was not imposed on delegations, but rather used as a source of inspiration so that teams had an existing model to critique, instead of having to start with a blank slate. The development and validation of the contextualized ToCs followed different pathways. In some contexts, the workshops on planning and measuring change provided an initial draft of the ToC, which was later elaborated by the participants. In one context, ICRC teams conducted consultations with local communities and supported them to design their own ToCs, which subsequently inform ICRC’s own internal ToC. Teams in two other contexts embarked on the joint development of ToCs with duty-bearers (including weapon-bearers and authorities), in an effort to promote ownership and accountability from the stakeholders from the outset. Various consultations with victims/survivors of sexual violence were also held to inform ICRC’s prevention efforts in line with a survivor-centered approach. All of the resulting ToCs are considered works in progress and are subject to validation as new data from the implementation emerges. Following the double-loop learning approach, the lessons learned will inform the next round of activities.

This practice of developing context-specific ToCs has even trickled out beyond those teams who are immediately involved in the PSVP, as one participant suggested that they have independently undertaken efforts to develop a ToC for their detention-related work. Three out of the four pilot contexts have since developed country-wide ToCs that inform ICRC’s multidisciplinary work in addressing sexual violence.

Integrating Assumptions

As a core element of its ToC approach, ICRC has been deliberate about the process of articulating causal assumptions at each level of its pathways to change. In identifying these assumptions, teams have also indicated sources of evidence from the programming that could be used to either substantiate or invalidate the assumption. Teams in each delegation have actively been gathering evidence to test the assumptions in their context-specific ToCs, which is helping to demonstrate gaps in the causal logic within the global ToC. Based on this emergent data, ICRC has been able to test 58% of the assumptions in its global ToC. ICRC is continuing this process throughout 2024 in advance of a global exercise to review the assumptions and update the overall global ToC next year, to be tested again in 2025 and 2026. This model—inspired by the GBV PEF and piloted by the PSVP—is further inspiring other ICRC departments to adopt similar ToC approaches to design their programs for other international humanitarian law violations.


Assumptions are the basic beliefs that we have about why each element of the ToC leads to the other (the “BECAUSE” part of the IF-THEN statement). Causal assumptions are descriptions of the analytical factors that must be true for the program activity to have the intended effect; or for the output to cause the intended outcome; or for the outcome to have the intended impact. On the other hand, background assumptions are descriptions of beliefs about the context that must be true for the program activity to be implemented.

Recommendations for Practitioners

·       Invest in outcome-oriented thinking – Developing context-specific theories of change often requires teams to reorient their thinking from activities to results, so that they can fully contribute to and benefit from the design process. Managers can support their teams by convening training and giving space for collective deliberation and learning on outcome-oriented approaches in a way that generates team buy-in and decentralizes uptake.

·       Bring together multidisciplinary teams – Theories of change should always draw on existing evidence, and field teams and affected communities can often offer critical insights into local dynamics. Convening diverse participants to contribute to the design of theories of change can help to make explicit the underlying causal pathways and incorporate practice-based knowledge into the evidence ecosystem.

·       Link assumptions to evidence – While assumptions are an essential component of theories of change that help to unpack internal beliefs about the causal logic, they are very rarely tested. Practitioners can work to ensure the robustness of their theories of change by identifying specific sources of evidence—for example, ongoing research or field monitoring data—that will enable nascent assumptions to be validated as program implementation continues.

Designing and Testing Global and Local Theories of Change: International Committee of the Red Cross