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DRG TIG Week: Using a Learning Agenda to Test a Theory of Change by Marcia Mundt, Linda Stern, Natalie Trisilla, and Rakesh Sharma

Hi! My name is Marcia Mundt, and I oversee research, evaluation, and learning at the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS). I am joined by Linda Stern (NDI), Rakesh Sharma (IFES), and Natalie Trisilla (IRI).

CEPPS recently developed a learning agenda to advance the Democracy, Rights, and Governance (DRG) sector’s understanding of interventions that effectively and sustainably promote self-reliant, citizen-responsive, and resilient democratic governance and respect for human dignity, rights and rule of law. The Democratic Elections and Political Processes (DEPP) Learning Agenda, launched in 2023 and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is uniquely structured around a testable theory of change describing how key stakeholders within a democracy interact to ensure that the democratic system is inclusive, accountable, and resilient to backsliding.

In preparation to launch DEPP, CEPPS partner organizations articulated a democratic development global theory of change (GTOC) grounded in academic theory on horizontal, vertical, and diagonal political accountability. This GTOC presents democracies as complex, self-organizing systems that must be both inclusive and accountable. In such a system, each stakeholder has an important role to play:

  • Citizens must have equal access to participate and leverage their ability to freely express their interests.
  • Political parties must be responsive to and adequately represent all constituencies.
  • Media and civil society must share credible information, advocate for change, and actively monitor the political system.
  • Institutions must uphold a system of checks and balances through transparency, meaningful public engagement, and adherence to their mandate.
  • Transnational bodies must set and uphold international standards and mechanisms to address challenges that transcend borders.

Assuming these stakeholders uphold their roles, the GTOC hypothesizes that the democratic ecosystem will be responsive to the needs and concerns of all individuals – as both an inclusive and accountable democracy – and more resilient to risks and shocks. To test this theory, the DEPP Learning Agenda includes fifteen learning questions to probe the assumptions for each of the five GTOC stakeholder groups.

Lessons Learned

  1. Leverage the logic model – While there are many ways to organize a learning agenda, we found it helpful to emphasize the key actors and their relationships. This allowed us to explore multiple dynamics within a democratic system, while keeping to five core themes closely tied to the GTOC.
  2. Bridge the academic-practitioner divide – In addition to basing the GTOC on academic theory, in the development of the DEPP Learning Agenda, we partnered with scholars at D-Arch and EGAP to validate (or eliminate) potential learning questions. We also brought academics to the table to deliberate and present on the five core themes at the Annual Learning Forum launch event.

Hot Tips

  • Make room for theory-testing and theory-building – DRG programming builds upon a wealth of evidence and decades of practice, but there are still knowledge gaps. When developing a theory-based learning agenda, ensure there are questions that both test theory, like evaluative questions about intervention effectiveness, and questions that build theory, such as exploratory questions about the factors enabling or hindering democratic developments from taking root.
  • Go broad, but not too broad – We wanted our questions to be broad enough to capture all consortium partners’ learning priorities while also answerable. Developing selection criteria helped us achieve both aims. For example, our final questions had to be: 1) relevant across multiple DEPP objectives and programming regions, 2) applicable to designing DRG programming, and 3) answerable within 2-3 years.

Stay tuned to see which GTOC assumptions hold and which ones require adjustment as the DEPP Learning Agenda unfolds over the coming years.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Democracy, Human Rights & Governance TIG Week with our colleagues in the Democracy, Human Rights & Governance Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our DRG TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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