By Lucy Gray

This article was originally published in the November 2019 issue of the INTRAC newsletter. Subscribe today to receive new issues in your inbox.

The GCRF Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub is a five-year research project improving water security for a resilient future. The Hub is funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment. Tacking water security issues in four countries – Colombia, Ethiopia, India, and Malaysia – the Hub facilitates research and engagement among a broad range of academics, from social scientists to hydrologists, economists to microbiologists, as well as key partners from business & industry, non-profits and public administration.

Kicking off our 5-year programme of work, this summer INTRAC was commissioned to lead the revision of the Hub’s theory of change (ToC). We worked intensively with UK based academics and research partners from across the four countries through a series of surveys, focus group discussions and in-country workshops. Not only were workshops essential to our understanding of water security problems and the broader context for change, they served as a way to ensure active participation of local researchers in the project planning process – one of the Hub’s core values.

What have we learned?

  • Communicating a theory of change that captures the complexity of a systems-scale research programme working across multiple country contexts comes with many challenges. Rather than trying to visualise the many different aspects of complexity we opted for a simple flow diagram to depict the core logic, adding in contextual information and core assumptions, and ensuring this is easily relatable to the ToC narrative (where we were able to get into the complexities in more detail).
  • Impact-focused planning: envisioning and documenting the potential impact of research is a relatively new practice for many academics (in the UK and overseas). We needed to remind academics that research plans should be based on the impact they hope to see in the world, and then help them to understand that ToC is both a process for mapping out the impact of their work and a product that serves to communicate this to others.
  • Finding a common language: development practitioners and academics have different understandings of key terminology, i.e. ‘impact’, ‘pathways to impact’, ‘theory’ of change… For example, ‘impact’ is understood as ‘the (non-academic) good that researchers can do in the world’. Impact is essentially a catch-all term for the effects of the research project’s core activities, be those outputs, outcomes or impacts more commonly understood in development circles. And ‘pathways to impact’ are understood as the activities that link research to impact (not the causal linkages understood within development circles).

Lucy Gray is a facilitator and trainer who is currently Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Adviser for the GCRF Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub, led by Newcastle University.