TNRC Guide - Translating political economy insights into conservation practice: A six-step guide to using PEAs to design and test theories of change for interventions to protect and defend nature
Translating political economy insights into conservation practice: A six-step guide to using PEAs to design and test theories of change for interventions to protect and defend nature
This TNRC Guide shares practical knowledge for program designers and implementers to reduce corruption’s impact on conservation.
This guide suggests six steps for bringing political economy analysis (PEA) findings into a theory of change (ToC) for a project or program. It aims to provide a practical means for conservationists to navigate political economy (PE) in contexts where they work. While a ToC explains the logic of a project, a PEA, which looks at the influence of power, helps get to the heart of what needs to change for a project to work. But practitioners often find it challenging to use PEA in practice. The suggested steps are:
|Select a PEA approach that will best fit where you are in your projects, the resources available and the time available, the complexity of the context, and how much evidence exists.
|Define or adapt a realistic impact statement using PEA to figure out what ultimately needs to change and the key opportunities and constraints to that change.
|Use PEA to unpack what drives that change - use PEA to unpack what drives the change needed to realize the desired impact. This can help define project outcomes and the assumptions that must be tested and monitored.
|Develop hypotheses for how to enable those changes to occur. A PEA can provide signposts to viable entry points and aid in checking whether activities are on the path to achieving desired goals or not.
|Bring this together into a robust ToC based on an understanding of the evidence, drawn at least in part from the PEA. Alongside other sources, PEA helps to illuminate where assumptions have been made and the resulting risks that need to be monitored.
|Set up to iterate - Updating a PEA throughout a project creates opportunities to check in and assess whether the theory and its assumptions are holding up, and if not, why. Then course corrections can be made if needed.
PEA can be useful for designing a new or testing existing ToCs by:
- ✓ Clarifying the desired impact of the activity
- ✓ Checking that the anticipated impact is realistic
- ✓ Figuring out what conditions need to change to achieve this impact
- ✓ Articulating and revisiting hypotheses about how that change will happen
- ✓ Identifying other things that need to happen for those hypotheses to hold true
- ✓ Spotting why things are not happening as anticipated
- ✓ Finding weak assumptions and evidence gaps that need ongoing testing and monitoring
- ✓ Identifying risks that have not been sufficiently considered
- ✓ Testing assumptions, risks, evidence, and hypotheses over time to enable adaptation
- ✓ Supporting evaluation for better learning
What is a theory of change?
A ToC does not have one common definition (see Annex B for a range of options). For our purposes, a ToC is most useful when it a) articulates a logical explanation for how a desired set of changes is expected to occur, b) reflects understanding of the assumptions upon which the theory is predicated, and c) serves as the basis for testing whether the theory is on track or needs adapting, and in what way(s) (Vogel 2012).
What does this have to do with PEA?
PEA can be thought of as an analysis of power: for any desired change, PEA explores who holds power, how they use it, and for what purposes. As such, PEA is a tool for identifying basic hypotheses and/or teasing out assumptions that lie behind those hypotheses, and in so doing, it helps signal when assumptions may be invalid or may pose a risk to the objectives that otherwise might not have been identified.
What does this cumulatively mean? The aim of conservation is to safeguard people and nature. ToCs articulate what needs to change to deliver on that aim and contribute to impacts, along with the kinds of things that need to happen to get to that change – what needs to be different. A ToC and a related results framework also detail the activities that will be pursued to make those differences. Understanding more about who has power – to make change, to impede change – and how they get and use that power helps to clarify the conditions that need to change in order to achieve results. A ToC helps users explain the options for how change might occur, determine the level of change that is likely to be achievable, and identify pitfalls to look out for along the way.
Frequently used terms
Theory of change: While there are various definitions, we can think of such theories as “how a given intervention, or set of interventions, is expected to lead to specific development change, drawing on a causal analysis based on available evidence” (UNDAF 2017). Combining various definitions, ToCs provide ideas for how change will occur and a process of identifying the assumptions that underpin that presumed change process.
Political economy analysis: “An approach to understanding why change does or does not happen” which “unpacks … who has power, what determines levels of power and how power is exercised” (Alexander and Williams 2020, pp. 5).
Output: Sometimes termed intermediate results, these are “The tangible and intangible products that result from project activities (Parsons, Gokey and Thornton 2013, pp. 6).”
Outcome: At times called objectives or strategic objectives, these are “the benefits that a project or intervention is designed to deliver” (Ibid) – the “likely or achieved short-term and medium-term change and effects of intervention outputs” (OECD 2023).
Impact: Sometimes called goals, … the “higher-level strategic goal” of a project or activity (Parsons, Gokey and Thornton 2013, pp. 6) – those “Positive and negative, primary and secondary, long-term effects produced by … interventions” (OECD 2023).
Results framework: “An articulation of the different levels, or chains, of results expected from a particular intervention” (Roberts and Khattri 2012, pp. 7).
Step 1: Determining the right PEA approach
There is a wealth of information available on PEAs. The amount of guidance can be overwhelming, but approaches can be clustered into three “types.” The first type consists of tools that do elements of PEAs - often at least getting to root causes. The second includes “light touch” but holistic PEAs, which can be done quickly but still offer ways to identify obstacles to and opportunities for change. Those in the third category - in-depth exercises – do this with greater rigor. An overview of some of the first two types, and links to suggested tools for the third, can be found in Annex A. The table below offers suggestions for which PEA “type” might be suited to different circumstances.
Shorter, partial PEA exercise
Light touch but holistic PEAs
Regardless of the tool used, an important risk to watch for is using PEAs to validate work already decided upon. To guard against this, approaches can:
- Bring in external observers or challenge views, including through participatory engagement e.g., with communities;
- Underpin the work with a literature review; and/or
- Do further testing, including through primary qualitative data collection, where evidence gaps exist.
The steps that follow examine ways to bring findings from PEAs into ToCs. Suggestions often are focused on the project level. There is other guidance to explore if there is demand for scale or to mainstream thinking about power across sectors or teams (moving towards a Thinking and Working Politically approach).
Step 1 Exercise
Minimum time required: 15 minutes
To prepare: Select a project you are designing or you are currently implementing. Review light-touch approaches provided in Annex A. Scan the table in Step 1 above.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the PEA options in Annex A to your project?
Which PEA approach do you think might best work to begin with, and why?
Step 2: Working to a clear, realistic impact
An impact statement is based on two dimensions: what is the core problem, and how much realistically can change in the time available. PEAs provide insights for both.
Defining a clear problem or required change
A ToC sets out the combination of things that need to happen to start solving a problem, so it is important to be clear about the problem itself. PEA tools that break down why something is happening help define this foundational problem. This enables checking that the ToC does not conflate a solution or a symptom with a problem and its cause (see scenario below).
Setting realistic ambitions
Most project ToCs are time-bound and so need to identify the progress that is likely within this period. If a ToC isn’t realistic in this regard, it is unlikely to be very useful. Some of the more holistic PEA tools - including rapid ones - can tease out barriers and opportunities, offering insights on how much progress is realistic in a project’s time period.
With a clear problem in mind and a view of what is realistic, it’s possible to produce an informed impact statement. In the scenario provided above (“What is the impact?”), a simple PEA tool enables the team to shift activities toward the impact.
Step 2 Exercise
Minimum time required: 30 minutes
To prepare: Select a project - this can be from Step 1 or a different one. Look specifically at the project’s impact - the big picture issue you believe it seeks to achieve. With this in mind, conduct a “five whys” exercise (refer to Annex A).
What does the analysis suggest should be the core change(s) to address?
Is this different from what the current impact statement describes?
What do you think realistic progress will look like in your project period?
Step 3: Identifying drivers of change
The next step is to develop some ideas about the range of drivers of change - those factors that support or impede impacts. Practically, in a ToC, a project’s outcomes – the areas that the interventions will address - are derived at least in part by articulating expected progress toward realizing or addressing some of these drivers. Identifying drivers also helps identify assumptions – those things that must also occur or hold true for the theory to hold. Assumptions can be evidence-based - derived from research and analysis - but often may include implicit beliefs and expectations about how things normally work.
Before differentiating outcomes from assumptions, it is helpful to use elements of a PEA to take stock of the full picture of drivers. Once a clear idea of these drivers emerges, working through findings from the PEA against the following questions can help clarify what the project should focus on achieving, versus what it needs to assume (and monitor for whether those assumptions are correct):
- How important is this driver for the impact statement?
- Is this something the project has a comparative advantage in addressing?
- What are the risks associated with focusing on this driver?
- What, realistically, would it look like for this driver to contribute towards the impact statement?
- What will happen if the project does not directly work on this driver?
- What assumptions are necessary?
- Where the project cannot work to address a driver, is there a more indirect route to shape this dimension?
Step 3 Exercise
Minimum time required: 30 minutes
To prepare: Using the problem identified in the step 2 exercise, or a clear problem from another project, work through a “fishbone diagram”. A free template for this model can be found here, or you can find a blank template in Annex A. Try to come up with all the things you think are driving your core problem. Now group similar or related issues together.
What do you think are the drivers of your desired change?
With this in mind, what outcomes (that is, what progress toward realizing or addressing these drivers) need to happen for this impact to occur?
Using the list of questions above under Step 3, which of these drivers are you going to focus on?
What do you need to assume about the other drivers you’ve found in your PEA?
Step 4: How change happens: Hypotheses for intervention
Why build a hypothesis?
A common risk in ToC development is that it is too often “set and forget”: desired impact and outcomes are identified, but at the close of the project it may become clear that although activities and outputs were delivered, they had little bearing on outcomes or impact. This can often be the result of (a) selecting and committing to specific outputs without building a logic for how they will deliver conditions for change, and/or (b) making assumptions about the existence of other necessary conditions that don’t end up being true. When this happens, it can be hard to effectively monitor progress or know what isn’t working and what needs to change. For these reasons, it’s important to explain the logic of change that is often implicit in projects but doesn’t always get spelled out and critically examined.
How to use a PEA to build hypotheses of change
The onset of a project, strategy, or planning process is an ideal opportunity to use PEA to develop hypotheses for a ToC. Your PEA will have helped you find drivers of change, but will also offer insights into which stakeholders and processes offer entry-points for change, and which create constraints. These can be used to articulate how and under what circumstances (assumptions), planned interventions will lead to change, as well as identify the main risks to this theory holding true.
Though PEA may be most useful when initiating a project, strategy or plan, it can still be helpful to use and deploy PEA to inform on-going work. Often, using a PEA to transpose hypotheses and assumptions onto an existing ToC can help when progress is not going as planned, and it’s not clear why (see Step 6).
Step 4 Exercise
Minimum time required: 30 minutes
To prepare: Look at the drivers you have selected to focus on in Exercise 3, or alternatively, look at an outcome from a different ToC.
Which stakeholders (see Annex C for a list of common ones) have influence on or power in achieving the outcome(s)?
What institutions and/or “rules of the game” give them that influence and/or power? (Rules of the game are the formal and informal way things get done).
What might motivate or cause them to use influence positively? Rate your confidence in each suggestion.
Within this, what can you comfortably work on?
What gaps remain after those activities are identified?
Step 5: Mapping PEA findings onto a theory of change
The process outlined in the steps above can generate the main elements needed to bring PEA into a ToC. There is no set model for doing so. Some options can be narrative, for example “if–then” statements. Other ToCs may include a diagram that illustrates causal pathways (see Annex D for a sample). The main components to map are:
- A clarified, realistic impact statement.
- Which drivers of this impact the project is contributing to – outcome(s).
- A description or visual of the hypothesis about how to achieve those outcomes (outputs or interventions). Be sure to explain or show how, not just what.
- What assumptions underlie the hypothesis.
- At each level, the strength of the evidence. For complex problems and contexts, it may be useful for the PEA to dig deeper on areas where gaps in evidence exist.
- Particularly where there are evidence gaps, identify the risks to the ToC. These need to be regularly assessed against updated PEA, particularly in fluid political environments.
All these components together are necessary for a clear articulation of what will make change and what this depends upon, and to be absolutely explicit about where there are uncertainties.
Step 5 Exercise
Minimum time required: 1 hour
To prepare: In the previous exercises you’ll have developed a clear, realistic impact statement. You will have generated outcomes, and assumptions underlying those outcomes, by unpacking drivers of change and how to progress them (outcomes). You will have developed hypotheses for how to address those drivers, creating from these your outputs. Make sure you’ve got these available, using the exercises above, or use another ToC that includes these elements. Review the PEA work you have done so far and make note of areas where you were uncertain.
What would a visual diagram tying this together look like? Refer to Annex D for an example.
How strong is your evidence? Go through your diagram and flag where there are gaps.
What risks should you be aware of? Make sure these are highlighted in your diagram.
Step 6: Iteration and adaptation
Conservation and natural resource management are complex issues, and conservationists work in challenging operating environments, all of which are shaped by power dynamics. As a result, ToCs may be based on limited evidence, requiring decisions about activities and objectives in the absence of certainty that these approaches will work. So it is key to build in time to regularly pause, refresh analysis, and consider whether new evidence suggests a different direction.
Often, adaptive projects – projects that have the flexibility to shift approaches in response to ongoing assessments – will build tests of this kind into regular project monitoring. This has operational implications for managing resources, contracting and procurement, and monitoring. Some practitioners have developed concrete guidance for such adaptive management. Moving away from output-oriented results frameworks toward problem-driven models – like the “SearchFrame” – also can encourage iteration and offer check-in points to modify work based on a review of assumptions and reflections on performance.
Doing PEA and other situational analysis on a rolling basis is a key to knowing what has changed, where new opportunities to effect change materialize, and where old ones are no longer viable. PEAs may also be used for evaluative purposes particularly when appraising complex challenges. For instance, these tools can be particularly helpful for approaches like outcome harvesting, which looks at what changes have occurred – good or bad – and retroactively aims to identify how interventions contributed to those changes.
Step 6 Exercise
Minimum time required: 1 hour
To prepare: If the exercises above have been done on an existing or old project, use the ToC you’ve developed through this guidance. If not, take a ToC from a project that you’ve completed or is currently being implemented. Check that your impact statement is clear and realistic (refer to Step 1 Exercise if needed). The questions below have been adapted from the Everyday Political Analysis approach (see Annex A).
Which actors or groups currently are involved in the issue you are trying to change?
What motivates these actors?
How do they wield influence, what power do they have?
Do your hypotheses reflect these actors and their motivations?
To what extent have the assumptions in your ToC held up?
What practically can you do to make changes?
PEA and similar forms of situational analysis are helpful tools for developing, testing, and adapting sound ToCs. They are not a magic bullet; they have limitations and require complements as well as a willingness to challenge pre-existing ideas, question assumptions, and at times make difficult choices. They do offer, however, a useful framework for figuring out what we are trying to achieve, assessing what is preventing that from occurring, describing how we think change can occur, and identifying the assumptions that underpin the interventions we take on.
Annex A. PEA approaches
This guidance is not a “how-to” for doing PEA per se. Still, a few tools in particular are highlighted below to offer options for quicker assessments on facets of political economy. These can be deployed where a lighter touch is needed or where there is an interest in initially exploring political economy dynamics before considering a more in-depth approach. For more in-depth approaches to using PEA in conservation, there is guidance available on situational analysis and a framework on PEA for conservation impact (the “PEACI” Framework). More information is provided below.
Shorter, partial PEA exercises
- One simple but useful tool is the “five whys” exercise. Used beyond PEA in other fields trying to understand adverse outcomes, this begins by articulating a problem. It then asks why that is happening, and then why again, five times over. As participants get closer to the root cause, the problem begins to broaden. A hypothesis may also emerge before five steps are completed.
- A helpful complement to deepen the five whys can be a fishbone diagram. While the five whys may suggest a hierarchy of causes, the fishbone provides a more open space to identify multiple drivers, group them, and unpack their causes (ODI 2023). This tool also begins with a problem. Teams are then asked to identify the various drivers of that problem, to group them, and then to think about the myriad things that underpin those drivers.
Fishbone diagram template
Light touch, holistic PEAs
- For those short on time, the Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) Research Programme developed options for doing a one-hour PEA with options for expanding that into a full-day or longer-term exercise. This framework suggests setting aside a short amount of time as a team to workshop through a series of simple questions. While options are available for country-level, problem-level, or sector-based analysis, the problem-driven (project) level questions may prove most useful as a starting point:
- Finally, Everyday Political Analysis (EPA) (Hudson, Marquette and Waldock 2016) is a condensed framework that guides users through a series of questions to help articulate the interests at play and opportunities for change in a given situation. Other organizations have applied this tool to their sector. Annex C offers an aggregated list of the types of typical stakeholders in the forests, wildlife, and fisheries sectors. Considering these stakeholders, EPA can help to answer some basic questions:
- “Has this type of intervention been tried before?
- Is there demand for the interventions? From whom?
- Can we work with those actors opposed to or lukewarm about change?
- Are there any structural or institutional constraints for change?
- What would be a reasonable expectation for this intervention?”
Yanguas, Pablo 2015, pp.7)
- Which of these actors is involved in the issue you’re trying to change? This may be proximate actors, or more “hidden” actors that influence those you interface with.
- Is there demand for the interventions? From whom?
- What motivates them?
- What influence do they have?
- What might get them to change?
For more in-depth processes of deriving PEAs in conservation, the Targeting Natural Resource Corruption project has developed guidance on situational analysis and the WWF International Governance Practice has developed a useful framework on PEA for conservation impact (the “PEACI” Framework). The building blocks of the PEACI Framework are provided below. Even with these models, there is a range in how rigorous the approach can be.
Alexander and Williams 2020.
Annex B. Some definitions of theory of change
"How we *theorize* change will happen under a program"
"...articulating [these] many underlying assumptions about how change will happen in a programme"
"A comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context."
"The description of a sequence of events that is expected to lead to a particular desired outcome"
"...how you think...strategy will help you achieve both intermediate results and longer-term conservation and human well-being goals."
"The casual pathways from the planned intervention to the intended outcomes"
Annex C. Common stakeholders
Below is a non-exhaustive list of the types of stakeholders that we may want to consider when we look at political economy dynamics. When we do so, here are some simple questions to consider:
- Which of these, or others, are the main actors we visibly know are engaged on the issue, landscape we are concerned with?
- Look beyond the immediate actors we know and work with - which stakeholders, to the extent we are aware, influence those we interface with?
- Where these stakeholders are contributing to the problem we are seeking to address, why? What is driving their activity or behavior?
- What scope is there to change based on that understanding?
Government / public officials
Wildlife service officials
Formal and informal officials at checkpoints
Officials in inspection and granting permits
Officials that provide hunting licenses
Officials that license of captive breeding
Zoning, concessions, permitting officials
Officials that provide fishing licenses
Fisheries management compliance regulators
Forest management officials and committees
Health and safety officials
Asset management offices
Black market sellers
Finance and private sector
Banks and financial institutions
Domestic and international corporations
Local groups and actors
Law enforcement / rule of law
Law enforcement overseeing stockpiles
Judges and magistrates
Court registrars and clearks
Prison and rehabilitation staff
Movement of goods
Buyers and dealers
Transport and shipping companies
Captains and crew
Annex D. TOC example
Below is a hypothetical example derived to illustrate some elements of a ToC aiming to deliver more equitable, sustainable use of community forests. It highlights where each of the six steps in this guidance might be used.
The authors of this guide extend their heartfelt gratitude to the following colleagues for their contributions to the creation of this publication:
Iaroslav Teleshun, WWF Ukraine
Simon Rafanomezantsoa, WWF Madagascar
Ekraj Sigdel, WWF Nepal
Renata Cao, WWF Mexico
Raul Valle, WWF Brazil
Jose Alvarez, WWF Peru
Elizabeth Hart, WWF US
Elaine Geyer-Allély, WWF International
 ToCs when done robustly and consultatively can create shared understanding of a core challenge, set a common direction and measures for success, identify interventions with the highest likelihood of working, generate local ownership, and improve project design (Salib 2022, pp 2-3).
 In reality, these ‘camps’ exist more on a spectrum between light touch and rigorous and between partial and holistic.
 A very frequent practice is to conflate a solution with a problem. This is exemplified in “Scenario: What is the impact?” where the problem was originally defined as the lack of the selected solution - in that case the lack of citizen engagement. Often, ToCs like this are symptomatic of projects that have pre-selected activities / solutions and so have not fully articulated the problem being addressed. Why is this an issue? As illustrated, this practice binds projects to pre-identified solutions and constrains teams from identifying the real things that may need to change. This brief video on Selling Solutions vs Solving Problems from Harvard Kennedy School Building State Capability program offers a simple way to test if this error has occurred: if three plausible solutions to a problem can not be identified, then a solution and a problem have probably been conflated.
 Often projects assume “transformative impact”: “positive change in the system over time”. But as a PEA will likely show, that is often not aligned with the context of the problem. Sometimes the aim may simply be to prevent things from getting worse – a preventative impact. Further guidance is available on different types of impact (Reudy 2018).
 Homing in on evidence gaps might entail a more complete PEA exercise that includes a literature review, conducting primary research, and considering participatory approaches to the PEA.