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Sunday, December 27, 2009

The LFA Debate: A summary of the theory behind the Logical Framework Approach

-- Greg Armstrong--

[Edited to update links July 2019]

While SIDA has recently updated its publications on the Logical Framework, some of the earlier publications are still useful.  The first of three early SIDA papers describes the strengths, and the sequence in using the LFA in results-based management.

SIDA's LFA Papers: 1-The Logical Framework Approach: A Summary of the theory behind the LFA method

Level of difficulty: Moderate
Primarily useful for: Project planners
Limitations: Some ambiguity in the definition of results
Length: 35 pages
Most useful sections: Relating problem analysis to activity design (p. 9-12)

Background: Evolution of a debate on the LFA

Cover of the SIDA publication titled the Logical Framework Approach
The Logical Framework Approach - SIDA

The Swedish International Development Agency published three papers online between 2004-2006 that illustrate in some ways the evolution of a debate that exists over the utility of the Logical Framework Approach for results-based project planning, management and evaluation of international development projects. While Results-Based Management is not invariably tied to the LFA, the general approach of a sequence of activities, short-term and long term results, with or without a formal framework, is common to most RBM approaches. In this, and two separate posts, I will review these three documents.
  • The first was The Logical Framework Approach, A summary of the theory behind the LFA method, which emphasises the strengths of the logical framework approach for RBM,
  • The second is a paper probing in some detail the weaknesses of the LFA, and
  • The third a proposal to link more qualitative methods with the LFA.

[Update: More recent publications have been added since this original review, and they are listed at the end of this post]

A Logical approach to development planning

Kari Ortengren's 2004 paper, "The Logical Framework Approach: A Summary of the Theory behind the LFA Method" is a straight-forward explanation of nine steps in using the logical framework approach for designing a project, or programme.

The general presentation is unexciting, in comparison, to say, the 2005 Philip Dearden guide on using the LFA for multi-agency planning which I reviewed earlier, but that, I assume, is a function of the donor's format. While this paper is not quite as easy to read, it does make some good points about the sequence of project and programme design. And although it is not expressly noted here, in a subsequent paper in 2006 on applying the general approach to environmental project design, the author made the clear distinction between the Logical Framework Approach and the Logical Framework Matrix.

The matrix, of course, is the grid - the approach is the process by which the information in the grid can be developed -- and much more important than the matrix.

An example of the LFA matrix for a  drinking water project showing the relationship between resources, activities, results and indicators
Example of the Logical Framework Matrix for a project on drinking water
-Click to enlarge-

Problem identification - by stakeholders

The most useful part of this paper is its focus on problem identification. The paper notes - and many readers will recognise this from their own experience, that many projects appear to be started with a solution in search of a clear problem. By "clear" the writer appears to mean a problem defined in a way in which not just the bold problem statement is made, but in which there is a clear and detailed discussion of both the multiple causes, and multiple downstream effects of the problem.

In particular the paper is useful when it urges planners to avoid stating problems in terms of pre-ordained solutions. The writer urges us to avoid defining problems in terms of "absence" -- "absence of funding", or "absence of pesticides" for example, which more or less ignore what might be revealing causes of a problem, and limit discussion of alternative solutions.

"Lack of funding" as a problem statement, she notes, does not explore the possible details of the problem, which may be inadequate organizational capacity for financial control, planning, or other issues which could be directly susceptible to project intervention; and "Lack of pesticides" pre-empts discussion of alternative solutions by assuming pesticides are the only solution to crop failures.

The paper makes it clear that donors are not the best placed to conduct a problem analysis: "The problem analysis has to be made by the relevant stakeholders, including the owners of the problem, the people who know the situation, not by consultants or financing agencies." The paper does suggest, however, that donors and consultants can facilitate the discussion and exploration of problems.

Activity design

It is true that some projects become obsessed with activities, rather than with how activities relate to a problem, and prescription here - a reasonable one - is that...
"...the causes of the problem shall be treated by the activities, which are implemented within the framework of the project. The effects are handled automatically by treating the causes of the focal problem. Hence, no separate activities are needed for handling the effects."

This paper includes a short introduction to planning a project design workshop. The discussion lists seven major topics for discussion, the physical layout required and the time that should be allocated.

Limitations: Assumptions

There are two limitations here, although neither are serious, and both may be a product of the donor agency's prescriptions:

  1. Results are defined rather amorphously here, using the usual donor jaron - objectives, purposes, outputs, and this never makes life any simpler.
  2. Risks are usually discussed in guides or papers about results-based management or the Logical Framework Approach, but there is rarely any detailed discussion of assumptions.

Comment:  This paper mentions both identification of risks and discussion of assumptions in two pages. We could read between the lines here in the more detailed discussion of problem identification, to see the possibility for discussion of assumptions, but it would be useful if this were explored in more detail.  

If assumptions are so central to project success - to sustainability but also to examination of whether interventions make sense in development terms, then much more detailed discussion of assumptions should be a priority for everybody - donors, implementing agencies and other participants.  [[Update:  Later SIDA publications including a 2016 update by the same author, do explore this in more detail]

In the rbm training workshops I have conducted I have found several times that clarifying assumptions about a problem, and about implicit theories of what works (and what does not work) in project interventions, often reveals fundamental differences of opinion among stakeholders about what a project or programme should be doing, why it should be doing it, and how we will know if it makes progress. Yet this paper, like most, really concentrates on assumptions about a situation - what else is going on in the environment, that might impede project implementation.

Without a discussion of assumptions about the development theory in project interventions, projects are unlikely to be learning events, unlikely to learn from failure or success, and unlikely to advance our understanding of development and what works.

[Update 2019:] Fortunately, SIDA has updated the resources it makes available on results-based management and these now include the 2016 update on the use of the LFA, referenced above, a 2014 handbook on the use of RBM in SIDA research cooperation projects, and a long, but interesting 2018 YouTube video discussion on how SIDA uses Results-Based Management.

The bottom line: This paper is moderately useful in its stated purpose - providing an outline of the Logical Framework Approach. It is most useful in discussions of problem analysis but there are more accessible guides to the process available.


Greg Armstrong is a Results-Based Management specialist who focuses on the use of clear language in RBM training, and in the creation of usable planning, monitoring and reporting frameworks.  For links to more Results-Based Management Handbooks and Guides, go to the RBM Training website

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