Understanding the causes and effects of the social problem

In most cases, a social problem is complex enough that any single project can deal only with the solution of a single aspect.

Nevertheless, when engaging in impact-oriented project management, it is important to grasp the problem in the whole of its complexity and take account of the influence of individual factors.

For example, the success of a project supporting youths in transition toward vocational training will depend strongly on whether there are, in fact, a sufficient number of apprenticeships offered in the region.

The problem tree is a useful tool for analyzing a problem with all its causes, effects and factors. The information necessary to create a problem tree arises from the data you’ve collected in the course of the needs assessment and context analysis.

The illustration on the left shows a problem tree for YEA.

A problem tree can be created in the space of a few hours to a day. All relevant internal and external stakeholders should be involved (Source: evaluationtoolbox).

In the next chapter "Defining project objectives", we explain how you can transform this problem tree into a solution tree that is useful in defining your project’s approach and objectives.

Step 1: Define the core problem

As a first step, you’ll identify the core problem you want to help solve. Describe this with as much specificity as possible.

The core problem should be formulated from the perspective of the target group, and should take the form of a negative statement. As an example, "High levels of unemployment among young people" is indeed a negative, but is not specific enough.

Significantly better would be: "After graduating from secondary school, youths cannot find apprenticeships." This statement delimits the target group and identifies a specific period of focus for the project (in this case, between the final year of school and the beginning of vocational training).

A common mistake in the formulation of problems is that the problem is primarily defined as the absence of a specific solution ("There is a shortage of apprenticeships for young people").

You should avoid such formulations because you’re already in this way specifying a particular problem solution (in this case, creating more vocational-training program places), without having verified that this is in fact the only possible approach, or whether the lack of apprenticeships simply represents one of multiple causes contributing to the core problem.

  • Problem analysis at YEA

    Before the project begins, YEA obtains an overview of the available career-preparatory offerings for students at the local secondary school (Hauptschule). In addition to its comprehensive research, YEA interviews other organizations in the field, as well as the local secondary school’s administrative staff. This process reveals that there has not been enough individualized support of the kind that YEA now offers through its mentoring model.

Step 2: Identify causes and effects

As a second step, you’ll work out the causes and effects of the core problem. In this process, individual causes and effects should be expressed as negative statements. Examples might include "youths do not have sufficient social skills", "too few spots in vocational-training programs within the region," "lack of future prospects," or "strong willingness to engage in violence".

The direct causes of the core problem are listed in the row underneath the core problem, with the causes for these causes noted below. The direct effects are placed above the core problem, with the effects of the effects going in the row directly above this, and so on. The problem tree branches both upward and downward.

If relationships between the causes or effects exist, these are depicted by using cross-connections. Gaps are indicated by placeholders that you can fill in as needed at a later date.

Problem tree connections

Have I answered the key questions concerning the needs assessment and context analysis?

The following checklist helps you evaluate if the key questions regarding needs and context have been (properly) answered:

  • Checklist: Needs assessment and context analysis