Overview: Strategies for causal attribution

Available languages

This guide, written by Patricia Rogers for UNICEF, looks at the process of causal attribution with a particular emphasis on its use in impact evaluation.

The guide specifically focuses on the three broad strategies for causal attribution: estimating the counterfactual; checking the consistency of evidence for the causal relationships made explicit in the theory of change; and ruling out alternative explanations, through a logical, evidence-based process.


"One of the essential elements of an impact evaluation is that it not only measures or describes changes that have occurred but also seeks to understand the role of particular interventions (i.e., programmes or policies) in producing these changes. This process is often referred to as causal attribution, causal contribution or causal inference. This brief provides an overview of different ways to examine causal attribution, using a combination of research design and particular data collection and analysis strategies.

The OECD-DAC definition of impact makes it clear that an impact evaluation must establish what has been the cause of observed changes: “Positive and negative, primary and secondary long-term effects produced by a development intervention, directly or indirectly, intended or unintended.”

Causal attribution is defined by OECD-DAC as: “Ascription of a causal link between observed (or expected to be observed) changes and a specific intervention.”

This definition does not require that changes are produced solely or wholly by the programme or policy under investigation. In other words, it takes into consideration that other causes may also have been involved, for example, other programmes/policies in the area of interest or certain contextual factors (often referred to as ‘external factors’)."



  • Causal attribution: a brief description
  • When is causal attribution applied in impact evaluation?
  • How to undertake causal attribution
  • How to choose the best strategy for causal attribution
  • Example of good practices
  • Examples of challenges


Rogers, P. (2014). Overview: Strategies for Causal Attribution. UNICEF. Retrieved from: http://devinfolive.info/impact_evaluation/img/downloads/Overview_Strategies_for_Causal_Attribution_ENG.pdf


'Overview: Strategies for causal attribution' is referenced in: