Capacity Development as a core element in development efforts?

Development Policy21 Mar 2011Roger Henke

The Food for Thought publication accompanying this debate, ‘Capacity Development in Practice’, is as explicit an expression of the title of the debate, CD as core to development, as it gets. The question is if the title reflects the most promising way ahead if one wants to improve CD’s effectiveness.

The invitation to the debate mentions ‘CD fatigue’ among donor agencies and others, a clear indication of the ‘lost its shine’ stage in the fashion life cycle that the concept and the practices based upon it are in. A better metaphor would probably be the pendulum swing so I am certainly not expecting the demise of CD, but the fatigue does signal a need for rethinking that goes beyond the not very provocative content of the Food for Thought provided by SNV.

Organizational sociology 101 would make one intuit that radical perspectives on CD are not to be expected from an organization that self defines as a CD service provider. The content fulfils that expectation. Its ethos is one of ‘doing what we already do even better’. My argument is not that there isn’t anything to improve regarding current CD practices, or that attention to multi-level and multi-actor dimensions and professionalization are not worthwhile. However, I do not believe that such improvements are going to deal with the CD fatigue.

A very popular management classic amongst the contributors to this publication, Gareth Morgan’s 1986 ‘Images of Organization’, argues that using a different metaphor for something is going to result in different understandings of how that something works. E.g. thinking about an organization as if it is a machine is not the same as thinking about it as an organism. The point that the book makes is that all theory is metaphor and comes with in-build biases, no perspective on its own reveals ‘reality’, the closest one can get to it is to a pursue multi-perspective analysis.

The contributions to Capacity Development in Practice all seem rather similar to each other in how they situate CD. Translating that similarity into a visual image, immediately suggest the most obvious perspectival shift for going beyond their inward looking practitioners’ perspective: move CD out of the core.

The preface of the book states that practical experience has led to some ‘provocative ideas’ like “[c]apacity development…involves unleashing collaboration but also dealing with power and politics” (p.xix). This statement shows what the world looks like from the inside out: the context of power and politics emerges at the horizon as an externality to be ‘dealt with’. The CD fatigue shows that the ‘dealing’ is too often unsuccessful to keep enthusiasm alive.

Following Morgan, a more promising move is to put the outside at the core, place “…power and interests of key political, economic, and security actors at the center of the development process.” (p.2) This quote is from a recent Asia Foundation paper1 that argues for just that, labeling this a “political settlements” framework . The labeling is less important than the perspective, which is by no means new, with plenty roots in political economy approaches, but I use this particular example because it so explicitly argues for the emergence of a ‘new’ prominence in the rethinking of aid: foregrounding what is the background in a CD centric perspective on development efforts.

I expect that rethinking CD from a perspective that puts power and politics at the center is going to result in better answers to what underlies the CD fatigue. It would be good if those who are so positive about applying Gareth Morgan’s insights in their practice would be more willing to apply those insights to their reflections upon their practice.


    1. Parks, T. & Cole, W. (July 2010), Political Settlements: Implications for International Development Policy and Practice, The Asia Foundation, Occasional paper, No. 2