Capacity Development’s playground

Development Policy03 Jun 2011Michiel Verweij

Talented and motivated peasants, micro entrepreneurs and starting professionals need opportunities to experiment and put knowledge and skills in practice before they will eventually grow into homegrown leaders of business, academia, NGO’s and politics. However, poor people are often caught in a poverty trap. They use their limited resources in risk reducing strategies and have few or no possibilities for innovative actions.

“At school we saw the pictures of New York, Paris and Amsterdam and we thought development is living in big buildings. Now I know that you can have big buildings and still not be developed. I learned that development is more about our own knowledge, understanding and capacities to do things”. This was said the chairperson in a meeting to explore the challenges of a newly established dairy cooperative Rwanda. A female board member of the same dairy cooperative: “Farming practically hasn’t change since the fathers of our fathers of our fathers. Agriculture was not seen as a business. If we want to change we need to develop our capacities”.

What is development without capacity development? To paraphrase the famous fish metaphor: capacity development is not about the fish, neither about the fishing rod but about acquiring homegrown capacity for achieving food security. The solution can lay either in fish farming or by producing television sets. Some refer to capacity as resourcefulness or capability for self-help. Resourcefulness can bring prosperity to a person, organization or country even if they are poorly endowed with financial or natural resources. Every nation should be aiming at offering its citizens conditions for a dignified life free of hunger and disease and with opportunities to realize ones own dreams and destiny.

Multiple capacities

People need capacity as they need bread. From day to day we tap into our capacities to achieve smaller and bigger goals. Realizing goals often requires combinations of multiple capacities from psychological to technical from emotional to commercial. Bigger development goals require not solely individual capacities but also involve social capacities for interaction with others, like solidarity and negotiation. Basic human capacities as self esteem, analysis, creativity, and assertiveness largely influence how we perform in more complex organizational and societal processes of renewal and adaptation. Organizational and societal progress is more than the sum of independent and self-reliant individuals; it relies on coordinated collaboration between interdependent parts.

Capacity development is touching many personal and interpersonal skills and knowledge and is a lifelong enterprise. People acquire capacities from parents, friends, community, school, university, colleagues, and coaches. We acquire capacities from studying but also from interacting with others in the class, sports club, work or church. Education, culture, awareness raising, training, studies (abroad), coaching, twinning, systems, procedures and institutions all supporting capacity development. But this is not the whole story.

Too small to fail

A few years ago in Zimbabwe I met a young district planner showing me an important element in the capacity development process I hadn’t been fully aware of before. He called it ‘room for experimentation’. ‘Poor and vulnerable people have no or few possibilities to experiment something different and learn from it’, he said. It is not that peasants are not interested in change but they simply can’t afford it to fail.

Failure means hunger and misery. A micro-entrepreneur with a little saving at most has one chance to try something new. Failure means financial ruin. That is why poor peasants and micro-entrepreneurs are inclined to stick to what they have always done and that is a reason why they remain trapped in poverty. Peasants allocate their limited resources in – often quite sophisticated- risk reducing production strategies. They spread risks through a diversifying crops and animals and by distributing the production among small plots in the different parts of the valley and the mountains to reduce the risks of drought or inundation.

Even so, once in a while devastating events will eliminate entire crops and kill the cattle. It can take years for a herd to grow back to the old level and some families will remain structurally at a lower level of survival. Poor people can’t afford hiring professionals to help them out.


Peasants and micro-entrepreneurs need to test out ideas in practice. Without experimentation the capacity development cycle will remain incomplete. The same holds for starting consultants, advisors, researchers and politicians who need to build up real life experience to achieve a certain maturity of their practice.For people to engage in experimentation and learning they need to be free from the daily concern for survival. They need a kind of security net that stops them from falling off the cliff in case things go wrong: risks involved in the learning have to be made manageable.

International cooperation was and is a lifeline for providing such ‘protected space’ where people on the verge of survival can put ideas in practice and learn. This support can have many different forms like for example by intern- and apprenticeships programs. But international cooperation also plays the role through projects with strong learning focus or by funding activities of local NGO’s, consultants, researchers and advisors. Innovation can also be facilitated by insurances and other financial arrangements. For example, agricultural insurances providing farmers a guaranteed income after crop loss and allowing them to buy inputs for the next farming season.

Capacities dividend

What do you earn? Experience, was the typical response of the not-so-well-paid Bolivian consultants in a development project. But indeed, a lot of experience was earned. Nowadays, countries like Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia dispose of large pools of qualified planners, consultants and development experts. The experiences supported by the international cooperation made it possible for many to emerge as leaders in the cooperatives, NGOs, research institutes and in government shaping the socio-economic future in their countries.

I have seen many people from resource poor environments expanding their capacities with support of international cooperation. I remember for example a second generation carpenter whose father had learned about discipline, craftsmanship and elements of customer care in a workshop run by the Jesuits, several decades back. I worked with government officials in different countries whose capacities were largely build up during work done in the framework of international solidarity programs. And I also worked with peasant organizations producing for the market which probably wouldn’t have done so without the support received from international cooperation. In this case, as in many others, ‘subsidized’ capacity development has paved the way and improved the readiness for sustainable market-based solutions.

If we want to see more of this we need to keep capacity development’s playground open. A protected space, where resource poor people can test and practice knowledge and skills under real life circumstances while pursuing their own sustainable development. Sponsors?

Michiel Verweij is Advisor at SNV Netherlands Development Organization currently based in Rwanda.