Getting capacity development right

Development Policy16 Mar 2011Naa-Aku Acquaye-Baddoo, Jessie Bokhoven, Jan Ubels

It is a compelling idea: help people gain greater ability to run their own affairs and pursue their own development. This ‘capacity development’ (CD) agenda has been vocally promoted and heavily financed over the last 15 years by donors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) alike. But has it delivered? And if not, what will it take to do so? We believe CD should stay firmly on the agenda. It has great potential to generate effective change.

Nonetheless, the term CD has been used with growing unease, and sometimes with outright frustration, for three reasons. First, the term has become a holy grail in development work over the turn of the century. Much like other buzzwords in the field – participation, sustainability or governance – CD took on a flavour of self-righteousness, both in OECD-DAC circles, where CD is used to support increased ownership of recipients over their own agendas, and in NGO circles with similar connotations as a new form of solidarity. This has made it difficult to critically discuss its true merits.

Second, CD became a blanket ‘something-nothing’ term loosely applied to a range of interventions. Many now consider it too vague to be useful. Some organizations use it strictly for training interventions. Others to strengthen organizations or for national policy development. But these are all decidedly different things. None of them, in isolation, necessarily enhances capacities. Instead, real capacity development is a tricky undertaking because it means getting to grips with complex processes of change.

Third, this vagueness was compounded by a preference for visible, tangible results. As a result, even providing cars or constructing buildings are sometimes considered CD. Too often, the requirements of the aid business itself are the focus (project and financial management), rather than really improving the performance of local actors. And the perverse incentives of a training and ‘workshopping’ culture have persisted. As a Tanzanian NGO leader observed: ‘Do you know what people think when you use the term capacity development? Sitting allowances!’

This confusion needs to be resolved. Let’s be clear what ‘capacity development’ really is. CD is an intervention discipline. It is not a goal, nor is it about funding. Capacity growth is usually largely an endogenous process. But deliberate capacity development is an intervention discipline with two key characteristics.

First, CD needs to focus on performance in society, on people and organizations, and, indeed, on running their affairs better. If a water supplier increases its capacity, this does not necessarily mean that it has better trained people, planning systems or technology. It may have all of these (or none), but these are just specific competencies or capabilities. Improved capacity means an improved water supply, in larger quantities and in fairer ways – one that improves people’s livelihoods.

Second, real change involves different levels of society. Training individuals alone will seldom result in improved service delivery. And organizations are not islands. Unfavourable political dynamics can render them ineffective. Well-intended policies can fail in the face of implementation realities. That is why capacity development in any field (whether water, micro-credit or women’s rights) must use an eclectic set of methods to help achieve meaningful change.

These methods may include training and personal development, organizational development, multi-stakeholder engagement and institutional or policy development. In many ways, CD is similar to change management, but with the additional component of embedding improved capacity in the society concerned.

Initial lead donors in capacity development are showing some CD fatigue. But what is happening in developing countries is rather promising. These are the trends:

  • Gradual but strong mainstreaming of CD elements in almost every sector and every NGO, government or private sector programme.
  • Growing in-country CD service sectors consisting of private firms, leading NGOs and (semi-) public institutions. In many cases, Southern expertise and experience are becoming more relevant than Northern.
  • Innovations in CD itself, moving beyond the conventional repertoire towards effective ‘multi-actor’ and ‘action CD’ approaches that dovetail well with sectoral methodologies.

In agricultural value chains, for example, powerful approaches are emerging that use conventional training, organizational development and policy elements. However, these are embedded in a multi-actor process with a broad range of stakeholders (farmers, traders, processors, government and researchers). It appears essential that actors improve their capacity to see themselves as part of a larger, collective system, communicate with each other and strike new deals for collaboration.

Such ‘action CD’ processes use untapped sources of local expertise and innovation. They empower local and non-state actors, giving them a direct say in major development dynamics. The multi-stakeholder connections appear to improve the performance of both individual actors and the system as a whole. In social accountability in service sectors, such as education and water, there are similarly promising applications. Various examples are discussed in Capacity Development in Practice.

So how do we get capacity development right? First, use the word for what it is: eclectic intervention and support that focuses on performance and generating societal value (not just trained staff or improved planning). Second, professionalize in and across sectors. Invest in change management skills, leadership development and multi-stakeholder processes.

Third, recognize that there is an emerging Southern base of expertise and experience. Stop a Northern supply drive and, instead, work actively with Southern demand and supply. Fourth, develop innovative financing strategies to support the first three points. Financing is often too rigid and too focused on donor objectives rather than enabling effective local change.

These measures will cut through the CD hype, making it more effective and relevant. They will provide practical ways for increasing effectiveness and using local expertise. They will enable the growth of a professional service sector in developing societies that is relevant and sustainable beyond ‘aid’.