Is there a willingness to get capacity development right?

Development Policy03 Jun 2011Volker Hauck

The discussion in The Broker about the maturity level of capacity development (CD) is timely. Not because of the valuable publication of the SNV volume Capacity Development in Practice and many other contributions to the CD discussion over more recent times but because of the on-going international (development) cooperation discussion, that will culminate at the end of this year in another High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea.

As we are all aware, this takes place against the context of the financial crisis, the growing citizen fatigue in donor countries to finance development, the emergence of powerful states such as China pursuing their own approaches to international (development) cooperation rather forcefully, and the growing interest of Southern policy makers to enter into cooperation with the emerging new donors. This just in a nutshell, to “put the outside at the core” as has been mentioned in the contribution of Roger Henke.

Ineffective Aid Practices

Busan will be a moment to evaluate the results of the commitments made to the Paris Declaration (PD) in 2005, and to review the extent to which the even more ambitious and additional aims, as laid down in the Accra Agenda for Action (AAA) in 2008 have been met. Looking back at the recent 20+ years of international development cooperation, the five principal commitments of the PD (supporting ownership and taking leadership, alignment to country systems, harmonisation of donor practices, managing for results, mutual accountability between partner governments and donors) reflect a joint donor and partner government learning from ineffective aid practices, and by taking into account valuable lessons learnt from the capacity development discussion that have evolved as of the late 1980s.

The AAA sharpened the PD commitments by extending the policy agenda towards the involvement of non-state actors (in response to criticisms about the PD being mostly a government-to-government agreement) and by including a range of specific CD commitments, such as the use of country systems as the first option for aid programmes (policy-wise, a provocation to those donors who prefer, or, because of their constituencies, have to “play close to the ball” and to work along parallel project implementation arrangements).

All these policies have evolved against the background of an intense discussion on CD, being embedded in the 1990’s search for clarity on how to support development differently – informed by the famous “Berg-Report” Rethinking Technical Cooperation (1993), it continued with the search for more coherence among donors and between donors and partner governments (e.g. in the context of the programme-based approaches discussion) and resulted in the OECD/DAC paper The Challenge of Capacity Development – Working towards Good Practice (2006).

This reference paper helped to clarify the basic understanding or the notion of CD (without aiming to ultimately define what CD is), that it takes place at the individual, organisational and wider institutional level and that a number of “do’s” and “don’ts” need to be observed in order to let CD take place.

Wrong Incentives

As such, CD was recognised policy-wise as an important issue, bringing together lessons and the analysis of international development practice that goes far back into the early 1970s. And, one could argue, CD reached a certain maturity level as it manifested an agreement at the highest donor levels on how to get involved in CD.

Complementary substantive work on CD during this period was undertaken, including the ECDPM Capacity Study* that, among a range of other CD issues, brought forward fresh perspectives on how to approach the measuring of CD, the discussion on complexity and change management, the governance thinking bringing forward frameworks on political economy analysis and the above mentioned SNV volume highlighting the need to think much more along the relational and the creation of connections between the three levels of engagement set out in the DAC 2006 paper.

The essence of this substantive work on CD points to a need to distinguish conceptually between “capacity” that needs to be achieved on the partner’s side (the outcome), “capacity development” that in essence has be endogenous, or country-owned (the process) and the “assistance to capacity development”, i.e. the contributions to CD from the outside (the support).

Unfortunately, the distinction between i) the recognition of CD as an endogenous process and ii) the support from the outside is often blurred by international development practice, whereby the actors from the outside, ideally, should take a secondary role and come in on a well-formulated demand.

The blurred practices, whereby outside supporters become the actors and the owners of development processes, can be found among donors and international NGOs alike, motivated by the absence of clear demand and ownership, wrong incentives, unrealistic expectations for results, system weaknesses, missing partner transparency and the inability of partner countries to retain existing endogenous capacities.

After Busan

In terms of making CD meaningful, practitioners from the international, regional or local level can play a meaningful role to exercise this supportive and well-informed role to CD and – in response to one of the qestions set out for this discussion – a further professionalisation of CD would be welcome to facilitate the provision of support to CD processes effectively.

The practical results of donor’s implementing the CD approach are, on balance, disappointing with many deficiencies now being signalled during the preparatory reviews of the PD commitments that are undertaken ahead of Busan (with improving donor harmonisation and division of labour practices on the more positive side).

A big question arising is whether CD, as understood in the Good Practice paper and elaborated in the AAA, will be allowed to further mature after Busan, the extent to which donors are willing to accept a higher level of “letting go” and allow for more country-driven processes. The writing on the wall is not very promising given the “value-for-money agenda” brought forward by traditional donors like the UK (Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchel said recently that DFID will be more ‘hard headed about making every penny count’).

While there is nothing wrong with the demand for results, this agenda will likely push for the achievement of short-term results and the pendulum swinging back to out-dated technical assistance practices whereby CD processes are often undermined – a development that has taken shape over the recent year not least because of pressures from conservative dominated parliaments.

Acceptance of Alternatives

The other side of the equation are the country partners and their governments in the South. Will they be much longer interested in these traditional forms of assistance? The growing presence of emerging powers on the African continent, for example, shows that the search and acceptance of alternatives has long started already – a process that makes “aid” increasingly marginal. China’s trade with Africa, for example, has risen to 100 billion US$ and other South-South trade, remittances and proposed funding for climate change adaptation and mitigation are getting increasingly important.

Central questions for Busan will therefore be whether there is a readiness on the donor side to get CD right and the extent to which partner governments in the South are willing to take the aid effectiveness agenda serious in the future. CD has clearly matured over the recent years, in terms of policy as well as in the form of many promising practices, but the question is in which form it will survive after Busan, if at all?

Volker Hauck, Head of Knowledge Management and Communication at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) in Maastricht, has worked extensively on capacity development.

*This paper contributes to the preparatory discussion for Busan via the OECD/DAC’s Working Party on Aid Effectiveness Cluster A on Ownership and Accountability – Hauck, V. and T. Land. 2011.