Learning the how is not enough

Development Policy22 Sep 2011Russell Lewis

The majority of capacity building still focuses on technical skills rather than the fundamental ‘soft skills’ that are necessary to meaningfully implement training, says Russell Lewis. 

As international development practitioners and organisations, we should be more insistent on incorporating more underlying essential skills development that enables effective institutional development, sustainable capacity building, widespread community involvement and improved human wellbeing.

Are our capacity building models adequate for the task of improving human wellbeing? In all reality, they probably would be if donors would structure programs and assistance in a manner which recognises the definition of “capacity building” as outlined by UNDP some 20 years ago: “the creation of an enabling environment with appropriate policy and legal frameworks, institutional development, including community participation (of women in particular), human resources development and strengthening of managerial systems”. And yet in most of the developing world, the majority of capacity building is still no more than training in technical skills rather than building sustainable capacity in the so-called “soft” skills which are necessary to enable implementation of technical skills training. I call it the “learning the how”.

Sustainable capacity building is much more than technical training in governance, transparency, financial management, ethics and anti-corruption. It includes concepts such as, equipping individuals with the understanding, the skills and the knowledge that enables them to not only perform their role/tasks effectively, but to know why they are doing their role/tasks, how to perform the role/tasks in their environment, how to integrate and interweave their skills and knowledge into the wider social and community framework, and how this all relates to the improvements in wellbeing that the capacity building is supposed to deliver.

It also includes developing understanding of organisational, community and social structures, processes and mores, not only within organisations but also in developing and managing the key relationships between the organisations and the wider community—thereby enabling all members of the community to participate and share in the capacity building. It is about developing organisational and individual communication and relationships skills, leadership and strategic thinking skills, and a host of “hard to measure” performance indicators. In a world where performance measurement is so important, these must be traded for “hard” output measures such as: the number of people trained, the number of courses developed or seminars conducted, whether or not a new procedure or process has been developed and implemented, or whether or not there has been an improvement in GDP and per capita income.