Turning citizens’ voices into a political force

Knowledge brokering08 Mar 2011

Capacity development has been quite a fashionable term for some years now, but what exactly does it mean? More importantly, what has it given the world’s poor? Organizations like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, as well as non-governmental organizations, expertise centres and other initiatives have been working on the capacity development concept – and its predecessors ‘Technical Assistance’ and ‘Capacity Building’ – for many years. However, their efforts have failed to make capacity development a more concrete and clear phenomenon. On the contrary, capacity development remains a vague concept in Aidland, and there is still a lot of confusion about what it is actually all about.

From that perspective, the new book Capacity Development in Practice (edited by Jan Ubels, Naa-Aku Acquaye-Baddoo and Alan Fowler, 2010, Earthscan) is a courageous contribution to the capacity development debate. The authors have added a new dimension to this discussion by suggesting that capacity develops through relationships between actors at different levels and therefore deals with power and politics. External and political dimensions have to be incorporated into capacity in order to bring it to full maturity.

The book approaches the subject from a practitioner’s perspective. Although it is primarily based on 10 years of experience with capacity development in developing countries by the SNV, the Netherlands Development Organisation, the book has a majority of contributors from outside the organisation. ‘A society,’ the authors write, ‘develops and solves its problems through its collective capacities. No matter how knowledgeable and skilled individuals or single groups are, if this type of capacity cannot be coordinated for the common good, progress is improbable.’

Indeed, the book focuses on how to build collective capacities between citizens, non-governmental organizations, knowledge institutions, the private sector and (local) governments. For example, by strengthening communication, creating new solutions, and with joint learning between these multiple stakeholders at different levels, development programmes will be more successful and sustainable.

It reads like a practitioners’ handbook that discusses useful tools. But the authors’ purpose goes beyond the practitioners’ perspective. This is evident from their attempt to start a discussion on the ‘professionalization of capacity development and reduce confusion and dispel [the] vagueness’ that characterizes the debate at the moment. ‘[D]ialogue,’ the authors write, ‘needs to actively push forward on issues of effectiveness, quality, learning, standards and financing.’

So there we have it. The Broker likes the idea of engaging in dialogue on capacity development. It dovetails with other online debates we have hosted on related subjects, such as civic driven change and complexity theory. For example, Jim Woodhill wrote in his article ‘Shaping Behaviour’ for The Broker in October 2008 that development is mostly about transforming institutions and organizations. Social change and development should start by reorganizing cultural values, legal frameworks, market mechanisms and political processes within and between institutions and organizations. Woodhill calls it institutional innovation.

The problem is that non-governmental and governmental organizations have become much better at technological innovation than institutional innovation. This is not surprising because the latter relies on complex, non-linear processes of change. Coping with the complex crises of our times, however, such as inequality, climate change and resource depletion, will require new forms of social learning and collective engagement between citizens and institutions.

Governments are not equipped to cater to all the needs of the people by themselves, nor can they tackle all the difficulties facing a society. A bottom-up strategy for the development of capacity in society must therefore become the most important element of capacity development. A healthy democracy needs self-direction.

The practitioners’ perspective in this book and the idea that ‘capacity is fuelled by local actors’ ambitions and resources, which cannot be replaced by external inputs and finance’, is therefore very welcome. However, these local initiatives must be connected to the national or even the global level, even though it would be an understatement to say that this won’t be easy. Capacity development must focus on this problem. Not only to develop capacity within a community or between micro-level stakeholders, but also to raise citizens’ voices to a higher, politically relevant level. On the other hand, macro processes must tune to local realities much better.

Capacity Development in Practice looks for ways of achieving this by working more deliberately with multi-actor dynamic and in seeing Capacity Development as a process that connects micro, meso, and macro realities.

One of the most important contributions capacity can make to development is to create better conditions and solutions for local development dynamics and to make policies more responsive and conductive to local realities. The authors’ point that capacity development is a ‘living phenomenon’ and about ‘real-life effectiveness’ for that reason is refreshing. But the challenge still is to bring the ideas to a more concrete and practical level.

The book raises another potential problem for capacity development as well. Putting capacity in a broader external and political context implies that development agencies have to re-think their strict, control-oriented monitoring and evaluation methods. Capacity development is organic and will only work in the long term on a trial-and-error basis. Therefore, it cannot flourish under overly strict auditing rules. Several chapters explore this tension and give clear indications how to balance and combine a results measurement and a learning orientation. More innovative ways of monitoring and evaluation have to be developed and promoted in a time when policy making, especially for development, is more restricted than before and when political discourse is becoming increasingly dominated by self-interest and private sector development. The main questions are: 1) To what level has the idea of capacity development evolved? Do you agree with the notion of the authors of ‘Capacity Development in Practice’ that Capacity Development connects individual, organisational, multi-actor and policy change processes? 2) What relevance has capacity development had for pro-poor development? Do you agree with the notion that Capacity Development develops into an intervention discipline that adds to development effectiveness and social change? 3) What has to be done to rid capacity development of its abstract jargon and make it more concrete and practical?4) Do you think it is a good idea to pursue further professionalization of Capacity Development as an intervention repertoire?

The Broker wants to challenge everyone to offer their opinions, views and reflections on these questions, as well as any other important discussions about capacity development in this blog. Please send your comments and/or blog posts to or accompanied by a picture of yourself and a one-sentence biography for publication.