Isn’t capacity building a potentially never-ending bureaucrat’s fantasy? Isn’t it time for a serious rethink?

From The Guardian:

In broadest terms, capacity building means improving the organisational performance of institutions. But the terms technology transfer, institutional strengthening, capacity building and capacity development have all been used to describe more or less the same process – so there’s a distinct lack of clarity about the concept.

Capacity building has been a cornerstone of development policy for 70 years and vast amounts of money have been spent on it. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development calculated that capacity building accounts for 25% of aid expenditure, representing about US$15bn (£12bn) a year.

But despite coming up with countless words to describe it, there seems to be limited professional understanding of what capacity building is, much less the reasons for its success or failure. Perhaps this is in part because there is no clear point of entry into the capacity building profession; most specialists are self-taught or mentored by others and there are few professional training courses available.

Capacity building is about improving the organisational performance of institutions, but there is no accepted process for assessing the impact of capacity programmes. So no one knows when the process is complete. In fact, you could say capacity building never actually ends because institutions must respond constantly to changing circumstances and expectations. It’s a bureaucrat’s dream, Parkinson’s law at work: the program is expanded to fit the time (and budget) available.

The World Bank wants capacity building to become a science, based on objective universal principles. While judgment, intuition and culture come into it as much as knowledge and skills, some generic principles seem to underlie successful programmes.

Most important is the need to lead from behind: external agents are not in a position to impose solutions or dictate behaviour and should not act as if they were. They need to depend on indirect forms of guidance, such as using examples, gentle coaxing and encouragement, constructive criticism and, where necessary, harsh words. An environment of mutual trust and confidence is essential, with all parties pursuing an agreed strategy. A little humility goes a long way.

A similar constraint is that capacity builders serve two masters: their own agency and the partner organisation. As long as the objectives and strategies of these two are consistent, there is no conflict of interest. However, should they diverge, the capacity building team is in a difficult situation and becomes very mindful of who pays its salaries and where its highest obligations lie.

A critical aspect of capacity building is creating the capacity to build capacity: the ability to take local control of institutional development into the future. The purpose is to assist the partner organisation to reach the point where change becomes self-reinforcing.

Development professionals tend to define capacity building exclusively in training terms. It’s an important part of the process, but organisational capacity is about more than the sum total of skills within an institution. It is also about an organisation’s dynamics, its structural profile, its role – and above all, culture. The host culture must also change as new skills and knowledge are acquired, if the full benefits of these are to be realised.

Meanwhile, there are also specific, local factors. National or ethnic culture shapes the way people organise themselves and deal with each other. Capacity builders need to take account of this, rather than merely trying to replicate their home institutions. It is often assumed that there is one universal model of organisational practice which should be imitated globally to generate the best outcomes. In reality, international best practice needs to be reconciled with local best practice, based on what works on the ground in a particular time and place.

Capacity building also has to be tailored to the type of partner institution: capacity building of an army is quite different from that of a police force, or a hospital, the judiciary, a finance ministry or a disaster response agency. There may be common features, but what works in one environment may not work in another.

Capacity building is starting to become a divisive issue in development circles. Government agencies and NGOs in the south seem understandably frustrated that programme failure or lack of impact is ascribed to their lack of capacity. Yet donor agencies themselves are not conspicuously well-managed organisations. Most of the development organisations I have been associated with would certainly have benefited from some capacity building delivered by their partners, rather than the other way around.

Capacity building will likely become even more prominent in the years ahead. Demand for aid is increasing faster than supply, due to the impact of natural disasters and conflicts and the fiscal policies of western governments. The focus will inevitably turn to making low-income nations more dependent on their own resources to deal with emergencies and poverty reduction, with external support directed primarily towards building resilience and institutional capacity. This makes it essential that we understand more about how capacity building works. It would help if we started by admitting that we don’t really know.

David Guy is an independent development economist based in Canberra. He has spent thirty years working with the Australian government, development consulting firms and NGOs.