Capacity development

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The commitment, sealed in the Millennium Declaration in September 2000 in New York, of 190 countries to achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, and the urgent need for countries, particularly developing countries, to effectively and speedily respond to the current global economic recession, climate change and other crises that are plaguing the world and adding to the two billion people already living below the poverty line, has renewed interest and engagement in the issue of capacity development.

Introduction: a historical perspective[edit]

Capacity development has been the centerpiece of international development assistance since the end of II World War and the start of the decolonization period. However, the general acceptation of the concept has been very much influenced by the role of the Marshall Plan in the reconstruction of Europe and, ultimately, by its successful implementation. The general view that has dominated development thinking for decades since the inception of international development cooperation has been that the main drivers of socio- economic development, regarded as the ultimate development goal of decolonised countries, were capital and ‘know how’.

On these premise international development assistance unfolded along two main lines: aid, aimed at filling developing countries’ resource and financial gaps; and technical cooperation, tasked with driving capacity development. With technical training and foreign expertise as its main components, technical cooperation’s main objectives were to fill developing countries’ skill gaps and transfer of ‘know how’.

This general acceptation of capacity development, however, neglected the role that knowledge, as a much wider concept that extends beyond technical training and know how; leadership, as the catalyst of societal transformations; institutions, as complex systems of policies, legislative frameworks, ethics and values; and social capital play in any country’s socio-economic development.

Defining Capacity Development[edit]

The past decade has witnessed a resurgence of interest in the issue of capacity development and with it the redefinition of the concept, with the intent of moving away from the traditional acceptation of capacity development based on technical training and foreign expertise and to capture the concept in its complexity and entirety.

The following are the definitions of capacity development that have been articulated by some of the multilateral and bilateral development organisations engaged in supporting capacity development.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) defines capacity development as the process through which individuals, organisations, and societies obtain, strengthen, and maintain the capabilities to set and achieve their own development objectives over time.

The United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction Office (UNISDR) defines capacity development in the DRR domain as the process by which people, organizations and society systematically stimulate and develop their capability over time to achieve social and economic goals, including through improvement of knowledge, skills, systems, and institutions - within a wider social and cultural enabling environment.

For the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development/Development Assistance Committee (OECD/DAC) capacity development is the process whereby people, organisations and society as a whole unleash, strengthen, create, adapt and maintain capacity over time.[1]

For the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH capacity development is the process of strengthening the abilities of individuals, organizations and societies to make effective use of the resources, in order to achieve their own goals on a sustainable basis.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) defines capacity development as the activities, approaches, strategies, and methodologies which help organizations, groups and individuals to improve their performance, generate development benefits and achieve their objectives.

The World Bank - Africa Region - defines capacity as the proven ability of key actors in a society to achieve socio-economic goals on their own. This is demonstrated through the functional presence of a combination of most of the following factors: viable institutions and respective organizations; commitment and vision of leadership; financial and material resources; skilled human resources.

Some common elements and learning emerge from the definitions above:

- Capacity development is a process of change, and hence is about managing transformations. People's capacities and institutional capacity and a society’s capacity change over time. A focus on what development policies and investments work best to strengthen the abilities, networks, skills and knowledge base cannot be a one-off intervention.

- There can be short-term results. And often in crises and post conflict situations there is a need for such. But even short-term capacity gains, such as increase in monetary incentives or introducing a new information system, must be supported by a sustained resource and political commitment to yield longer term results that truly impact on existing capacities.

- Capacity development takes place at three different levels: the individual level, the organizational level and the societal level. These three levels are interlinked and interdependent. An investment in capacity development must design and account for impact at these multiple levels.

- Capacity development is about who and how and where the decisions are made, management takes place, services are delivered and results are monitored and evaluated. It is primarily an endogenous process, and whilst supported and facilitated by the international development community, it cannot be owned or driven from the outside. At the end of the day, it is about capable and transformational states, which enable capable and resilient societies to achieve their own development objectives over time.

An inclusive multilateralism and the Accra Agenda for Action[edit]

Even as the finish line of the set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approaches, the task of pulling people out of poverty is not happening fast enough. Development delivery, as it were, has stalled. In the last half-decade, if all the symptoms that have beleaguered development effectiveness were to be aggregated, two major culprits begin to emerge: the varyingly weak status of institutional capacity all over the world; and the new global shocks emerging from a combination of nationally and trans-nationally originated factors – food crisis, climate change, financial crisis and so on. Achievement of the Millennium Development Goals hinges on capacities of individuals, organizations and societies to transform their current level of capabilities, in order to reach their development objectives. While increased financial resources are indeed critical, there is little point in having well funded, planned and budgeted programmes if there is insufficient institutional and systemic vision, knowledge, management know-how and technical skill to implement them. Such capacity limitations are cited by least developed and middle income countries alike as one of the biggest hurdles they face in delivering on their human development promise.

The climate change challenge and global poverty are not the concerns of specific interest groups – they belong to all, at the margin. A new spirit of multilateralism must be sought that can drive adaptation and mitigation, a responsible market response, social safety nets, crisis prevention – it is a call for a more comprehensive approach to support the capabilities required to sustain and grow human development. This is a call to the UN development system. And the need for the United Nations system to respond vigorously, publicly and predictably to strengthen national capacities to undertake this complex agenda is more compelling today than ever.

The Accra Agenda for Action (AAA), 2008, articulates this decisive trend.

Capacity Development priorities emerging from the Accra Agenda for Action (AAA)[edit]

  • Capacity development in the context of national, sector, and thematic strategies: ensuring proper integration of capacity development priorities in key national, sub-national, sector and thematic strategies.
  • Country systems: assessing, strengthening and promoting the use of country systems to implement policies and manage public resources - incl. procurement, public financial management, results, statistics and information systems.
  • Enabling environment: addressing the systemic impediments to local capacity development.
  • Technical co-operation: working towards demand-driven efforts in technical co-operation and promoting the use of local and regional resources, including through South-South arrangements.
  • Civil society and private sector: enabling local civil society and the private sector to play their role in capacity development.
  • Fragile situations: tailoring, phasing and coordinating capacity building and development in situations of fragility, including countries emerging from conflict.

Capacity drivers – what makes a difference and where’s the evidence?[edit]

The demand for Capacity Development is being expressed clearly. It is about leadership and human resources, institutional arrangements, knowledge access and learning, and state-society accountability mechanisms that push for and lead to greater human development. National capacity development strategies that emphasise these elements are emerging to underpin development plans. State institutions are revisiting institutional arrangement that make them function more effectively. Local governments are investing back in fundamental capacities to manage and deliver on development services. Civil services are being upgraded and incentivized to perform better. Community groups are growing innovative state-citizen watch mechanisms. It is time to focus on the policy and investment choices that make most sense for sustainable capacity, and design services and programmes that invest in national capacity development, be more strategic, dig deeper and measure up to the highest standards. And now is the chance for the international development community to respond to the loud and growing demand for national and local capacity development support.

Countries across the globe have made policy choices and put in investments in capacity development that have paid off or are in the process of paying off. The United States, Republic of Korea’s and India’s investments in tertiary education, Britain’s and Botswana’s sustained commitment to public management capacity, Singapore’s and Malaysia’s investments in a rapid upgrading of the civil service, China’s and much of western Europe’s investments in strengthening capacities for industry and agricultural production at the local level, Chile’s and South Africa’s policies in tapping diaspora energy as a powerful driver of change within the country, Canada’s and the Philippines’ investments in local NGOs and community capacities to hold local government to account, and so on, are seminal - if sometimes under-celebrated – demonstrations of nationally and locally led action that set up sustainable capacities. It is possible therefore, to create a body of knowledge that informs what has worked in capacity development. References to case studies, analytical works and reports exist, and must continue to be updated and new evidence reviewed.

Capacity development in times of crisis and transitions[edit]

‘Back to basics’ and ‘building back better’: Capacity Development has long been seen by its practitioner as the HOW of development. Capacity development, in its widely accepted interpretation, can strengthen the state by improving the domains of institutions and their arrangements; of leadership and of people management; of knowledge and of information systems; and of voice and accountability. These then need to be complemented by fully functioning and effective national systems; capacities to deliver basic services; and capacities to manage development resources effectively. The core cross-cutting capacities to dialogue and negotiate, to plan and design, to manage and implement, to monitor and evaluate - how do these compendia of doing the basics right - link to the innovative and expanded responses needed in match the world’s complex development realities. And where these capacities have been destroyed or have fled due to wars, economic failure and natural disasters, a focus on retaining existing capacity assets, motivating a return of capacity, and ‘building back better’ is the principle of underlying capacity development during times of crises.

Whose Capacity?[edit]

All the definitions of capacity development provided here above suggest that capacity development is a process that takes place at three different levels: the individual level, the organisational level and the systemic/societal level.

The individual level - Individuals, as the tissues of organisations and societies, represent the first layer of capacity. For societies and organisations to transform and grow, they need individuals with skills, knowledge and experience. At the individual level capacity development takes place through demand-driven processes of learning and knowledge acquisition and sharing, experiencing, participation in communities of practice, south-south learning initiatives, on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching and other learning techniques that empower and place the individual in a central and active position. This new approach to capacity development moves away from the traditional technical assistance, mostly based on supply-driven technical training and workshops.

The organisational/institutional level - The second layer of capacity is the organisational or institutional level. As individuals make up the tissues of organisations and institutions, the sharing of skills, knowledge, experience and values amongst individuals belonging to a group or organisation translates, over time, into the very organisation’s capacity, consisting of procedures, systems, policies and culture. However, while the collective set of capacities of individuals ultimately translates into the organisational and institutional capacity, the latter by far exceeds the sum of the capacities of their members. Developing organisations or institutions’ capacity means fostering change within their complex system of policies, systems, procedures, regulations and organisational culture; a process, the latter, which is endogenous and voluntary, fully owned and controlled by the organisations and institutions that are undertaking change.

The societal level - The third layer at which capacity development takes place is the societal level. This third level has been long neglected in development theory and considered an externality to the capacity development process, which has traditionally focused on the individual and the organisational level. Transformation and change that happens at the societal level overhauls and, at the same time, is driven by that which takes place within individuals and organisations that make that society. In turn, the values system of a society, its customs, body of laws and policies, the system of governance are all elements that impinge on the ability of individuals and organisations to develop further their capacity and transform. Change in capacity at the societal level is a long process, which is difficult to control and steer; however, it is not to be considered an externality or a variable that cannot be controlled for.

These three different levels of capacity development are indeed equally important and strictly interdependent: capacity development interventions at one level are likely to have an impact on other levels as well. Likewise, if investments in capacity are made only at one of these three levels, neglecting the others, the results might not be long-lasting and sustainable as they might be confined to a small group of individuals or organisations.

A good example of the three interconnected levels of capacity development is that borrowed from the justice system. A well functioning and capable justice system needs to have skillful and professional judges, prosecutors, attorneys and court secretaries – individual level capacity; it also needs good court procedures in place, a body of laws and redress mechanisms, a well functioning and non-corrupt police force – institutional level capacity; finally it needs to be embedded in a society with a culture of addressing issues through the formal justice system, with a strong values system based on 'what is right and wrong' as well as on citizenry responsibility - system or societal level capacity. All the above-mentioned levels are equally important and interdependent: a system which has good judges and court houses but is embedded in a society where fear and intimidation obstruct the normal course of justice and inhibit people from reporting crimes and injustice is not an effective one; conversely, a society whose underlying values are human rights and justice, which is deprived of a well functioning justice system and police force, with no sound procedures, flawed laws and unskilled judges, prosecutors and lawyers would not be able to properly and effectively exercise justice.

Which Capacities?[edit]

When discussing capacity development it is paramount to put in focus the capacities which are the subject of any capacity development investment. Which capacities are we talking about?

While technical cooperation prioritizes technical capacities, particularly in sectors such as engineering, health, energy, water, accounting and social security; capacity development is concerned with a set of cross-cutting, functional capacities, which are sector neutral and common to all organisations, institutions and systems. In the past few years research and on the ground development experience have shown that 'horizontal' investments in these cross-cutting capacities yield long-lasting and far-reaching development results.

The capacity to engage with stakeholders and create consensus around a policy, a bill or a plan; the capacity to articulate the mandate of a new institution or to vision the trajectory of an organisation or even a society; the capacity to develop a strategy, translate it into a plan and prepare a budget; the capacity to implement a programme or a policy and the capacity to monitor its implementation and evaluate results are all fundamental capacities that organisations, institutions and societies need in order to be effective and function well. These capacities transcend sectors and unit size; they are common to ministries of education and ministries of environment and natural resources, parliaments and human right commissions, small local government units and offices of the auditor general alike.

These cross-cutting, functional capacities are not just merely management capacities; they hinge on, and are closely connected with, effective and good leadership capacity; the existence of effective and well functioning institutions and institutional arrangements, including a structured system of incentives; an environment conducive to knowledge sharing and knowledge acquisition; as well as transparent and independent accountability systems.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ OECD / DAC, "The Challenge of Capacity Development: Working Towards Good Practice", Paris, 2006.

Links to external pages[edit]