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Capacity Building - in practice

Capacity building and capacity enhancement are two amongst a host of names for donor activities that aim to improve the workings of government and service delivery by increasing the effectiveness of bureaucracy. Most development professionals will say capacity building is at the heart of development but that it is terribly difficult. Traditionally capacity building activities will involve a study tour, training needs analysis, training programs and expert staff placement. The receiving agencies love them for the travel, per diem and the break from day-to-day work. Training institutions love them because it is easy money and the students are usually quiet and trouble free, companies love them because they get to place long term experts in the field which assists their bottom line.

So lots of money for something that does not work all that well. Perhaps the entire process is flawed...

    ...because it is premised on a belief at developing country bureaucracies do not work properly because the people working in them are knowledge deficient and, just like with an empty bucket the strategy is to improve the bureaucracy by filling the bucket with knowledge from the donor country.

This traditional approach to capacity building needs to be changed and it is clear to some that the time has come to apply lessons learned from the knowledge revolution to development and specifically to capacity building. The knowledge revolution has taught us that :

  • Knowledge does not exist within any one individual or within any single institution. The best knowledge is developed when a range of experts from around the world.

  • Knowledge that is developed is not useful unless the clients have confidence in terms of its relevance in supporting their work and role within the organization.

  • World Class expertise may exist in seemingly odd places such as remote institutions, think tanks or with people are either retired or not in full time work. It may also reside in people who are not comfortable in speaking English.

  • Highest value expertise comes from people who are already very busy. Because their time is valuable and hard to access highly flexible means of accessing their knowledge must be able to accommodate their schedule.

The key to international knowledge development and sharing lies with blending smart modern technology with new approaches to learning. Web based communication tools including email, video conference, digital knowledge libraries are cheap ubiquitous and powerful. When skillfully used they address each of the points above because we know that people enjoy and learn more from learning events that use multi media technologies that include face to face teaching, video conferencing, web tools, written material and peer group discussions and where needed simultaneous translation. The resulting programs that use this approach and technology is known as blended learning and they work.

Even blended learning will fail however if donor programs are not humble. When Vietnam wanted guidance on how to gain entry to the WTO they did not ask an economically advanced country for assistance. They asked China and one major donor facilitated that contact. So it should be with capacity building programs – donors should concentrate on facilitating knowledge development and dissemination. Sometimes but not all of the time part, or all of that knowledge will come from the donor country. In the majority of cases it will come from elsewhere within the country or from other parts of the world.

Lets get rid once and for all the “in our image” approach to capacity building programs and embrace a humble blended learning approach.


Excellent article. It is so heartening to know that it is now possible for people everywhere to contribute their mite to development, in a meaningful way.

These comments from Colin Lonergan on capacity building are most useful. There are three additional points that are relevant.

First, the whole capacity building program supported by donors across the world is in something of a mess. The worldwide effort is generally supply-driven rather than demand-oriented. As Colin Lonergan's comment implies, the worldwide effort is too often driven by the specific interests of (a) individuals in the receiving institutions, (b) the training institutions, and (c) the companies providing support services. In this, the market is not working at all well. The system needs a thorough review.

Second, it is rather noticeable that there are relatively few published high-quality evaluations of the capacity-building programs conducted by international agencies. The World Bank and regional development agencies, for example, support a very large number of capacity building programs each year. But a careful search of the public evaluation programs of these agencies throws up few examples of careful, high-quality reviews.

Third, the suggestion that many capacity building programs are "In our Image" is surely correct. And this, in turn, means that many capacity building programs have a strong supply-driven (rather than demand-determined) bias. Across the world, most (perhaps all?) donor countries and agencies tend to promote certain ideas through their capacity building programs. U.S. agencies are keen to promote American values; the French encourage people to learn French; the Japanese are keen to build support for Japanese priorities, especially in Asia; Australia and Canada tend to promote Anglo-Saxon approaches; the Koreans are keen to encourage Asian colleagues to learn about Korean technology; and the Nordic countries are currently quite keen to promote the environmental agenda.

Is this "In our Image" (IOI) approach wrong? The question is perhaps not useful. It is probably inevitable that donor countries will favour IOI programs. We should probably accept that the IOI approach cannot be avoided. But it would be helpful if we also acknowledged more clearly our own biases. As Colin Lonergan suggests, we could be more humble. We could perhaps acknowledge how dominant the IOI influence is within the programs of most donor countries. We could also acknowledge that the IOI approach is not especially consistent with the idea (emphasised in the much-discussed "Paris Declaration" about aid management) of developing more ownership of programs on the part of developing (recipient) countries.