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Breaking up with 'capacity building'


Jo Kemp

Are capacity building activities delivering their intended impact? Many argue that money spent on capacity building is not having the impact it should.

According to Lisa Denney of ODI, every year a quarter of international aid - approximately US$15billion globally – is spent on capacity development with disappointing results. Indeed, if I was given £1 for every terms of reference which mentioned capacity building – often synonymous with training – as the solution I would be a rich woman.


In designing and delivering programmes it is often assumed that if we build capacity, something that is almost always vaguely defined, we will solve the problem. Don’t get me wrong, in many cases there may be insufficient equipment, knowledge or skills to tackle a problem. These gaps need to be strengthened. However, genuine development progress is often complex, solutions are not simple and capacity programmes in their current form often fail to address this complexity. So how do we move forward? 


As a starter for ten, perhaps we should ask ourselves the following questions whenever we reach for the capacity building get-out-card:

- What is the root of the problem? Power and politics may be the root of the problem that appears to be about “capacity”

- In diagnosing the problem what do we really mean by capacity?

- What does capacity look like outside formal or Western notions of the term?

I’ll hold my hands up and say, with looming deadlines and tight budgets, I have not always asked myself these questions before diving in. I wonder how many others are as guilty. Yet, answering these questions will not only re-frame how the sector sees capacity building but it may also help us to reshape how we deliver capacity building initiatives.

If we’re to buck the trend of disappointing capacity development results, we might also want to ensure we always take a systems approach – understanding how parts interact – rather than purely focusing on units of a delivery system when designing the intervention. This approach will help ensure that we are working with complexity. Taking the time to identify and map the different elements  within the system to understand how they interconnect and relate to each other I have found has changed how I design activities.


Lastly, it is important to expand our capacity building toolkit beyond training, for instance, building in space for coaching and mentoring. Evidence from the Harvard Business Review (2011) suggests that training alone can increase productivity by 22.4% but when combined with coaching can increase productivity by 88%. By rethinking how we see and deliver capacity building initiatives we can ensure that the money spent is delivering the designed impact, and that can only be a good thing in increasingly austere times.

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