Capacity development: Taking stock


(This is potentially the first of a series of stock-taking posts about inspiring literature on topics I blog about – the series will start if you find this interesting, so plmk).

Recently I met all staff of the Water Integrity Network (WIN) which stands for more integrity and transparency and preventing more corruption in the WASH sector by organising coalitions of institutions and individuals to cooperate and share useful ideas, resources and tools and to join hands in this fight.

The starting point: a capacity development workshop by WIN (26-27 May)

The starting point: a capacity development workshop by WIN (26-27 May)

On 26 and 27 May, WIN will be organising a workshop on capacity building in order to define its priorities for the years to come and to develop a strategy in line with those priorities. As I met the person in charge of organising this workshop and we exchanged some ideas by mails and face-to-face, it gave me a nice opportunity to take stock of some good articles and papers I have read about this concept.

The following list represents an attempt at mentioning and briefly describing the contents of some of the reads I found most inspiring on the topic of capacity development. This is by no means an exhaustive list of resources on the topic so feel free to suggest your inspired reads.

Many of these articles have been written by or inspired after Peter Morgan (private consultant as far as I can see but in a brief search I wasn’t able to find the right Peter Morgan out of 40 Peter Morgan’s (on LinkedIn alone).

Capacity and capacity development – some strategies

(Peter Morgan – 1998)

The oldest reference of all papers, this article is interesting because a) it provides some pointers to define capacity development (the processes and strategies), capacity (organisational and technical abilities, relationships and values) and impact (developmental benefits and results) and b) it considers various ‘capacity development’ strategies that have been employed, namely:

  • supplying additional and physical resources;
  • helping to improve the organisational and technical capabilities of the organisation;
  • helping to settle a clear strategic direction;
  • protecting innovation and providing opportunities for experimentation and learning;
  • helping to strengthen the bigger organisational system;
  • helping to shape an enabling environment;
  • creating more performance incentives and pressures;

The article ends with a series of questions to address the strategic value of capacity development and the operational recommendations to make it work.

What is capacity?

(Peter Morgan, 2006) – this is a direct link to the paper in PDF format.

This paper is firstly valuable for pointing at the lack of a clear and agreed definition on capacity development – that ‘missing link’ in development according to the World Bank – and particularly its common confusion with (individual) training. As a result, capacity development becomes an umbrella concept devoid of any useful meaning. The second contribution of this paper is to single out five central characteristics of capacity development: 1) it’s about empowerment and identity, 2) it has to do with collective ability, 3) it is a systems phenomenon, 4) it is a potential state and 5) it’s about creating public value. A third pointer is the definition of individual competencies, organisational capabilities and institutional / systemic capacity. Then Peter Morgan focuses on the meso level (organisations and their capabilities) to extract five core capabilities:

  1. The capability to act: having a collective ability to define a vision and an agenda and implement it (related to leadership, human resources etc.);

    The 5 capabilities' framework (Credits: ECDPM)

    The 5 capabilities’ framework (Credits: ECDPM)

  2. The capability to generate development results: the thematic and technical capabilities that lead to results (outputs, outcomes), which is usually the central attention of capacity development – though the author argues it is in the combination of the five that capacity development becomes meaningful and effective.
  3. The capability to relate: connecting to other actors relevant in the field where an organisation is evolving; this relates to working on the exhausted (or rather over-used) concept of ‘enabling environment’ but also on power struggles and political intrigue in a sometimes seemingly uncompetitive sector (how wrong!).
  4. The capability to adapt and self-renew: learning, innovating, adapting to changing environments or pre-empting changes;
  5. The capability to achieve coherence: maintaining a focus while using all separate resources to the fullest of their abilities. This is a major challenge with the growing recognition of complex and intricate relations among development actors

Finally, the author opens the debate as to capacity being a means to an end or an end in itself.

A balanced approach to monitoring and evaluating capacity and performance

(Paul Engel, Tony Land, Niels Keijzer – 2006) – this is a direct link to the paper in PDF format.

This paper is very much in line with the previous one but it lists a number of useful questions to assess capacity and performance and provides a five-step approach to develop the assessment framework. These five steps are: 1) Situational reconnaissance and stakeholder analysis 2) Calibration of the assessment framework 3) Implementation 4) Review of the draft results with key stakeholders and 5) Sharing the assessment report with the full range of stakeholders.

Capacity for a change

(Peter Taylor, Peter Clarke – 2008).

The report from a workshop that IDS organised in 2007, this excellent resource is probably the reason why I’ve been thinking a lot more about capacity development (CD) recently. The 26 participants provided outstanding matter for reflection which led the authors to analyse the current situation of capacity development interventions, re-imagine CD processes and suggest ways forward.

The paper is a useful resource for its facts (e.g. figures on public expenditures on CD), its evidence from study: about the importance of knowledge and learning, power relations, having good theories of social change, the relations between intervention agents rather than just results and perhaps above all else the importance of the local context – here we go again! and finally it is useful for the recommendations to address capacity development systemically.

In the forward-looking part, the authors recommend considering five useful pointers for CD interventions:

  • Empowering relationships – having that empowerment perspective at the core;
  • Rallying ideas – favouring a clear language that comes from joint reflection;
  • Dynamic agents – recognising the importance of local champions to take things forward;
  • Framing and shaping context – favouring a flexible design through interaction with the local context;
  • Grounding enabling knowledge / skills – working on abilities to understand and interact with one another;

The report ends with some suggestions for donors, research institutes, service providers and practitioners at large to take their own share and improve CD interventions. Last but not least, the bibliography provides actually enough references for me to write another blog post…

Capacity development: between planned interventions and emergent processes. Implications for development cooperation

(Tony Land, Volker Hauck and Heather Baser – 2009) – this is a direct link to the paper in PDF format.

The most recent resource of the list, this policy management brief by ECDPM poses that complexity theories and particularly aspects of emergence and ‘complex adaptive systems’ provide a welcome contribution to unpacking capacity development. The authors consider capacity as an emergent property that cannot be ‘engineered’ by organisations (even less so by external agencies, often Northern-based I would argue). Their assessment is that the forces around organisations and capacities are sometimes far greater than the former and it is therefore important to map them to understand better what may play a role in the success of an intervention (hence the importance of carrying out a kind of ‘forcefield analysis‘ perhaps I would add). The brief continues with a comparison between ‘conventional’ (engineering, pre-determined, risk-averse) approaches to capacity development and approaches inspired by emergence and complex adaptive systems.

Emergence and iteration: two key factors of capacity?

Emergence and iteration: two key factors of capacity?

One interesting aspect of this brief is also the identification of 12 pointers that may help in organising capacity development interventions. The authors are cautious enough to warn against the chase for a silver bullet (in this case ‘complex adaptive systems’) but advise to consider the pointers to develop incremental approaches that reconcile intervention engineering (the current practice nowadays) with emergence.

As mentioned above, this is no exhaustive list, so what did you find useful references on the topic?

If you think it’s useful to publish such ‘stock-taking’ blog posts in the future, on capacity development or other topics, let me know (and about what topic).

To find all these resources in one place check my online bookmarks on capacity development: http://delicious.com/ewenirc/capacity_development.

Related posts:

4 thoughts on “Capacity development: Taking stock

  1. Pingback: What should be the next topic for a stock-taking post? « KM for me… and you?

  2. Thank you both for your support. One of my next posts will be a stock-taking one. Feel free to share your gems too…

  3. Thanks for this attempt to corral some the relevant information on this important topic! Freshwater Action Network is part of a new programme of work launched by DFID’s Governance and Transparency Fund and a big peice (in many ways the first and last piece) is on capacity building. The first thing I realized was that everyone thinks that this is something different depending on their actual capacity and/or what they actually want the capacity to ‘do’ or engage in. Thanks! Kolleen

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