Capacity development is hard to do – but it’s possible to do it well

Lisa Denney’s gloomy take on the state of capacity building in the aid industry prompted quite a few comments and offers of blog jon-harleposts, including this from Jon Harle of INASP, on organization that ‘strengthens the capacity of individuals and institutions to produce, share and use research and knowledge, in support of national development.’

Lisa Denney’s recent blog – and Arjan de Haan and Olivia Tran’s response – raise some important issues about what capacity development really is, and whether it works.  I agree with the central thrust of Lisa’s argument: that often, capacity development amounts to little more than a few training sessions, with no real attempt at sustainable or transformative change.

But, at INASP, we think capacity development is an important investment, and it is possible to do  well. We were surprised to hear capacity development referred to as the ‘quick win’ in a project at a recent seminar, because, our belief is that real capacity development only happens where work is demand-driven, is Southern-led, and is based on long term engagement and partnership.

inasp logoINASP shares similar interests to ODI and IDRC – our purpose is to strengthen research and knowledge systems in the South. We certainly wouldn’t pretend that we’ve always got it right– we’ve made plenty of mistakes of our own over the years — but in the process we’ve learnt a lot about how to improve the long term impact of our work.

Beyond training – putting capacity into practice

While training is important, it’s vital to look beyond training to find other ways in which individuals and groups can be enabled to learn and solve problems.

One of the reasons we think that training often falls down is that it focuses on acquiring knowledge or skills, but not on putting them into practice. Our work is as much about convening, collective problem solving and influencing, as about training and mentoring.

For example, we’ve facilitated a series of forums on strategy, influencing and leadership, which are helping  partners to turn ambitious visions into practical plans. This makes use of a range of exercises – from succession planning, to help with fundraising or exploring issues of institutional power and inequality – and draws on a network of advisors from business, civil society and academia.

Enduring capacity

Often, interventions focus on building skills within a specific group of individuals, and the skills of this group represent the enduring capacity element of a project. But the ability of the organisation – or wider system – to reproduce those individual skills (without relying on an external partner or funding) hasn’t fundamentally changed.

A major focus of INASP’s work has been to address this by challenge by embedding training abilities within an organisation. For example, many initiatives have sought to train researchers in how to communicate their work (including our own AuthorAID programme). But each year there is a new cohort of researchers looking for support. We therefore also work with research institutes and universities so they can develop and run their own in-house training and mentoring programmes.

As well as training trainers, this also requires changing organizational processes and systems if that skills-development is going to teach_a_man_to_fishcontinue.

But acquiring skills is just the start. An organisation needs the structures, processes, and ways of working to make use of skills, and individual incentives need to be addressed, if day to day practices are to change.

Having developed an evidence-informed policymaking toolkit to train civil servants in policy roles, we worked with ZeipNET in Zimbabwe to help the Ministry of Youth, Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment build its new Research and Policy Coordination Unit. The toolkit formed the foundation for individual skills training, a series of policy dialogues enabled broader conversations about evidence within specific policy debates, and direct support to the unit’s deputy director to identify and address some of the changes to ways of working at the organisational level.

Our approach

At INASP, we work with local organisations not just as the ‘recipients’ of capacity development, but as the organisations designing and running programmes with us.   This helps us to develop a better understanding of the local social and political context that will enable, or constrain change. For example, the ways in which gender and power intersect: do women get the same opportunities? can they authoraidparticipate in learning spaces? What will enable or block their ability to drive change with new skills or knowledge? We also recognise the constraints that busy professionals face, so we use online training, for example, to provide the flexibility of time and location that face to face sessions don’t allow.

We use a ‘levels of change’ framework which identifies the individual, organisational and environmental levels of a challenge, and the connections between them. By understanding how and which capacities need to be strengthened at these different levels, and be being clear about learning goals, we can start to develop work which is more effective and more systemic in nature.

  • At the individual level, we may start with the need to creating initial awareness about the importance of new skills or knowledge, then build the basic ‘starting knowledge’ or skills needed, subsequently strengthening skills or deepening knowledge, and finally putting this into practice in the workplace.
  • At the organisational level, the need might be to strengthen relationships or exchange knowledge between teams, improve structures and processes, enhance management approaches, or even change organizational culture.
  • At the environmental level we may need to strengthen relationships or knowledge exchange between organisations, either at national international level.

As Lisa argues, when capacity development is seen as a technical project, delivered through a limited toolkit which puts too much emphasis on training, and not enough attention to individual incentives or organisational cultures, the messy, politicised nature of social change is ignored.

But, being clearer about how we expect capacity to lead to change, the problems we’re trying to address, the specific learning needs, and the connections across systems, mean that it can be an important and powerful investment in social change.


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3 Responses to “Capacity development is hard to do – but it’s possible to do it well”
  1. Kirsty Newman

    Many thanks to both Lisa and Jon for these excellent blogs. I totally agree with Lisa that the state of much capacity building work is depressing and we need to be much more honest about this. But I also agree with Jon that just because lots of people are failing to do this well doesn’t mean it is impossible. In fact, there is a lot of good knowledge out there on what works and what doesn’t in capacity building. I think the big problem is that so many people dive in to ill-informed capacity building projects without taking the time to learn from past successes and failures. I wrote about this a few years ago here (including reference to inasp’s work) https ://

  2. Tracey Martin

    Really interesting discussion about capacity building. I would agree that it is about long-term engagement and partnership. Training alone does not work if people cannot go back and use skills immediately – good follow up and accompaniment can massively increase the effectiveness of training. (I am convinced that so much training is done because it is easy to put in as a budget line in a project.) Skilled volunteers who work with an organisation over time can be very effective – not only do they mentor, they can be role models and change attitudes and behaviour as well as sharing skills – when I ran the VSO country programme in Thailand, teachers working with children with disabilities spoke about how they now believed that the children did have potential to improve. No amount of training would have made a difference without that change.

  3. Tim Almond

    A fundamental reason for the low return on many capacity building initiatives, especially those involving training, is that they are usually run by subject specialists (WASH, Food Security etc) but not learning specialists – people who understand how collective learning works.
    The conventional methods used in the sector are rooted from an inadequate understanding of learning. The western emphasis on individualism creates an obsession with personal learning styles (a notion largely discredited by recent research); and the desire to demonstrate impact and value leads to a focus on objectives which counters the natural dynamic of human learning.
    Collective learning has more in common with the discipline of theatre; the best learning I have witnessed in the last 20 years has sprung from a creative, arts-based approach which resists the mania for analysis, and taps into the natural dynamic of learning that humans possess – at least until formal education taught us how not to learn…