The Case for a ‘Slow and Steady’ Approach to Capacity Building

arjan de haanIn response to Lisa Denney’s piece last week on the low quality of much capacity building work in the aid biz, Olivia Transeveral people got in touch to say ‘but we do it better’. Here’s one example – a guest post from Arjan de Haan and Olivia Tran, from one of my favourite organizations, IDRC (see rave review of some of their previous work on evidence → policy)

Lisa Denney in her recent guest post on the pitfalls of ‘capacity building’ in the aid industry, pointed out the narrowness of capacity development approaches that equate technical training to building capacity, neglect the influence of power and politics, and ignore non-Western notions of what capacity means.  “But perhaps most fundamentally,” Lisa writes, “and what all these factors derive from, is the fact that the aid industry turns fundamentally political processes of social and institutional change into projects.”  And she is right.  Most development projects last no longer than five years and focus on “quantifiable” results.  Although no one would argue that measurable results aren’t important, often meaningful impact manifests itself much later.

idrc logoMost, but not all. The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) supports researchers and research institutions, mostly based in the Global South, that have the potential to contribute poverty reduction. We do this through a policy lens, with the goal of creating policy evidence and impact.  Capacity building is IDRC’s core business, but we have different approach, investing in capacity building projects for much longer periods of time.

When IDRC promoted the establishment of the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) almost 30 years ago, there was a severe shortage of well-trained, locally based economists to inform policy making in the continent.  In the late 1980s, the IDRC and its African partners made a concerted effort to transform the AERC from a network of economists into an institution with the explicit aim of bridging the gap between researchers and policy makers.  We then helped found its sister program, Programme de Troisième Cycle Interuniversitaire en Economie (PTCI), 23 years ago to address the same issue in Francophone Africa.  With the support of the World Bank/the African Capacity Building Foundation, the African Development Bank, various national development agencies, and other donors throughout the years, these capacity building programs are still running, over two decades later and quietly achieving AERC logoremarkable success.

Together, AERC and PTCI have mentored more than 5,500 African researchers from 43 countries across the continent.  The programs have since become recognized as regional centers of excellence, training burgeoning economists.  The vast majority of graduates of the programs remain in the region, instead of moving abroad and contributing to ‘brain drain’.  AERC and PTCI graduates have come to hold high-level bureaucratic, academic, and institutional roles in many countries: as national advisors, secretary generals, and university deans. They have created a skilled network of over a thousand economists who are informing sound evidence-based policy and decision making in Africa – reducing the need to rely on foreign experts.

Another example is the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP).  Now a legally incorporated global organization based in Kenya, Nairobi, PEP was created by IDRC in 2002 as an international network of researchers and institutions, and provides the training and mentoring to promising developing country analysts.  Over 800 researchers have benefited from the PEP program globally, 46% of which are women.

PTCI bannerPEP-supported researchers are enabled to publish in the top international scientific journals, leveling the playing field with their northern counterparts. They also gain considerable exposure at the national level – either as direct policy advisors or through the media.  In Nigeria, for example, PEP researchers contributed to the development of Nigeria’s first national social security scheme. The PEP network also created its own cohort of mentors and trainers. These are increasingly based in the global South, thus avoiding the trap of constant training by foreign experts mentioned in Lisa’s post.  Organisations like PEP, AERC and PTCI enhance opportunities and networks for future leaders in research and policy.

But challenges that Lisa Denney and the report on state capacity describe are relevant for this approach too. We find that it is more difficult to program in fragile and post-conflict states, yet it is in these countries that support may be most needed.  To address this gap, AERC has designed a research and training program focused on building leaders in economic management particularly in fragile and post-conflict countries. PEP has set and exceeded its target of having 40% of its projects in low-income, fragile and post-conflict countries.

PEP, AERC, and PTCI have taken decades to foster and build trusting relationships.  Even so, these programs are finding it difficult to secure and diversify funding. PTCI in particular has struggled to find new funders.  Despite the benefits of such capacity building programs, their sustainability without the support of organisations like IDRC remains in question.

According to recent surveys by the organisation, 34% of PEP projects’ findings have had a direct influence on “strategic development PEP screengrabpolicy decisions.” But measuring impact on policy is an art not a science. It remains difficult to capture the significance of the training programs. We realise there is a clear need to improve the metrics of success of such capacity building programs, and improve the narratives about the intangible benefits that those networks provide.

Of course, research capacity building alone will not resolve development issues. But the programs are making a lasting impact on the capacity of Southern researchers to conduct research, meeting international standards and gradually reducing dependency, and use their findings to inform local policies for more inclusive and equitable development.  We believe they show there is still a case to be made for a slow and steady capacity building approach that allows Southern experts to achieve their own development innovations.

Arjan de Haan is the Employment and Growth Program Lead at IDRC.  He has over a decade of experience working at the Department for International Development (DFID) and at universities in the UK and the Netherlands.

Olivia Tran is a Master’s Candidate at the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada.  She has worked in Mongolia and Thailand, and is currently a summer student at IDRC.

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3 Responses to “The Case for a ‘Slow and Steady’ Approach to Capacity Building”
  1. lilych

    Human beings (regardless of profession/status in life) continue to learn & capacitate themselves with whatever knowledge & skills from crib to grave. Therefore, capacity building in development (effective and efficient = steady?) for longer periods are ideal but I say the exception (compare with the average years of attendance in formal school in 3rd world) . Generally are donor-funded/assisted, as programs. While national governments in 3rd world likewise invest in capacity-building, prioritization of annual budget allocations are generally subject to political considerations/aligned with the political agenda of the majority political party/administration seated in power that are co-terminus with their tenure (4 to 6 years) as elected/appointed officials. Certainly meaningful impacts (esp those tied to policies) are expected much later (considering the core of development issues are deeply rooted historical, if not structural or systemic etc), if and when the social-economic-political environment remains in a straight line (all givens remain static) or in positive/upward trend with no significant disruptions (e.g., natural disaster, financial/political crisis etc). Perhaps a major challenge to capacity building is the tendency for a fits-all design/approach (while everything is contextual & dynamic) including those pre-programmed/designed with accompanying sleek manuals even before the activity even hits the ground.

  2. I’m playing devil’s advocate, because like Duncan I know colleagues and programs at IDRC and their high quality: But how are these programs different from the capacity-building discussed in earlier posts? The bit challenge is that there are no counterfactuals: How do we know these programs work better than giving 5500 participants scholarships for Harvard or Oxford or maybe a cheaper, lesser-known institution outside the African continent? Yes, the discursive level has changed and it makes sense to establish the network in Africa, but how do we really know? The other big problem is that successful projects probably rely on a variety of factors. Yes, PEP researchers contributed to policy-making in Nigeria, a country where higher education is changing, still a lot of traditional capacity-building happens and the administration has benefited from decades of capacity-building. This also happens in the digital age where information spreads usually more open. Large-scale, long-term capacity building will always suffer from attribution problems and real challenges to prove impact, because it is difficult, if not impossible, to subject them to RCTs-if softer goals such as networking or influencing policy are main goals. None of this is a direct criticism of PEP or similar IDRC programs. As long as they can be conducted in a cost-effective way, follow best practice and demonstrate case studies of influence/impact they are probably good value for money. But are they a ‘proof’ that long-term capacity works?!?

  3. Francisco Corona

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