$15bn is spent every year on training, with disappointing results. Why the aid industry needs to rethink ‘capacity building’.

The most read posts from 2017, in reverse order. Number 3 is a guest post from Lisa Denney of ODI. Check out the original if you want to read the comments.

Lisa Denney

Every year a quarter of international aid – approximately US$15 billion globally – is spent on capacity development. That is, on sending technical assistants to work in ministries or civil society, running training programmes, conducting study tours or exchanges, or supplying resources and equipment to help organisations function better. This is often referred to as ‘teaching men to fish.’ Rather than giving men (or, one might add, women) fish, teaching men to fish is seen to provide sustainable capabilities that will empower people and eventually negate the need for external support. Yet this task, far from being the technical transfer of skills, is fundamentally about social and political change.

In countries affected by conflict or fragility, this assistance is not just about improving development outcomes but is also expected to strengthen the state itself – because its very weakness is framed as both a cause and consequence of violence and underdevelopment. By defining state fragility as a problem of weak capacity, capacity development becomes the primary solution. It is also, conveniently, a problem that donors and NGOs can do something about – by providing capacity development programs.

teach_a_man_to_fishBut despite the dominance of this idea, results in practice are frequently disappointing. This is borne out by six-years of research by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) on state capacity and how it tends to get built in eight countries (Afghanistanthe Democratic Republic of the CongoNepalPakistanSierra LeoneSri LankaSouth Sudan and Uganda). While diverse, the studies point to a range of familiar challenges, including:

  • the limited toolkit of capacity development approaches (as one respondent in Sierra Leone noted ‘training, training, training – how much training does one person need?’);
  • the focus on technical aspects of service delivery, neglecting how power and politics are at the root of many problems that appear to be about capacity;
  • the neglect of alternative capacities outside of the formal realm or what Western notions of ‘capacity’ look like; and
  • a focus on tangible ‘units’ of a delivery systems (that is, individuals and organisations) and less on the system as a whole and how its parts interact.

Given that capacity development activities stretch back to at least the 1950s, why the frequent lament of poor results? (The SLRC synthesis report is far from the first study to point to these limitations).

The SLRC research finds many of the reasons are to do with the political economy of the aid industry itself – short timeframes, quantitatively-driven results reporting, risk aversion and an emphasis on technical rather than political and contextual skills and knowledge. But perhaps most fundamentally, 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 – which are in turn cloaked in value-neutral technocracy. The problems become ones of limited equipment or resources, insufficient knowledge, weak coordination, poor monitoring, and so on, rather than about power, incentives and interests.

So, we see aid programmes attempting to improve service delivery in Afghanistan by building the technical capacity of villagecapacity building thanjavur development councils, overlooking the incentives of local power brokers who hold the real sway in how services are delivered. Or programmes imply that malnutrition in Sierra Leone can be reduced by training mothers in infant and young child feeding, with little regard for the gendered power relations that mean women have little control over household finances and serve the most nutritious meal portions to older men. In South Sudan, there are examples of statebuilding being boiled down to workshops – often conducted in English – to address complex social transformations, such as local justice and peacebuilding. In all of these cases, the complexity, power and politics of the changes sought are sidestepped and turned into technical, more easily-delivered projects.

We would never think to use logframes and value for money calculations to manage the civil rights movement, for instance (although such programme management tools are used for all kinds of domestic social policy reforms). So why do we think that processes of social change can be projectized in countries affected by conflict or fragility? Is it because, while we recognise the politics inherent in some social change in our own countries, we strip it out from social change processes elsewhere and treat problems as ones of capacity alone?

To address these limitations, the SLRC argues that we need a re-politicisation of capacity development, acknowledging that we are ultimately interested in fostering social and political change. That might be by making service delivery more equitable, changing power relations in the household, or making governance arrangements more accountable. None of these are technical endeavours. Rather than shying away from this politics, we must put it front and centre and engage with it.

gandhi and metrics h-t aid thoughtsTo do so, we might start from building a nuanced understanding of how people use services in practice – recognising what drives people’s decision-making and the breadth of providers people rely on, often extending beyond the state. We must move beyond thinking about capacity as the tangible assets of individuals (eg: teachers) and organisations (eg: schools) and begin to think much more holistically about the capacity of systems. Ensuring health workers have good technical knowledge does not make a well-functioning health system on its own. Ensuring that staff also have good bedside manner, the trust of the community, access to reliable drug supply chains, are paid on time and so do not charge bribes or sell drugs on the black market, and so on also matter.

Finally, we must be prepared to change our ways of working and thinking about the challenges faced in countries affected by conflict and fragility and move beyond the idea that capacity is the key constraint and therefore capacity development the natural answer. Rather, we need to bring to bear a much wider toolkit to support what are social and political processes of change. Ironically, this may begin by improving the capacity of development practitioners themselves to support such change processes.


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4 Responses to “$15bn is spent every year on training, with disappointing results. Why the aid industry needs to rethink ‘capacity building’.”
  1. Daniel Bassill

    I’d like to find this article in a visualization or concept map and I’d like to find people who are trying to create concept maps that work like blueprints, showing all the things needed to help a community address it’s problems (or take advantage of its opportunities). In building a building, the project planning has to take funding, political support, zoning and other factors into consideration. This part of the work does not show up on the set of blueprints, but it’s work that is needed, and is done in almost all building projects.

    Thus, for social problem solving creating some visual blueprints might provide a set of guides that others could follow, or duplicate to describe the problem they are trying to solve.

    Here’s one article from my blog where I use a concept map to show work needed to reach and help inner-city kids connect with volunteer-mentors and tutors in organize community programs, which also serve as safe places in non-school hours. In this I’m trying to show that solving this problem takes years and is like peeling an onion. One problem solved, or addressed, leads to another that needs to be solved. http://tutormentor.blogspot.com/2017/10/solving-one-problem-leads-to-new.html

    In some of the systems thinking and concept mapping formats the blueprint can be built like a wiki, with contributions from others. It’s never perfect, but can get better from year to year.

    Thanks for your articles. Happy new year to you.

  2. Gareth Price-Jones

    Happy New Year Duncan.

    I think we as a profession are further along than you/Lisa give us credit for. For me the issue isn’t so much that programs (or at least those designing and delivering them) don’t appreciate or understand the political realities – it’s often precisely because you understand them that you don’t hit them head on. If you state baldly that your work is about political change then your program (and does anyone really still develop stand-alone projects that don’t contribute to a larger whole? – bit of a straw man complaint there) either won’t get resourced or will be actively opposed by a raft of different stakeholders at family, local, national and global levels.

    In my experience (which I grant might be exceptional – I’ve worked with some pretty smart people, mostly from the global south) most of these nuances are fully considered, and inform program strategies throughout (even if they are not perfectly captured as such in the strategy or program documents). Activists and NGO staff designing those programs have to ‘smuggle in’ the nuance while working with imperfect realities. You train officials because (as well as providing a modicum of knowledge and tools) it builds relationships, helps you understand internal power dynamics and can shift attitudes, not because training is a magic bullet. You might do it in English because that has power and credibility with local elites. You work with village development councils because they provide routes to influence and change the incentives of other local power-brokers (and because developing a program that works with armed commanders tends to be contentious, hard to fund and susceptible to Daily Mail outrage). You train mothers in nutrition because that knowledge is a start, not an end, and it hopefully gives a critical minority of them additional equipment to challenge their own gendered realities in ways only they can figure out.

    A current western comparison: Capacity building gives people ways to challenge their political realities in the same way that #metoo has given women and men everywhere a way to talk about and challenge harassment. It provides comparisons with others in similar situations, a language, a framework, a way and space to discuss the issue. #metoo doesn’t solve the problem, and neither does capacity building. But both in my view make it more likely that we’ll find better solutions in future.

  3. Dear Lisa and Duncan,

    Thank you for this great blog. The call for more effectiveness of ‘capacity building’ efforts is important.

    I wonder whether you also looked into evaluations of some ‘more innovative’ ‘capacity building’ interventions, and whether these score better on the effect indicators you used. As, similarly to what Gareth Price-Jones says, there are many practitioners / practices that merit being further highlighted as their approach to ‘capacity building’ tries to improve on (classical) obstacles in international collaboration; Oxfam itself works with partners that use very empowering strategies too.

    In this context, it is important to think a bit broader than ‘training’ interventions. Recommended reading is a/o. the review of five innovative Dutch knowledge platforms (http://knowledge4food.net/gold-standard-exploring-added-value-dutch-knowledge-platforms/ ).

    Best regards & wishing you an inspired 2018!

  4. Edgar

    I believe Lisa Denney touched a nerve here. I appreciate most of her thoughts concerning Aid efforts to bring change by means of capacity building that usually stays or happens at community level most of the times but does not transcend to have an effect in the entire society. Not that I believe all training and capacity building efforts are a waste, but for sure those should be well thought and consider social and political aspects.