A frequent comment about capacity building is that it is very difficult and complicated. I understand this to a point – I mean any endeavour that involves human beings is going to be complicated. But it is possible to fail at something for a long time even if that thing turns out to be easy once you know how! And I wonder whether when we say capacity building is difficult, what we really mean is that we have so far failed to do it well.
Personally, I suspect that capacity building is not as difficult as it has been made out to be. In fact, in the coming posts I am going to propose four simple rules for capacity building and I hypothesise that if implementers followed these rules their sucess rate would be dramatically higher.
The first rule gets to the heart of what we actually mean by capacity building. It is, after all, a bit of a funny term that we use in the development field but generally not in our real lives. For me, capacity building means learning. Individual learning, organisational learning or even societal learning. Thinking about it in this sense highlights an important feature of capacity building – it has to be owned by the ‘beneficiary’. No-one can make another person learn and therefore no-one can ‘build someone elses capacity’*. As outsiders, all we can do is to support the learning/capacity building of others.
So, rule number 1 is that those who are benefitting from the capacity building programme need to have ownership of their learning. This doesn’t mean that outside agencies can’t implement capacity building programmes – but it does mean that they will need to make very sure, at an early stage that those who are intended to benefit from the work are actually fully bought-in and committed.
A good example of this comes from the organisation I used to work for, INASP. They have been working for many years with consortia of academic librarians, researchers and ICT experts in a number of developing countries. They support these consortia to build their capacity to support access, availability and use of research information. In some cases, the experts in INASP might think they know what the best thing for a given country consortium to do is. However, while they may provide some advice, they realise that change will only really happen if the consortium itself comes up with and implements its own solution.
Funnily enough, you can learn a lot about this approach by watching trashy television shows like Mary Portas Queen of Shops or Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmare. In these shows, the main job of the presenter is not to tell people what they need to do but to guide them to the point where they recognise for themselves what is needed and then get on and do it!
So that was rule number 1 – the next 3 will be coming up over the coming days. If you want to get each post direct to your inbox you can sign up on the right to receive email updates. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, objections and additions!
Go to rule 2.
*The only time I do think it is acceptable to talk about building someone else’s capacity is if you are indulging in the niche sport of ‘dirty development talk’ (see below). This concept was introduced to me by two friends who are now happily married – proof, methinks, of its efficacy.