Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Capacity building – why so difficult?


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.

'capacity building'


19 thoughts on “Capacity building – why so difficult?

  1. Hi Kirsty,

    Thanks for the post – look forward to seeing what the next couple of days hold. As you may know, WHO TDR released guidelines on seven principles for capacity strengthening a couple of months ago. Their tip no. 3 is “Ensure local ownership and support”.

    But, as we argue on the UKCDS blog, the challenge is not so much knowing what to do, as much as doing it within political constraints (not doing it the way the Director/Minister wants can shorten your career, not doing it the way the ‘beneficiaries’ want is usually only a headache), timeframes, budgets (that limit travel and so face to face rapport building, for example), etc.

    Have a skim of:

    Are you going to address the implementation of the tips in your blog?

    Very best – as always


    • Yup – spot on, and my conclusion is that at some point, if political constraints/timeframes/budgets etc mean that you are not going to be able to implement something that will actually work – you should just not even try. Many capacity building programmes should never have been initiated becuase they never had a realistic chance of success. Better to focus efforts on few projects which might actually work. See Tuesday’s blog for more.

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  3. Hi Kirsty,

    Thanks for a great post. I fully agree with the need for more ‘recipient’-driven capacity building efforts. Simultaneously, I’d really like the so-called ‘builders’ of capacity to take more time up front to (as objectively as possible) assess their own abilities to play that role. As we all know – not everyone can help someone else learn. Just because I might be good at Task A doesn’t mean I can effectively improve someone else’s ability to do the same thing. Some people can do and teach, and others can simply ‘do’ – and we should pay attention to that difference.

    Because it’s become a popular way to frame our work, way too often in development we equate traditional technical assistance (here, let me essentially do that FOR you, while you watch) with legitimate capacity building, which is a significant flaw. There are times and places where truly short-term assistance is what’s needed, but if we really want to focus on actual long-term capacity building, then we have to be more honest and transparent about what that means. And to me what it means is more ownership and accountability from both ‘sides’, an equal or even greater emphasis on the ‘how’ as much as the ‘what’ was done, much longer timeframes, more flexibility in the way it rolls out, and more reasonable expectations of final results. Morever, even more scary than the false TA=capacity building equation, is the problem with donors channeling money directly to small, local NGOs (instead of through INGOs) and checking that off as capacity building. Money alone doesn’t build capacity, and this is a disturbing misnomer that I hope gets corrected soon.

    If folks are interested, we recently published a short case study of a capacity building partnership between my large NGO and a much smaller one (written by both groups). We tried to be as honest as possible about the challenges we faced, with the hope that others hoping to form similar partnerships could learn from our experience. Here’s the link, though because it’s not open access I will email you a full copy:

    Capacity building is a major part of my job so I very much look forward to the rest of your 4 rules, and to the comments that others will leave in response!


    • Couldn’t agree more with this Tricia – I think a big reason why there is a perception that capacity building doesn’t work is that so many things are labelled as capacity building (including as you point out TA and simply giving money to people in the south) when they don’t have any prospect of doing anything which will build capacity. Will cover this in tomorrow’s blog…

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  5. Thanks for this Kirsty, looking forward to hearing your other tips 🙂
    I see capacity development as a process by which performance is improved/strengthened (whether at an individual, organisational, or sectoral level). Although leaning is central to achieving this, I think we can often focus too much on learning. Interventions end up being your typical training, mentoring, toolkit initiatives etc – when actually interventions such as advocacy, setting common standards, profile raising and activities to build commitment/motivation and support people to innovate, aren’t often thought of in capacity building programmes.
    You may cover this in your next posts, but thought it would be interesting to share – happy to hear thoughts on this!
    Best, Yaso

    • Really good point Yaso – I agree with you and probably our only difference is that my definition of learning encompasses knowledge, skills AND attitudes i.e. I see process of changing commitment/attitudes etc as crucial part of learning.

    • A quick comment in support of Yaso’s point on capacity building being about more than learning – and the frequent problem of running training workshops without supporting the resources needed to implement that learning. I’ve seen this with research training – busy programme staff spend a few days learning about research, but they still don’t have the time/money to use those skills. Obviously the important ‘input’ – learning, staff to provide time, access to research funding – will depend on what the organisation is trying to do and what resources they already have. So principles for supporting learning are really useful and important, but capacity to produce or use research probably isn’t just about skills (or attitudes). Implementing this runs up against donor constraints though eg short-term funding for activities like training rather than long term support for staff salaries…

      • Many thanks for this – very thought provoking. I definitely agree that there are many factors beyond learning that will determine whether CB leads to long term change. However I think these are usually beyond the scope of CB programmes. For example it is not realistic that a CB programme could provide long-term financial support for researchers or make an institution change its policies against its will. It is for this reason that I think implementers need to be very picky about what CB programmes they support and very realistic about what they can actually achieve. If the long-term factors for change are just not there, I would probably suggest it is not worth embarking on a CB programme in the first place (see Tuesday’s blog). Sounds harsh but would save a lot of money currently spent on CB programmes that are doomed to fail…

        • Thanks for the super quick reply! Agree there is definitely an issue for sustainability. I have seen situations where a donor has funded a research officer in an NGO for a few years (I think 6), which was seen by staff as making a huge difference to the amount of research they could do (and they have done quite a bit of research that they have found useful). But I don’t know what will happen when that funding stops. Some guidelines for research capacity building recommend supporting fellowships, which seems a similar approach. Some of these guidelines also highlight the need to remove constraints that stop people using the skills they already have e.g. academics often need to spend a lot of time chasing funding rather than doing research or networking with potential research users, because donor funding is short term and unpredictable and there aren’t core research funds. So maybe there is scope for some work to support these broader capacity constraints.

          I guess it all comes down to what you count as capacity building and context (as ever) – the kind of institutions you’re trying to support, what they’re trying to do, the nature of the donor relationship, who is providing the CB support (donors, national government) etc etc. The issues I’m talking about are more for longer-term funders supporting organisations to do research, which is a different kind of intervention to INASP’s (very useful) training programmes to support individuals to understand or assess research – where I totally agree with all your points.

          Thanks for an interesting series of posts – sparking lots of interesting discussions and reflections!

  6. As ever you hit the nail on the head for me several times in this post. Having worked in ‘capacity building’ with various hats on in social care in the UK over the past eight years, I wish their was more honesty that this isn’t some dark art. I’m with you and I really think it’s quite simple if people buy in to it, too many ‘sector-led improvement bodies’ rely on this being trixy to secure their funding!!

    A year ago me and a mate set up Social Care Curry Club, reckon it’s built considerable capacity for numerous people without any budget or grant or support – simply because it’s simple and it would only succeed if people wanted it to. I appreciate these are social care examples and not development, but every time I read your stuff I find myself agreeing and applying sideways.

    Look forward to your coming posts, and more debunking of these myths 🙂 Cheers, George

  7. Hi Kirsty, thanks for initiating a good discussion as ever – and thanks too for the reference to INASP. We’re absolutely committed to working with partners to make sure that anything we do is responding to their needs, that they are engaged in the process, and we secure commitment from partners for whatever we’re doing. It simply wouldn’t work otherwise. But we are finding it increasingly difficult to work at partners’ pace due to funding constraints.

    Two things strike me: firstly, accessing funding, particularly within the time-frames of competitive calls/tenders means you often have to design a programme without sufficient time or ability to talk to your partners/beneficiaries. With the best will in the world, this process (alongside managing an existing programme, as is often the case) would take more time than partners are likely to be able to give, and make the process more time consuming than either can afford. This places some significant obligation on the lead organisation to secure the funding for the benefit of partners. Certainly not ideal.

    Secondly, once you’ve got the funding (and assuming this does align with partners/beneficiaries needs!) the need to achieve milestones and ensure ‘progress’ pushes the northern organisation (or whoever holds the funding) to be more directive than they might otherwise want to be. We are certainly having to push partners more. I think some of this is positive (sometimes capacity building initiatives fall down not because partners aren’t engaged and committed, but because some partners/beneficiaries act to block broader progress or frustrate others’ efforts – finding ways to overcome and unblock this is important).

    But all of this also supposes that partners/beneficiaries are in agreement about what they need at what ever level you’re working – of course the best thing would be the time to come to this agreement, and then to keep everyone together as a project develops. INASP has put a lot of time and effort into this process. But there seem to me to be plenty of instances where some beneficiaries are preventing others in the country from realising their aims (aims which they very much ‘own’).

    So I completely agree – this is a brilliant principle, but it’s getting much harder for INASP and organisations like ours to follow this all the time!

    best, Jon

    • Thanks Jon – this is a really useful comment and certainly gives me food for thought. I can think of a couple of things that donors could do to improve this situation – firstly I think it is really useful when donors give advance warning of new calls they are going to issue to give implementers a bit of extra time to start thinking about what they want to do. Obviously, giving plenty of time for implementers to submit their initial concept notes will also be helpful. Finally I think it is useful if funders provide time and ideally funding to shortlisted applicants to enable them to build their consortia and develop a realistic full proposal. Those are probably quite obvious ideas – do you (or anyone else reading this) have any further suggestions for best practice for donors to better enable beneficiary ownership? The milestone issue remains particularly thorny! Do you have any thought on whether there are ways to maintain the benefits for the likes of INASP (to help you to put pressure on partners for delivery) without sacrificing the need for local ownership? Maybe this just isn’t possible in which case a value judgement might need to be made on which is most important.. What do you think?

  8. Hi, Kristy, we met a couple of years ago at KL in an INASP program. I have founded a capacity-building organization in Mumbai India – Knowledge Whiteboard. We focus on Strategic Management of NGOs and Qualitative Research for Practitioners. Our fundamental principle is to enable our participants take charge of their own learning. I am happy we share the same views. Best wishes, Rajshri Mahtani.

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