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What Have We Learned About Capacity Development So Far?


Engel, P. 2014. What Have We Learned About Capacity Development So Far? ECDPM Talking Points.

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What can we learn from past research on capacity development to make sure it is an effective tool in future development cooperation? Some key messages from ECDPM’s Director ahead of the launch of a major new book. 

Capacity development – where people, organisations and society as a whole unleash, strengthen, create, adapt and maintain capacity over time – has been an elusive challenge on the agenda of development policy makers since the 1990`s. A series of comprehensive studies tried to unravel its secrets, helping us to better understand the relationship between capacity and performance. has inspired debate between researchers, policy makers and practitioners for almost two decades and a booklet from SNV and ECDPM will soon highlight the lessons learned for better future practice.

A Learning Curve in Capacity Development

Our fundamental question should be where stakeholders develop their own competencies and capabilities, and three fundamental lessons come out of the practical research on capacity development in developing countries in the 1990`s

Capacity is an emergent characteristic of human systems and emerges from communities when people apply competencies and collective capabilities. As one put it:

Different (…) capabilities of people combine and interact to shape the overall capacity of a purposeful human system” Fowler and Ubels

Capacity development is an endogenous, multi-stakeholder process and part of the everyday life of those involved and driven by what they know, what they do and how they communicate and reflect upon it.

Strengthening the capacity of a community, organisation or human system is not a straightforward, linear process of inputs leading to outputs, and in turn outcomes and impact. It is an interactive, social process of anticipation, appreciation, adaptation and innovation by the stakeholders themselves in response to the internal or external challenges.

Capacity development is tied to challenges that people and communities face, for example a natural disaster. If the challenge is social change – then the purpose may be influencing government policy.

Approaching Capacity Development

These lessons have important consequences for the way in which we approach capacity development.

First, stakeholders and their networks need to drive their own capacity development processes. Their energy and efforts determine their pace, their interests and their direction. Whether outsiders get involved or not, capacity will evolve anyway, even if those same outsiders find what is going on at present lacking in some way.

Second, to strengthen capacity, you need to understand and respect the existing competencies and capabilities and development process already in place. The ‘do no harm’ principle is important here: don’t insist on something ‘new’ before empowering the ‘old’.

Third, the challenge for those who aim to improve capacity is understand how capacity develops endogenously within a particular context and then how to facilitate improvements to the process, its outcomes and the final impact.

Fourth and finally, to create the space for stakeholder improvisation and out-of-the-box solutions, you often need to adapt rules of hierarchy and accountability.

How to Recognise a Promising Approach to Capacity Development

There are many approaches to capacity development and success may be achieved in many different ways.

We should have an open mind when assessing the potential of an approach to capacity development, to perceive what might work in a particular situation.

From this, we can derive a number of basic requirements with which the design of capacity intervention to be ‘promising’:

  • Understanding the challenges stakeholders face, the purpose that drives them and the context within which they operate.
  • A good understanding of and due respect for the existing capabilities and ongoing capacity development processes.
  • ‘Learning-by-doing’ should be the preferred vehicle to allow stakeholders to develop their own competencies and capabilities.  Measures to facilitate and improve the identification, sharing and application among stakeholders of knowledge, information and lessons learned need to be included in the design.
  • Some way to make capacity, capabilities and their improvement ‘visible’ and assessable to both stakeholders and outsiders. This would facilitate the monitoring progress. The 5Cs (Core Capabilities) could be used for this.
  • In the face of uncertainty and unexpected windows of opportunity appearing, improvisation is needed and in fact encouraged.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

Photo courtesy of UNAMID

For further reading on Capacity Development, we recommend the following articles:

Capacity, Change and Performance’ by Baser and Morgan (2008)

‘Building Resilient Communities: Where Disaster Management and Facilitating Innovation Meet’ by Engel and Engel (2012)

‘The Multi-faceted Nature of Capacity: Two Leading Frameworks’ by Fowler and Ubels (2010)

‘Facilitating resourcefulness: Evaluation of the Dutch support to capacity development’ by the Dutch Development Policy Evaluation Service (2011)

‘Bringing the invisible into perspective’ by Keijzer, N., Spierings, E., Phlix, G., Fowler, A. 2011 (2011) 

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Suresh Babu


2014-12-15 09:07:25

This is an excellent blog to introduce the upcoming publication. Capacity is often recognized as a constraint but very little capacity exists to address the capacity challenges. We as capacity community have to start thinking about how to build capacity champions in the countries who can undertake research and analysis in various sectors. The references added are to the blog are very useful. thanks. Suresh Babu, Head Capacity Strengthening Program, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washignton.D.C

Diana Brandes - van Dorresteijn


2014-12-15 08:49:20

Looking forward to the book release! You might be interested to see the recently developed CGIAR Capacity Development Framework here: This document offers a framework on how CGIAR and its partners can successfully integrate capacity development for both internal and external clients into the 2nd round of CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs). This framework indicates the key advantages that an integrated approach to capacity development can bring to CRPs, Centers and partners, and outlines the requirement for both an appropriate capacity needs assessment before any strategies can be outlined, as well as comprehensive research, monitoring and evaluation of capacity development throughout the process. The “heart” of this document is the nine (9) Capacity Development elements that underpin the CapDev framework. These are identified and defined, underlining the complex and multifaceted nature, and acknowledging that uncertainty prevents us from linear prediction of outcomes. Therefore, this document advocates for the capacity to learn, innovate and adapt along impact pathways framed by Theories of Change of CRPs, with discussion of how these can be considered as part of the overall Capacity Development process. Also, you may want to learn more how the CGIAR Global Capacity Development Community of Practice advocates for the systematic (explicit) tracking of Capacity Development asking that we make Capacity Development not just cross-cutting so that it can be held accountable for results using the same rigorous standards to which we’re planning to hold the newly drafted Strategic Results Framework (SRF) elements accountable. See: If you are still keen to read more, visit then our global CRP Livestock and Fish wiki page to skim through my latest blog posts: With kind regards from Nairobi, Diana Diana Brandes – van Dorresteijn | Global Capacity Development Specialist International Livestock Research Institute | Box 30709, Nairobi, Kenya Tel: +254 20 422 3289 | Skype: raydi_brandes Email: Twitter: DianaBrandes | LinkedIn: Diana Brandes – van Dorresteijn ILRI ONLINE: Website | News | Repository | Presentations | Images| Films| Facebook | Twitter | Maps and locations ILRI is a member of the CGIAR Consortium | better lives through livestock

Jose Romero


2014-12-15 07:22:58

Concise, insightful, and relevant, great summary!!!

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