What have we learned about capacity development so far?

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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. Capacity.org 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. 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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