Book Review: Creative Capacity Development

Ms. Pearson’s latest book, Creative Capacity Development, represents a good illustration of the work produced by what Donald Schön would call “a reflective practitioner.”1 She is sharing her analysis and comments about implementation and development of a Cambodia-based NGO, VBNK, where she served as a director for eleven years. This original NGO has (and still continues to) orient its work in developing capacities on leadership, project and strategic management approaches for local NGOs and other organizations in the social development sector in Cambodia. It’s also a sound experience about the underlying iterative process to become a creative learning organization. The book’s format is like a retrospective case study -- an analysis of a single unit, highlighting developmental factors in relation to a particular experience in a larger domain of practice. It is also a personal expression/analysis of the author unique experience as practitioner.

Book review by: D. Campeau, Université de Montréal, November 2012

(critique aussi disponible en français, voir ci-dessous)

Book cover: Creative Capacity Development

PEARSON, Jenny (2011) Creative Capacity Development, Learning to adapt in Development Practice, Sterling VA, Kumarian Press

The book can be structured in three sections. The first two chapters introduce us to different dimensions of Cambodia’s culture and the particular post-conflict context after the Khmer Rouge regime and particularly, how these dimensions influence learning processes and capacity development practices with individuals and organizations. It also presents the evolution of the social development sector in Cambodia from which VBNK’s clients (local organizations) and the continuous adjustments required to keep their services relevant and competitive. The following two chapters describe both VBNK and its director’s learning journey to become a learning organization able to introduce creative approaches to overcome cultural and learning blocks in a unique context. The last chapter is a “manager’s tips” section, a generous descriptive and commented sharing about funding, business’ development, team work and human resources management by an experienced manager.

Through this detailed story of an original practice, two issues seem apropos when considering current capacity development domain. The first one is about taking account of local culture into a project design and implementation; the second is about enabling a learning organization.

The author argues throughout her book that effective capacity development work must start with a comprehensive understanding of the local culture, and the results of this comprehensive understanding should then be incorporated into capacity development practices. This way, it is possible to identify capabilities but also obstacles toward and effective and long-lasting change. This approach is influenced by Geertz (1973)2 writings about the importance of “thick study” of a culture and its context. By doing so, it is possible to overtake limited observation of behaviors during vernacular or induced events. Instead, it is a work of description and interpretation of the internal and significant dimensions of a culture (structures, symbols, meanings, senses) that are characterizing social phenomena and human action. The legitimacy and the increased performance of capacity development action must then be based on a thoughtful introduction of these cultural factors. The VBNK case emphases the importance of this thoughtful work to overstep the “one-size-fits-all” attitude, which is still the current standard in too many contexts.  It also challenges the ways many projects outline the expected results, limiting themselves by using only “products” or “services” delivered, based on culturally-biased definitions. However, when the author states that “real understanding can come only through embracing all the complexities of human systems (p.45)”, she is introducing some conflicting issues that practitioner have to consider.

This comprehensive understanding attitude is being translated at the individual and organizational level as “intercultural competency” (Trompenaars, 1998)3. Through her own experience as a mid-career British expatriate in Cambodia and the various experiences with many of her Cambodian colleagues (the older that have lived the exactions of the Khmer Rouge regime and the younger who don’t; peoples educated abroad and those educated in Cambodia), the author meaningfully shows that intercultural competency requests a continuous and rigorous self-work and mostly, time. The exemplary support from its funders over the time has facilitated VBNK’S involvement in this work. However, the great majority of capacity development projects, which are living in a “Results-based management” and “Increased efficacy” environment, have not access to the necessary time, resources and safe space to carry out this work (whatever it is incremental or systematically planned). This situation of being sensible of these cultural factors without sufficient support can foster the development of weaknesses or worthless mixed feelings. On the other hand, translation of this “thick knowledge” into day-to-day operation requests some skills (which can be learned), but mainly, open attitude and continuous rigorous approaches. Ms. Pearson’s draws that it’s a challenging work, even for experienced peoples.

Nonetheless, the author postulates that being a learning organization would help VBNK to face the challenge to link comprehensive and deep cultural understanding with appropriate results. She extensively described the confrontational and fusional process lived by both VBNK and herself through the implementation of CDRA’s “Action learning cycle” into the strategic and tactic planning activities, and by incorporating creative and artistic approaches into the organization’s routines. The author has introduced these approaches to overthrow in a progressive way the recurrent individual and organizational “inadequate” responses rooted in cultural beliefs. Impacts on the organization dynamic and structure are broadly described and commented. These impacts, complexities, uncertainty, instabilities, particularisms and values conflict, as suggested by Schön, drawing the organizational dissonance effect as a consequence of “struggle” among imported models of practice and knowledge and their implementation on a day-to-day basis. This last characteristic, values conflict, is a watermark throughout Pearson's experience with VBNK. As for any other capacity development experience aiming to introduce change, some questions arise: Which change? For what purpose? How it is defined? How it is implemented? Unavoidably, these questions are raising the issues of power and control. They are sketched throughout different situations described in the book, but are not openly tackled as a transversal issue. The same with the “political” issues concomitant with the VBNK’s role as change agent embedded in the social system in Cambodia. The “reserve” to confront those issues is a current challenge for all individual and organizational development projects.

However, the VBNK and Ms. Pearson’s experience described in the book is a rich testimony and a good illustration of many challenges that capacity development projects are still pursuing.


1 Schön, Donald A. The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals Think in Action. Basic Books. 1983

2 GEERTZ, Clifford, 1973 The interpretation of culture, New York, Basic Books

3 TROMPENAARS, Fons, F. Hampden-Turner, 1998Riding the Waves of Culture, New York, McGraw-Hill

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