Reading the Mixed Signals on Capacity Development from Busan

Judging by the public statements here at the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, capacity development has come a long way in the past decade. Nearly all the big speeches and declarations—from the Korean President to the Queen of Jordan—have emphasized capacity development as the critical element to making development assistance more effective and development itself more sustainable.

Yet when we get the final outcome document that will be delivered here on Thursday, those of us who have been fighting for capacity development all these years are likely to be disappointed. CD does not get a lot of ink in the draft document that is circulating here, and those few places where it is mentioned, there are no major new commitments to do it better or differently from the largely haphazard, supply-driven and uncoordinated approaches of the past.

How do we read these seemingly contradictory signals? Is anything changing in Busan?

Overall, I think we have reason to be hopeful. For one thing, the discussion about capacity development has become more sophisticated, and more and more people understand that capacity development is a country-driven process of change, not a bunch of supply-driven training events or technical assistance activities.

For example, the discussion about effective institutions—one of the so-called building blocks that formed the backbone of the Busan event—has focused squarely on this country-driven change process that creates sustainable capacities. Donors and development organizations like the World Bank are recognizing that they have to change the way they help countries with public sector reforms like public finance management or procurement. Instead of prescriptions for the “perfect system,” the World Bank and others said here that they will do more listening, relying on country leaders to guide reform processes. The reason for this change? Clear evidence that such approaches are more likely to be effective.

Another indicator that things are changing is the clear leadership that is on display here from Africa and other developing regions. The thematic session that we held here on Tuesday—where most of the speakers were from developing countries—was a standing-room only event. The Africans have been well organized with clear positions and demands. Their special session on aid effectiveness focused clearly on capacity development and how the Africans themselves have to take the lead in demanding better behavior from donors.

So while the Busan document may not be as explicit as some of us would like, the underlying tone of the discussion about capaicdty development has changed. The CD group here—led by LenCD, WBI, UNDP and others—is to push for two concrete actions after Busan:

  1. An explicit role for capacity development in the country-led compacts that will be one of the key ways for engaging on development issues after Busan. Countries need to have clear ideas about what they are trying to achieve and think systematically about the capacities that will be needed to make those reforms happen.
  2. An explicit approach to knowledge and learning about capacity development: This includes a more organized effort to capture knowledge, lessons and data about what works in capacity development.

Both of these commitments add up to a more important role for LenCD. As an open network of diverse stakeholders from government and non-government organizations, LenCD can play a key role in helping to guide both the stronger country engagements and the knowledge platform, acting as a connector and facilitator for both. LenCD members are spread all over the world and can help countries that are trying to tackle development challenges, helping those countries find other sources of knowledge and inspiration. We have a lot of work to do, but Busan seems to suggest that the road ahead may offer more signposts than road blocks.

Mark Nelson, Co-Chair, LenCD, in Busan, Republic of Korea