Between Naivety and Cynicism: A Pragmatic Approach to Donor Support for Public Sector Capacity Development

N Boesen and O Therkildsen
Danish Institute for International Studies
Year of publication: 

How can capacity development and change in public sector organisations in poor countries be stimulated? What are the alternatives to traditional practices that have not delivered convincing, lasting results? This paper from Danida presents a results-oriented approach to capacity change (ROACH) to help developing country practitioners and donors to work with capacity development issues in an analytically informed and operationally relevant manner. It argues that donors must take a more hands-off approach and lower their ambitions to a level compatible with conditions in specific countries.

Capacity enhancement of the public sector is often regarded as crucial for achieving the developmental aspirations of poor countries, and it has become increasingly needed and desired in recent years. However, there is substantial and extensive evidence that traditional donor approaches to capacity development, characterised by technical assistance and a focus on training, have failed to bring about lasting capacity improvements. In addition, there is growing recognition that organisational, institutional and structural factors are important in capacity. Finally, new aid modalities have emerged, such as poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSP), budget support, and sector-wide approaches (SWAps). They emphasise how important it is that developing countries have the ability to formulate their own local and national development goals and processes as part of country-driven strategies.

For capacity development to succeed, it must be mainly a domestic affair.

  • Capacity development is enabled or constrained mainly by a broad range of endogenous factors such as resource constraints, politics and power, local ownership and leadership and stakeholder pressures.
  • Until sufficiently powerful domestic actors commit themselves to a process of capacity development, efforts to change will not succeed and will not be sustainable.
  • The role of donors must change from one of ‘implementers’ to one of ‘engaged partners’ able to stimulate change without trying to enforce it.
  • Capacity development ambitions must be restricted to what is feasible under present and foreseeable conditions in any country.
  • Outputs, rather than outcomes, should be the focus of capacity development because they are the effect of the efforts of an organisation or organisational network.
  • The introduction of gradual systemic change is preferable to haphazardly creating unsustainable islands of improved performance.
  • Organisational change is inherently complex and parallel actions by different actors in different arenas may be necessary to produce results.
  • Donor support should be limited strictly to demand-led activities under country leadership.

Donors should spend time, energy and funds to:

  • Acquire a better and more intimate context-specific knowledge of capacity development opportunities and constraints in each country.
  • Connect their analytical work with that of other partners to avoid practices which may undermine capacity.
  • Think and act long-term and strategically, for example through supporting changes in external factors that influence the performance of public sector organisations.
  • Provide joint learning opportunities between national and international partners on capacity development and support the strengthening of local institutions for research, policy analysis and information.
  • Avoid the temptation to reinvent what has already been invented in areas such as organisational development, management, political science, sociology and institutional economics.
  • Make the necessary changes in their own organisations and organisational cultures to reflect this change in approach; this will provide excellent case material on the difficulties involved in capacity development.