Capacity, complexity and consulting: Lessons from managing capacity development projects

Ajoy Datta, Louise Shaxson and Arnaldo Pellini
Year of publication: 

In the past few years, the Overseas Development Institute’s Research and Policy in Development Programme has increasingly collaborated with or managed large multiyear projects where it has been responsible for helping local institutions and organisations to build their capacity to use knowledge to improve policies and practices. Setting aside the issue of knowledge-to-policy links, this paper serves to 1) reflect on what capacity is and how it develops; 2) identify implications of this for approaches used to promote capacity improvement processes; and 3) assess what this means for funding practices. The key findings and recommendations of the paper are as follows:

For consultants:

  1. Capacity development as a deliberate process is an inherently political one. If change processes are not owned and led by those whose capacity is being developed, they are unlikely to happen (or, if they do, to be sustainable). As such, consultants (preferably during a preproject phase) need to help actors with sufficient influence within the client organisation to understand the full ramifications of what capacity building is likely to entail.
  2. Capacity development activities need to focus not just on the capacities needed to produce technical results (such as organisational procedures) but also on what it takes to build more effective and dynamic relationships between different actors (such as research managers and their subordinates) within an organisation.
  3. Negotiating with the client exactly what the consultant is responsible for (such as activities/outputs or outcomes such as behaviour changes) using Champion (2010)’s consulting grid can help consultants maintain a healthy relationship with the client and select appropriate project management approaches that enable them to measure progress towards predefined targets (such as the logical framework approach) or provide more flexibility, emphasising observation and learning (such as outcome mapping).
  4. Promoting capacity development requires an appreciation of many domains of knowledge and disciplines. Like in teaching and practicing medicine, an understanding of these issues is brought about through both formal learning processes as well as considerable ‘hands-on’ experience. Furthermore, given their likely better knowledge of the context, there is significant merit in working with ‘local’ capacity development consultants.

For funders, investing in effective capacity development interventions entails the following:

  1. Appreciating the multidimensional nature of capacity. Capacity development inputs in the shape of standard training modules are not necessarily on their own going to help in achieving capacity improvements;
  2. Promoting ownership and responsibility of capacity development strategies. Asking clients to make some form of contribution and/or co-investment could encourage them to take greater ‘control’ over projects and programmes;
  3. Delivering long-term and flexible support. Long-term core funding and space for clients to deliver what they think is needed (encouraging them to draw on both conventional and advanced approaches) when it is needed can help them to respond to complex and dynamic contexts;
  4. Considering different funding modalities, but avoiding project management units that are separate from the body of the client organisation in favour of a more difficult, but substantially more embedded, approach to developing capacity;
  5. Assessing clients (and consultants if appropriate) according to how best they interpret and respond to the circumstances they meet during the project – that is, their ability to improvise – rather than with regard to delivering outcomes they have limited control over (given the emergent nature of capacity); and
  6. Encouraging higher levels of professional rigour among those who manage capacity development projects and programmes and promoting the growth and development of national-level capacity development service providers.