Seeking Better Practices for Capacity Development: Training & Beyond

Executive Summary

Since the Paris Declaration of 2005 and Accra Agenda for Action in 2008 there has been growing recognition that capacity development (CD) is a multi-dimensional process that goes far beyond knowledge and skills transfer at the individual level to embrace whole organisations, sectors and systems, and the culture and context within which they all exist[1].  Training has long been a central element of many CD and Technical Cooperation (TC) programmes, but studies have consistently shown that past practices have not been as effective as expected.  In particular, the practice of equating training with CD is now known to be unhelpful because training is just one of many approaches that can contribute to CD.  Just as training is not the way to meet all learning needs, neither is learning the universal panacea to solve all CD problems.  There are many aspects of capacity that call for an array of responses beyond support to learning, and others that are beyond the scope of all external support and interventions. 

Learning has been recognised as core to achieving sustainable development results (ECDPM 2008) and implicit in the management of change (Senge 2006).  Using the complexity perspective to analyse development issues also indicates that constant change creates an imperative for constant learning (ODI 2008).  However, learning is an organic, internal process and ultimately the outsider’s role can only be to support its emergence.  However the power of outsiders to influence learning is illustrated by the phenomenon known as ‘regressive learning’, which is where the imbalance of power relations between donors and their recipients results in the distortion of learning because compliance with donor requirements takes precedence over important lessons from implementation of projects (Shutt 2006).   

This paper works with a concept of learning for development beyond definitions that anchor it solely in the acquisition of knowledge or skills, into the realms of capabilities and sense making that lead to expanded options for action.  This model is in line with current, more comprehensive conceptions of CD which places learning among the group of factors such as leadership, systems and incentives that co-exist centrally in the ever evolving dynamic of the development processes of any given institution, organisation or individual.    

Before moving to discussion of the emerging consensus on training and learning it should be noted that recent developments in the CD debate have created an acute tension between two trends in thinking and practice that are essentially contradictory – results based management (RBM) and complexity.  Neither is right nor wrong as both have their place and contribution to make.  Just as there are needs for which RBM works and for which it would not be helpful to use complexity theories, so there are situations that are far too complex for RBM to be appropriate and helpful.  Using the right approach for the situation is fundamental to making the right choice of CD response, whether training, learning or any other modality.  Those making decisions need to be able to understand which approach would be best in any given circumstance. 

The emerging consensus identified below is drawn primarily from the current documentation available from Northern donors and Development Training Institutes (DTI).  While the views from the South thus far are generally consistent with those from the North[2], there remains a pressing need to integrate more Southern perspectives on CD issues so that they inform decisions about the way forward.  Key points in the emerging consensus are: 

  • In many circumstances resources are wasted on inappropriate initiatives because complex contextual factors negate the potential effectiveness of training and other learning based interventions.  The design of any intervention should both be informed by in-depth understanding of local context and identification of opportunities and constraints, and appropriately aligned to broader CD initiatives;
  • Training individuals may not be an adequate CD response and is rarely one in and of itself.  Training is best used as a component of work at multiple levels of organisation and country systems, however defined;
  • The ability to learn has been recognised as both a capability in its own right and an essential, underpinning capability for other aspects of sustainable CD.  Activities need to go beyond training towards processes that support learning;
  • Achieving sustainable CD impact calls for long-term perspectives.  There is a need to make strategic links between short-term activities, such as training courses, and long-term learning and change goals for sustainable CD impact.  Additionally, there is a need to facilitate the continuity of long term relationships that can make valuable contributions to success and enable persistence through difficulties; 
  • The quality of training design and training cycle management is fundamental to success
  • Training has often been both inappropriately used and poorly implemented as the response to CD needs.  A results orientation can help to ensure that proposed training activities are appropriately implemented to meet identified needs, and that progress and the contribution to overall CD needs can be monitored and evaluated;
  • Greater attention needs to be paid to translation of resources and materials, for adaptation of concepts to local context as well as into local languages and this can be achieved through more effective use of local resource providers;
  • Some donor agencies and DTI recognise the need to change their approach, practice or role, and understand that they need staff with soft skills[3]in addition to their existing technical expertise.

The 2008 Berlin Statement recognised the need for activities to go beyond training to broader conceptions of ‘learning practices’.  However, current practices are deeply entrenched and cannot be changed easily so there is a danger that using new terms might serve only to mask the continuation of old practices.  Despite what is now known about the serious limitations of training in terms of producing sustainable CD results, currently there is no incentive for service providers to change.  Because donors’ policies and practices are so influential in shaping the incentive structure for service providers a great deal rests on the question of what donors will pay for.  At present donors continue to fund repeated use of training as the primary approach to CD, effectively rewarding poor performance, which must be an issue given their concern about accountability for use of their resources. While practice lags dramatically behind, there is increasing acknowledgement by donors and DTI that, in order to work with different learning practices and to address organisational and institutional constraints, their staff need to have both soft and technical skills.  Service providers, including the DTI, need to make a fundamental shift from being expert providers of learning for others, to seeing themselves and their partners on a shared learning journey within broader CD approaches.  Donors will need to change their own approaches and practices first if they are to influence the sector to make this change.  However, it is not only a donor-driven supply side belief that training is the answer to all problems, this assumption is very strongly held by many in partner countries, and thus they also need to change how the understand CD in order for the demand side to take the lead. 

This paper reviews current thinking about training and learning practices for CD under three headings: assessments to frame the context and inform good design; the design of training and learning practices; and, implementation.   

The emerging consensus is that a number of weaknesses in current assessment processes need to be addressed because repeated failure, not only of training but also of TC initiatives generally, to understand local context before beginning activities has resulted in many wasted opportunities and resources.  The issue of contextual constraints and their sources is currently insufficiently addressed and this is a significant gap because the potential of learning can only be understood through the identification of enabling conditions and constraints.  However, steps are being taken to address the problems of assessment and many leading institutions now have tools available that can support stakeholders and change agents to achieve a sound understanding of the context.  In recent years the CD sector has become aware of the need to ground all practice, starting with assessment, in theories of capacity and change.  Without this there is a danger of CD remaining trapped in the realm of technical skills, which, while important has now been shown to be incomplete and, in some cases, irrelevant.   It is ultimately the stakeholders and change agents in any given context that will have the best sense of the most promising responses for different capacity levels and needs. Adding a learning perspective to an assessment process could help to answer fundamental questions about whether or not learning practices could contribute to sustainable change. 

Design is a series of decisions about domains and methods.  The quality of design decision making depends on both the quality of information available to the decision makers and their understanding of appropriate learning theories.  It is essential to ensure that the design of training and learning practices, whether within an RBM or complexity approach, is demand-driven, relate to broader CD agenda and priorities, and to distinguish the difference between long-term learning goals and component parts that can be more easily defined and more quickly achieved.  Some types of capacity needs involve too many variables for learning goals and objectives to be specified as concrete and pre-defined outcomes, and so different formulations are needed for the purpose of activities.  It would be unusual for any learning need effectively to be answered by a single learning practice; most need to be addressed by different modalities over time.  There are many different approaches and practices that can be useful, for example: coaching and mentoring; experiential learning practices like action research; e-learning; knowledge management; and, organisational strengthening, to name just a few.  Selecting multiple methods to achieve a ‘good enough’ fit can be an effective way of maximising the strengths, and mitigating the challenges, of each component in the selection.  Many of the practices described in this paper are linked or overlap and some can be considered as cross-cutting, but all can have a clear and specific role to play in particular circumstances.  Integration of monitoring and evaluation needs to start with the first steps of design.  

Innumerable factors can impact implementation for the better or worse.  Relevance and adaptability of language, concepts and content to local culture and context must be ensured before any learning process commences.  Relevance is also about matching the right participants with the right content and methods, which may be beyond the direct control of providers and calls for them to work with local decision makers to ensure effective targeting and selection of participants.  The ‘transfer of learning[4]from activities such as training courses into improved workplace performance is complex and needs support.  Approaches to learning need to move from being focused on one-off deliveries to arrangements that incorporate follow-up as a matter of course.  Evidence suggests that line managershold the most significant key to resolving the problems of transferring learning into improved workplace performance.  Monitoring and evaluating the impact of training activities is recognised by all training professionals to be a notoriously difficult task in any context, because multiple variables influence participants’ performance after the training event.  Nevertheless, a problem to be addressed is that the vast majority of training monitoring takes place at the participant satisfaction and learning levels, and little is done to monitor outcomes or impact.   

The challenge now is about finding the best ways to make the understanding embodied in the emerging consensus a reality in terms of improved CD practices and there is much unfinished business that needs attention.  There is much scope for changed practice at the country level. To make the right choices, stakeholders need to be concerned about the quality and relevance of assessments appreciating local context and potential, with a flexible approach to work towards long-term transformation. Stakeholders need to be aware of power relations and interests on all sides and agree on rules and safeguards for how to deal with these, including through evidence-based monitoring.  Many concerned with CD need to let go their assumption that training is the appropriate response to every need – the ‘I have a hammer, so every problem is a nail’ syndrome.  Currently provision of training and learning practices is unregulated and providers are not held to account against any agreed professional standards of practice.  There have been some calls for accreditation systems, but as yet there no major initiative has taken that idea forward.  Most importantly both the donors and the service providers need to undertake significant change management initiatives in order for different skills and new ways of working to be valued and rewarded within the sector. Finally, to change practice, there is a tremendous need for active learning on the issue of meaningful support to learning for CD.

[1]CD theories now are generally built on the understanding that three interdependent layers need to be addressed together; these are individual, organisational and enabling environment (institutional).  The levels are discussed in detail in the OECD Paper The Challenge of Capacity Development: Working towards Good Practice (2006).  The three levels framework is the basis for situating training and learning support.

[2]See the joint CD Alliance and DAC secretariat Issue Brief Southern Perspec­tives on Capacity Development – “Time to Act and Learn” (2009) 

[3]Soft skills is a term related to a person’s Emotional Intelligence Quotient, which is different to their Intelligence Quotient.  Soft skills influence how we interact with each other and include abilities such as communication and listening, creativity, analytical thinking, empathy, flexibility, change-readiness, and problem solving.  Adapted from

[4]Transfer of learning’ and ‘transfer of training’ are terms being used in corporate and governments training sectors for the theory and practice of learning acquired in one setting, such as a training course, being integrated into practical usage in another setting, most usually the workplace.  This is a subject of growing attention because in the past so much training has failed to achieve the desired impact.  Many institutions are now using the concept of transfer of learning as the basis for evaluation of the effectiveness of training.  A very informative discussion of this subject is available from Human Resources and Social Development Canada: ‘Planning Workplace Education Programs: Transfer of Learning’ available at:


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