Enabling environment: Introduction


In November 2011, the global community will meet in Busan, South Korea, to review progress on implementation of the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action. Through the Working Party on Aid Effectiveness (WP-EFF), preparations are under way to take stock of progress made by donors and partner countries in implementation of joint commitments. To complement this effort, the OECD/DAC, in cooperation with the professional network LenCD and the Southern initiative CD Alliance, has launched a process to reflect on the specific commitments and implications of the Paris Declaration and the AAA for capacity development.

The purpose of drafting these Perspectives Notes is threefold: (i) To provide a review of the current state of play with respect to CD priorities highlighted in the Paris Declaration and the AAA. (ii) To provide an input to the Synthesis Report on CD key messages for Busan, to be led by a CD Alliance coalition. (iii) To set an agenda for further technical work post-Busan. These Notes also will provide background for LenCD website resource corners.

To ensure coherence and consistency across the five papers, the OECD/DAC definition of capacity and capacity development is adopted as a default: Capacity is the ability of people, organisations and society as a whole to manage their affairs successfully. Capacity development is the process whereby people, organisations and society as a whole unleash, strengthen, create, adapt and maintain capacity over time.  These definitions remain quite general and call for further precision in order to be operationally useful (see box).

Discussing Capacity Development

It is difficult to discuss “capacity development” without first determining what kind of capacity is needed and what it should look like in operation.  Without this clarity, discussions on capacity development tend to become general exchanges on what makes for good development practice.  The OECD/DAC definition of capacity says little about the nature of capacity. For example, what aspects of it are key to performance improvement?  What matters most: the functional (managerial, logistical, technical) or soft skills (learning, relationship building), the tangible (skills, systems, structures) or the intangible (norms, values, attitudes)? What role does motivation (pay, identity, reputation, sanctions-rewards, demand) play?  What is the relationship between individual, organizational or society-wide capacities?

There are several ways to give meaning to the term “capacity” and to provide some answers to these questions.  UNDP[1], for example, specifies three points where capacity is grown and nurtured: in an enabling environment, in organizations and in individuals.  It identifies 4 core issues that influence capacity development  - institutional arrangements , leadership, knowledge and accountability - and 5 functional capacities that are central to the outcome of its organizational development endeavors – to engage stakeholders; to assess a situation and define a vision; to formulate policies and strategies; to budget, manage and implement; and to evaluate.

The European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM)[2] distinguishes between “individual competencies” (the ability of an individual to do something) and “collective capabilities” (the skills of a group, organization or system to carry out a function).  These interact with the context to create “systems capacity” (the overall ability of a system to make a contribution).  ECDPM also identifies five core capabilities which can be further defined in specific contexts - to commit and engage, to carry out tasks, to build relationships and attract resources, to adapt and renew, and to find a balance between coherence and diversity.

Regardless of which of these or other approaches is used, it is critical for practitioners to understand what they are seeking in terms of capacity and to use this as the basis for identifying activities which will help to encourage its development, rather than assuming that certain mechanisms will automatically enhance capacity.

This series of Perspective Notes was prepared by a professional drafting team assembled by the OECD/DAC and LenCD. The team included James Hradsky, Nils Boesen, Anthony Land, Heather Baser, Silvia Guizzardi and Mia Sorgenfrei. Nils Boesen led in drafting this Note on theThe Enabling Environment for Capacity Development, which subsequently benefitted from comments from the rest of the team, from peer reviews by Soren Davidsen, Danida; Alan Hudson, DFID; Marc Lévy, ECDPM; Apollinaire Ndorukwigira, ACBF; Paul Rimbault, EC; and Jaap Jan Speelman, DGIS; as well as a wider electronic vetting process through the LenCD international network. We are grateful for the helpful comments from all involved.

These Perspectives Notes do not reflect an official position of either the OECD/DAC or LenCD. The many contributors may not endorse every viewpoint in the note and they bear no responsibility for any remaining errors or omissions.

The Enabling – or Not So Enabling Environment for Capacity Development

“… the need to systematically address systemic capacity constraints, given that applying short-term, quick fix and fragmented capacity development interventions cannot address Africa’s real capacity challenges in any sustainable way.” (NEPAD 2010)

Context matters for performance. And it matters for if and how individuals, organizations and wider systems develop capacity.  This is well known and well accepted. OECD/DAC’s Good Practice Paper on capacity development from 2006 thus stressed that “good understanding of context is fundamental” (DAC 2006).

Fortunately, in many countries there is an enabling context not only for broad-based growth and poverty reduction, but also for the simultaneous strengthening of the capacity of the key organizations that can make growth sustainable. In other countries, particularly in those supported by the international aid community, two aspects have proven challenging:

  • How to address context constraints to capacity development.
  • How to align capacity development efforts particularly in the public sector with the drivers and constraints in contexts that cannot be modified in the short or medium term.

This note aims at providing an overview of the factors in the context that set the stage for CD, and how country partners and donors, respectively, can take these factors into account when promoting and supporting CD.

The Paris Declaration underlined that “capacity development is the responsibility of partner countries with donors playing a support role. It needs not only to be based on sound technical analysis, but also to be responsive to the broader social, political and economic environment, including the need to strengthen human resources” (High Level Forum 2005). The “Bonn Consensus” on the priorities of capacity development that were carried into to the High Level Forum in Accra in 2008 affirmed that “developing countries will take the lead in addressing key systemic issues that undermine capacity development, with support from external partners as required” (LenCD 2008).

Nevertheless, broader systemic constraints continue to thwart CD efforts – perhaps most visibly in aid-dependent countries and in fragile situations. Despite the intention that partner countries will address systemic issues, evidence demonstrates that it is not easy. This Note analyzes why this may be so, and concludes that both partner countries and donors need to recognize and talk much more frankly about the dilemmas involved when addressing context factors, supporting each other in identifying  pragmatic and managerial answers to what can be daunting challenges for CD.

The concepts and overall structure of this Note 

Concepts: In terms of vocabulary, some talk about ‘context’, others about the ‘environment’ – often adding ‘enabling’ even if the environment is actually hampering CD.  Thus, for UNDP, “the enabling environment is the term used to describe the broader system within which individuals and organizations function and one that facilitates or hampers their existence and performance” (UNDP 2008).  This Note uses ‘environment’ and ‘context’ interchangeably. ‘Enabling’ is only added when the focus is on positive drivers, while ‘constraints’ denotes factors and actors that hamper CD. Also accepted is that ‘systemic factors’ sometimes denotes the broader context, sometimes a narrower ’system’ within an organization or sector. Instead of choosing any of the many academic definitions, this Note simply attempts to make clear what is referred to[3].

Structure of the Note: In Section 2, the paper summarizes the evidence of why and how context influences performance and capacity development. It first looks at broader structural and economic factors, then formal and not least informal institutions, and finally on stakeholders, their interests and the politics around them. These three sets – structure, institutions and agents – are basic categories which are useful for coming to grips with the issues at a more general level, and they  permit thata the following three subsections take a closer look at the resulting incentives for sector, organizational and individual performance and CD, respectively. The focus is mostly, but not exclusively on the public sector. Section 3 looks closer at the operational implications of the findings presented in the previous section and suggests the implications for country partners and donors.  Section 4 looks ahead to the next High Level Forum in Busan, South Korea.

[1] Capacity Development: A UNDP Primer, 2009.  New York: UNDP Capacity Development Group

[2] Capacity, Change and Performance, 2008, Maastricht, The Netherlands: ECDPM.

[3] Importantly, no matter which term is used, there is no sharp boundary between internal and context/environmental factors. Staff, for example, can be considered internal – but if they are also militants in a political party they are at the same time shaping the context factors.  It also depends on the perspective: The governors of a bank may be considered external by staff and executives, but internal by regulatory agencies. Being a formalized link between the organization and its context, they can be located in both the context and the internal realm