Fragile situations: Evidence

Fragile situations are attracting much current interest and there is considerable on-going research and analysis. Because this work is recent and some key papers are still available only in draft, it would be misleading to suggest that there is wide agreement among partner countries and donors on the themes emerging. However, there is considerable agreement on some issues among the different organizations and individuals doing research, although as the following discussion illustrates, these do not lend themselves to easy solutions and tradeoffs are often necessary.

Finding 1: “Taking context as the starting point” for capacity development is an increasingly accepted theoretical principle but much programming is not well rooted in an understanding of the country context

The first of the Principles for good international engagement in fragile states and situations (OECD/DAC 2007) calls for taking context as the starting point – understanding the specific context in a country and developing a shared view between country partners and donors of the strategic response required. Such an analysis is expected to build and expand on the kinds of issues raised in the section above on context.  It requires mutual learning and the development of trust.

Multiple perspectives on where the country is and should be going and, hence, the capacity it requires to get there, are the norm in post-conflict states and reflect the agendas of different stakeholders. These differences are often deeply rooted in societies and at the base of past crises and current tensions.  In many countries, there are national consultations among stakeholders including partner governments, civil society and donors to try to arrive at a shared understanding of the context and what this implies for capacity development activities. The countries visited as part of the Principles Monitoring Review, for example, have all benefited from some exercises intended to help develop a joint understanding of the context. The success in arriving at shared understanding was, however, mixed. In several cases, there were substantial differences among stakeholders in terms of their reading of the context. In others, there were general visions but without agreement on specific priorities and approaches (OECD 2010c p 18). Countries where a level of agreement on analysis and priorities has emerged – usually over a long period of time - have usually benefitted from leadership by government and/or a coalition of international partners over lengthy periods of time, for example, Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste (OECD 2010c p 18).

The analytical effort required to truly understand the context is substantial and the time to do it is not always available[1]. Contextual understanding requires knowledge of the history of the country and region.  It also requires an understanding of the “real politik” or how the systems of power both formal and informal work, including the incentives which motivate the elites who control the country.  Contacts between nationals and international partners help to increase this understanding (OECD/DAC 2010f p 24). It is important to not focus solely on gaps in the system but to also recognize strengths including the centres of excellence which have survived the crisis, such as university departments, national schools, NGOs, and confessional training centres. These help to lay a foundation for agreements between country partners and donors on key areas for cooperation.  In Southern Sudan, coming to a compromise on priorities required some tough bargaining and difficult decisions, as the box below illustrates.

Agreeing priorities

Southern Sudan is facing some major challenges in the near future including a referendum on independence scheduled for January 2011 and the possibility of internal conflict afterwards. In order to ensure the sustainability of the institutional framework of the Government, the UNDP worked with it and the international community to agree on a set of core functions.  The group then distinguished between essential functions which need to be in place in the shortest possible time and expected functions which are essential for the progressive achievement of full functionality but can be put into place in the medium term.  Despite competing interests across many sectors, the original list of over 100 functions was trimmed to 7 essential or core activities including:

Executive Leadership:  1) Targeted executive peer learning on fundamentals of macro policy;

Rule of Law: 2)Improve legislative approval process and 3) provide training to new police recruits;

Fiduciary Management: 4) Contingency planning for currency options, payments and accounting systems and 5) customs management function in place;

Natural Resources: 6)Mechanisms are in place for regulating and monitoring the oil sector and 7) for oil revenue collection, stabilization, verification & accounting at the government level.

Based on material provided by Joe Feeney, Head of Office, UNDP, Southern Sudan

Starting from the context means turning around the process of identification and planning of activities to build on what is feasible rather than working from normative views of priorities and measurements of the perceived gap between a desired state of affairs and the current capacity. Finding openings and opportunities for making a difference and identifying the time and space for learning  - ‘Ba” in Japanese (Hosono et al 2011 p 6)- become more important than trying to implement a set of activities in a predetermined sequence.  A degree of readiness for change on the part of the organization or sector is critical to success.

Finding 2: In fragile situations the risk of doing harm to existing national capacity is considerable

Although, on balance, most international interventions have had a positive effect, both the Fragile States Principles Monitoring Survey and Do No Harm have identified a significant number that have led to the weakening of state capacity, security and legitimacy.  Uneven treatment of different provinces and the urban/rural gap have exacerbated social divides and even created “a time bomb” of angry young men converging on some cities.  Young people are, however, largely absent from priority programming (OECD/DAC 2010d p 38), with little effort to build their skills or to provide them with employment.  Large disparities in pay structures between public servants and international technical assistance (TA) personnel, as well as unpredictable financial flows which inhibit regular service delivery, reduce the confidence of citizens in the state and undermine its legitimacy.

Although TA is useful in the early post-recovery period to restart services, too much of it and for too long has contributed to brain drain out of government and resentment among nationals over salary differentials. In Timor-Leste, foreign technical assistance is seen as dismissing existing Timorese capacity and not building on what already exists in terms of systems which, while fragile, are nonetheless effective for the government (OECD/DAC 2010n p 4).  In Liberia, donor modalities discourage institutional memory by using different consultants at different stages of the project cycle (Bill Tod, personal communication). In the DRC, the frequent turnover of personnel means a loss of continuity and institutional memory (OECD/DAC 2010k p 3).

Development programming focuses largely on technical fixes such as training, technical assistance, and study tours which avoid important political issues. In Haiti, for example, donors have placed staff in ministries and at the Ministry of Planning to facilitate data processing but the core problem is one of mistrust and unwillingness to collaborate and share information (Missika 2010 p 1). There tends to be less attention to building solutions to potentially destabilizing problems such as the future direction of Timor Leste, a priority cited during the consultations on peacebuilding and statebuilding (OECD 2010i p 29).  Nonetheless, there are promising examples of programs which address political issues such as the Burundi example below.

Using Experiential Learning to Build Trust

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation believes that, rather than imposing peace settlements, what is needed is a deeper understanding among the parties to the conflict that they have shared interests, a common vision and a need to work with each other.  The Foundation has organized training sessions based on experiential learning to bring key leaders in Burundi, the DRC and Liberia together in a long-term process designed to resolve the tensions and mistrust produced by war and to build the capacity to work together across ethnic and political divisions.  Through the teaching of concepts such as ‘interest-based negotiation’, they aim to develop better communications between the parties and to enhance the collaborative capacity that will help t build solid personal and institutional relationships and lasting peace.

Taken (almost verbatim) from Wolfe and McDonald p 136.

Finding 3: In fragile situations, partner countries and donors usually address capacity situations that are not predictable or even readily understandable in the short or even medium term - and for which a planned model has limited utility.

The ‘planned approach’ has been a mainstay of development cooperation for over half a century and is a default position for many international actors. It is based on the assumption that activities can be designed to support the achievement of predefined objectives. Context is mainly important to understand potential barriers to the implementation of a pre-selected solution. These barriers often include social and cultural patterns that impede modernization but the planned approach sees effective organizational engineering as leading to transformative change which can overcome the barriers.

The planned approach puts considerable faith in international best practices and in embedding ‘transferred’ techniques and values, such as performance management, accountability, efficiency and effectiveness, meritocracy and impersonal rules, and transparency, into other societies with different histories. Such an approach usually implies a good deal of top-down prescription about the shape of an effective state. This shape usually includes efforts at public sector reform especially financial management, decentralization, improving the rule of law, addressing anti-corruption, strengthening parliament. The emphasis is on the application of impersonal rules and institutions as opposed to the outcomes of personal influence and power.

The ‘emergent approach’ is based on a different set of assumptions. The focus is on finding a pattern of opportunities for capacity development in the structure and behavior of the country’s political, economic, cultural, social, historical and psychological systems.  A key assumption is that country political and economic systems shape the growth and emergence of capacity in the form of organizations and institutions. Another is that no amount of capacity engineering can overcome the resistance of a dysfunctional state-society relationship that is unable or unwilling to absorb a particular capacity intervention.

The emergent approach tries to come to grips with processes that are non-linear and relational. Neither the possibilities nor the solutions are likely to be clear at the outset.  Change emerges out of the dynamics of the system and can be guided and influenced through learning, constant adaptation and communications but not managed or driven.

Emergence is more ‘bottom-up’ compared to the more ‘top-down’ of the planned approach with less emphasis on control. Capacity interventions that can facilitate, protect, support and buffer are given greater priority.  A greater effort is made to utilize mediating structures, various forms of communication, country leadership and knowledge, safe places and spaces, greater inclusion, informal networks and multi-stakeholder coalitions.

These two approaches are compared in the table below; it must be remembered that few interventions take place entirely at one end of the spectrum of planned to emergent. Even the most ardent supporters of emergence make plans and frame objectives and success criteria but their horizons are much shorter and their risk management approaches different.  Even where development activities work with pre-defined outputs and outcomes, many are leaving space for iteration and experimentation.  Where both goals and means are clear to all parties and where the capacity to identify needs and to implement the proposed solution is adequate, a planned approach may be sufficient. Where the goals and means remain unclear or where the nature of change is complex and uncertain, an intervention may need to be more incremental or emergent.  Incremental approaches sit somewhere between planned and emergent ones and offer a way of combining a degree of formal strategic intent and structured intervention with a more adaptive and flexible approach to design and implementation that takes account of emergence and complexity (Land et al p 4).

Rigidly planned interventions can run into problems in fragile situations because of inadequate flexibility to provide responses adapted to changing conditions on the ground or to take advantage of the fast moving context and the opening and closing of windows of opportunity. The case studies done for the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Synthesis noted short-term horizons, lack of flexibility of donor funding and high levels of earmarking of funds for pre-determined purposes as particular problems(OECD/DAC 2010i p 45; OECD/DAC 2010d p 35).  By contrast, security sector reform in Sierra Leone, described in the box below, was initially based on an emergent approach with emphasis on development of a sector strategy only coming once the reform process was well under way.

Transformation of the Security Sector in Sierra Leone: An Emergent Approach

When peace, albeit fragile, finally came to Sierra Leone, the Government had to address a large number of armed former combatants, a non-functioning military and a partially developed police force.  A security sector review was done to provide clarity on organizations in the sector and to define the significance of security for the future of the country. The review was integrated into the PRSP, hence aligning security and development. The subsequent changes to the system resulted in significantly improved public perceptions about personal safety.

The process used to do the review and to reform the system could be characterized as emergent. It began with a powerful consensus for reform and reconstruction at the government level including political figures and the senior ranks of the army, intelligence and police. This was supported by the external community of which the UK was the most influential and provided clear leadership. The process depended in large part on getting the right people involved, both national and international, and ensuring continuity through the involvement of a critical mass of good people over the long term.

These personnel were given considerable authority to make decisions and build relationships as conditions required rather than depending on “detailed, extensive and time-consuming planning”. The reform was governed by context and the entry points it provided as well as the guidance of individuals: “When capable people are empowered to make decisions, they devise ways to work together and to get things done”. The lack of a strategy at the beginning actually created a space for individuals to take decisions rapidly. It was only later that the need for a strategy became apparent later in order to ensure a sustainable future for the sector.

International advisers acted as advisors, not implementers, and it was Sierra Leonean staff who took responsibility for program implementation. The Sierra Leoneans were given the space to transform and build up where necessary their organizations in a politically tense environment. The experience allowed them to build their confidence and competencies.  

Based on Jackson and Albrecht 2008.

Phased approaches which start small and build up as the understanding of what works in the context grows are often more effective approaches than starting with big systems. Smaller interventions have the advantage of being less visible and allowing more learning by doing.

A comparison of planned and emergent approaches




Direction of initiative  


Middle-up-down or bottom up

Nature of interventions

More technocratic and engineering

Both technocratic or hard and soft

Standards of performance

Tends to optimal

Tends to good enough

Role of technical expertise

TA expert-driven

Expert facilitated 

Focus on gaps and strengths

Focused more on gaps and weaknesses 

Focused more on strengths, assets and participant energy 

Attitude to control and learning

Oriented more towards structure and control

Oriented towards organic adaptation and learning

Attitude to systems

Focus on how system should work 

Focus on how system does work 

Attitude to planning

Faith in programmed change

Faith in emergence and evolution

Approach to results management

Focus on end state results 

Focus on incremental discovery 

Number of perspectives

Limited perspectives especially the technical


Nature of change

Knowledge transfer and changes to formal structures

Partnership and coproduction

Systems view

Reductionist emphasis on the parts 

Systems emphasis on wholeness.

Analytical biases 

Emphasis on analysis, design and prediction 

Emphasis on observation  and experimentation


Ideology – the what

Process – the why, when and how

View on expansion

Emphasis on scaling up and expansion 

Emphasis on organic growth 


On efficiency and effectiveness

On relevance and legitimacy

Comparative advantage

Addressing simple and complicated situations

Addressing complex situations

(Adapted from Morgan 2010 p 44)

Finding 4:  Inadequate attention to legitimacy can jeopardize capacity development activities in fragile situations

Legitimacy is increasingly being recognized as an important element of capacity development and statebuilding. Legitimacy differs both between societies, among different groups in society and over time and its bases are subject to political debate.  Understanding the sources and processes that increase legitimacy is central to effective statebuilding (OECD/DAC 2010a p 22).  One view of these sources sees a state’s legitimacy as determined in the first instance by its performance or what it delivers including security, economic growth and services. The second source of legitimacy is in processes such as democratic versus authoritarian methods, consultation versus dictatorship and willingness to fight corruption. The third source of legitimacy is through appeals to alternative sources of authority such as tradition, religion and ethnic identity (OECD/DAC 2010b pp 47-48).

Another view of legitimacy sees four main sources: 1) inputs or the observance of agreed rules of procedure, 2) output or the perceptions about state performance, 3) shared beliefs or the narratives about what public authority should be, and 4) international legitimacy or the recognition of the state’s sovereignty (OECD/DAC 2010a p 23).

The On-going Struggle for Legitimacy in Timor-Leste, Somaliland and Southern Sudan

Timor-Leste became independent in 2002 after a long period of occupation by Indonesia followed by a short period of an international intervention force and then a combined UN peace keeping force and administration mission. The country’s new leadership tried to avoid being seen as an extension of the international mission but the international process of transferring power to the Timorese political parties did not give enough attention to the issue of legitimacy, in large part because it did not recognize the customary practices that provided much of the social order of the country. The first elected government under Freitlan also was not sensitive to or broadly aware of the value of customary life or local community governance and struggled to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the population.

Somaliland, which unilaterally declared independence from Somalia in 1991, maintained enough trust and legitimacy with the public to hold together as it struggled to gain international recognition. Over the following years, the government lost some of that legitimacy through delaying elections and clamping down on press freedom but the erosion of public confidence was slowed by the holding of elections, changing the president and invoking national unity.

In Southern Sudan, the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) built considerable trust and legitimacy with the population by 1) establishing a government and a public administration for Southern Sudan, 2) defending the interests of Southern Sudan within the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and 3) integrating the Southern Sudan Defense Forces, the largest political and armed opposition group in the South, into the Southern Sudan Liberation Army (SPLA). However, the GOSS did not do enough to heal divisions in the South nor did it stem corruption and build confidence in its fiscal management. It has not been able to show major peace dividends or improved infrastructure. The jury is out on the Government’s legitimacy but the elections in 2010 and the referendum in 2011 will be the tests of it.

Based on Barltrop 2010.

Regardless of its source, legitimacy at the state level it is what provides the basis for rule by consent rather than by coercion. And lack of legitimacy contributes to fragility by undermining state authority and capacity because citizens are unwilling to engage with the state. Legitimacy thus matters at every level of capacity development. It is not, however, easy to develop legitimacy at any level – organizational, sector and state. It requires much effort over long periods of time and is easily dissipated as the box above on Timor Leste, Somaliland and Southern Sudan shows.

Finding 5:The dilemmas, traps and paradoxes of capacity development in fragile situations mean that least bad solutions are often the best available

There are deep contradictions and tensions in many aspects of capacity development and statebuilding in fragile situations. These create dilemmas, traps and paradoxes as the processes of change unfold.  Solutions often involve trade-offs: what is required to achieve one goal may make another more difficult to achieve.

Paris and Sisk define five different kinds of dilemmas[2]: footprint, duration, participation, dependency and coherence (Paris and Sisk 2008 pp 306-309)but in the context of capacity development, at least one more might be considered: short versus long term.  The six are thus:

  • Footprint dilemmas – the degree of intrusiveness in the domestic affairs of the partner country. External help and even control can be very important in stabilizing a post-conflict country but the presence of powerful international partners and the multiplicity of parallel systems they create can marginalize governments.  The overuse of program implementation units, such as in the DRC where there are 143 (OECD/DAC 2010d p 31), also distorts labour markets and causes brain drain.  
  • Duration dilemmas – the duration of international operations.  Although capacity development for statebuilding is a long-term operation, open-ended endeavours can also breed passivity and unwillingness to take on the responsibilities of self government.  
  • Timeframe dilemmas – the balance between short- and long-term goals. Such dilemmas can take many forms, for example, to satisfy the citizens of post-conflict countries who want to see a peace dividend, governments may allow outsiders to take control of key functions, like budget stabilization and even security. This was the case with the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).  Both donors and partner countries may need to show short-term tangible results such as holding elections, resulting in less effort to build local political capacity, context-specific sources of legitimacy and informal institutions (OECD/DAC 2010d p 23).  Transitioning from one kind of assistance to another, for example, from humanitarian to development assistance or from focused peace-building initiatives to support for state institutions, may require compromises and overlaps to keep interest groups happy.   In general, the incentives for both country partners and donors are not well aligned to support longer-term solutions.
  • Participation dilemmas – striking a balance between maintaining the cooperation of former fighters and potential spoilers while drawing into the political process other groups and ultimately the broader population.  If factional leaders become too strong, the organizations supported by donors may be viewed as illegitimate, with negative effects on the activities underway or foreseen.
  • Dependency dilemmas – the danger of fostering dependency among local elites and the general population on international resources. While the needs in fragile situations are immense, states which depend for large parts of their budgets on the contributions of donors risk undermining the social contract between them and society and hence weakening state legitimacy. This is particularly true in partner countries where aid from donors represents much of the total country budget disbursements, such as in Afghanistan where it is 78%, in the Central African Republic where it is 80% and in Timor-Leste where it is 95% (OECD/DAC 2010d p 48).  
  • Coherence or coordination dilemmas– There are two kinds of coherence dilemmas. The first, organizational coherence, is the need for coordination among the many donors and international organizations involved in fragile situations. While it is critical to reduce the fragmentation of aid in many partner countries, coordination is difficult among organizations with different lines of authority and budgetary autonomy.  Furthermore, it can deflect attention from more substantive issues (Paris and Sisk 2008 p 309; comments from reviewers).  The second, normative coherence, arises from disjuncture and inconsistencies in the values that stakeholders articulate versus the values that are reflected in actual policies and actions. The Afghanistan case cited below is an example of a normative coherence gap where what the knowledge base suggests as the most appropriate programs is not carried through to the activities chosen.

The Disjuncture between the Knowledge Base and the Activities Chosen

In Afghanistan, the assessment of narrative coherence is harsh. Ideology and culture seem to have influenced the translation of analysis into programming, resulting in a disconnect between local priorities for employment creation and donor preferences for internal security, counter narcotics or the fight against terrorism. The historical perspective has also been neglected, “facts on the ground” not necessarily aligned with policy objectives, and constraining factors such as skills limitations and inadequate infrastructure ignored.  In addition, programs are often too ambitious and too complex, with unrealistic timeframes. The resulting program focuses largely on military interventions rather than employment creation.

Based on OECD/DAC 2010d (Monitoring:Afghanistan) pages 14, 15 and 16.

Technical assistance often presents a dilemma in fragile situations and many of the sub-types noted above can come into play. Both country partners and donors are usually under pressure from domestic constituencies to achieve fast results and, faced with limited national capacity, import skills to move programs along (timeframe dilemma).  Large contingents of international TAs tend, however, to create some unease among nationals over time, especially where differentials in lifestyle are marked or where nationals see themselves as losing control (duration, footprint and dependency dilemmas).  An example of this is Sierra Leone where project implementation units staffed by both international and national TA often substitute for formal government ministries, thus creating considerable dependency.  Reducing the number and size of these units will require a plan for transition which might include  donor coordination to focus on the problem, engagement with government on restraining growth of PIUs, systematic efforts to limit the growth of contracted staff in government, designing PIUs to give more support to capacity development and more systematic attention to capacity in general (Morgan Sierra Leone 2009 p 19).

Fragile situations severely limit the scope for finding the best or even good solutions to problems. Sometimes the best that may be possible is solutions which cause the least possible harm and disruption. The ideal solution is rare under such conditions.

Finding 6:  The variety of different ways of thinking about how change and capacity development occur results in lack of cohesion in any one fragile situation

Capacity development is a form of change and everyone has a theory about how change occurs, how change leads to performance and what issues most influence it.  In most cases, these theories are not well articulated and the result is a lack of clarity and cohesion within different activities and uncertainties about how to proceed. In addition, the vision of capacity is often quite narrow, usually stressing the technical and managerial skills of individuals. Some of the different approaches to capacity and capacity development coming out of recent studies are described in the box below.

Views on Capacity and Capacity Development

Views on capacity development as cited in available country cases have been quite disparate. In Haiti and Timor Leste, for example, capacity development was characterized as “a patchwork of approaches influenced by different administrative cultures and ideas” (OECD/DAC 2010h Monitoring Survey p 24).  Stakeholders in the CAR saw lack of confidence, communication and transparency between country partners and donors as more of a problem than limited capacity per se although these factors are part of some conceptualizations of capacity, such as that in the box below (OECD/DAC Monitoring Survey: CAR p 26).  On the other hand, in Sierra Leone, the report on the Consultations on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding noted that the current perspective on CD is narrow, with a focus on human resource management and development but that there needs to be more discussion about changes required to address deeper behavioral issues such as motivation and styles of management (OECD/AC 2010i Consultations p 50).  In Liberia, the Consultations called for developing capacity beyond the technical to include less tangible skills such as conflict sensitivity (OECD/DAC 2010i Consultations p 50).  In other cases, CD initiatives are not linked to the ‘big picture’ or strategic level (communication with VSO adviser in Nepal). In general, the absence of a common approach to capacity development was seen as a problem, for example, in Sierra Leone, where it is inhibiting progress in enhancing executive and legislative capacity (OECD/DAC 2010o: Monitoring Sierra Leone p 11).

One of the areas where the lack of a clear definition of capacity development creates a particular problem is with technical assistance personnel.  Most TAs in fragile situations are under pressure from both country partners and donors to achieve specific goals, usually formulated in terms of tangible results.  Many do not have a clear idea of what they are expected to do in terms of capacity development. They have usually been recruited for their technical knowledge rather than for their process skills and TORs and their annual assessments tend to focus on task accomplishment.  Under these conditions, it is little wonder that capacity development is a second priority for most TAs.  Indeed, few will engage seriously in CD efforts without the daily operational space provided by country managers.

A basic step towards clarifying the concepts of capacity and capacity development is to provide some differentiation among levels. The ECDPM work suggests the following distinctions: 

  • Individual competenciesare the ability to do something and can include a range of skills and abilities from technical or logistical to mindsets, motivations and hopes. Perhaps the most obvious contributions at the individual level are those of leaders at all levels. Some key questions to ask include: What competencies are needed for individuals to do their work?  To what level do they need those competencies?  What is their current level? What processes can generate competencies? 
  • Collective capabilitiesare the skills of a group, an organization or a system to do things and to sustain itself.  Key questions include: What kinds of capabilities are needed and to what degree of depth and expertise? Which capabilities are less critical? What is the present state of capabilities?  What processes can generate capabilities?
  • System capacityis the overall ability of a system to perform and make a contribution.  It is the outcome of the interrelationships among competencies, capabilities and the context. Some aspects of such a ‘capacitated’ system would be legitimacy, relevance, resilience and sustainability.  Key questions include: How do competencies and capabilities come together in a particular context to create capacity? What can be done to enhance this process?  How can the necessary interrelationships be stimulated?
  • Capacity developmentis about how competencies and capabilities interrelate to encourage virtuous cycles that support broader capacity, for example and ideally, improved individual leadership reinforces the group’s capability to build supportive networks and attract resources. Key questions include:  What stimulates virtuous cycles? What is needed to keep them on track? What can be done to redirect vicious cycles to become virtuous?  

It is also useful for country partners and donors to think about how capacity evolves. One view of that is described in the box below.

The Emergence of Capacity

One way of thinking about the evolution of capacity assumes an interaction among several parallel processes including:

  • The acquisition of skills, competencies, motivation, confidence and support structures by individuals,
  • The formation of collective technical and organizational functions at the group or organizational level,
  • The balancing and reinforcing of these collective capabilities as the group or organization becomes more varied and complex and as it identifies more clearly its niches and areas of contribution, 
  • The establishment of relationships of confidence and networks of support that can help ensure organizational survival, legitimacy and access to resources, and 
  • The acquisition of a degree of sustainability as the roles and functions of the organization become routine and more accepted by stakeholders.

Many capacity interventions focus on the transfer of techniques and knowledge in the short term. Some successfully move to broader interventions over time, such as security sector reform in Sierra Leone. 

Based on Morgan 2010, p 38.

In addition, the following chart provides suggestions on some of the kinds of interventions which might be appropriate for addressing specific capacity challenges.

Challenges and illustrative interventions


Possible interventions

Inadequate levels of skills and knowledge

Coaching and mentoring

On-the-job training

Short training courses

Study tours

Long-term educational upgrading

Technical assistance, short or long-term

Organization not delivering on its mandate

Leadership development, particularly assistance in developing a vision and strategizing

Development of management systems including financial, human    resources and  Information technology

Development of standard operating procedures

Team building


Coaching on how to delegate responsibility and ensure accountability

Training on job responsibilities

Inadequate incentives

Encouraging civic dialogue and consensus building

Strengthening accountability structures and procedures

Strengthening rule of law

Civil service reform, particularly measures like merit principle

Supporting democratic elections

Inadequate resources

Provision of materiel and equipment

Budget support

Dedicated funding, for example, trust and social funds


Food aid

Creating linkages with funders

Concentration of power in one or a few entities

Strengthen the legislature

Empower communities

Develop civil service advocacy

Develop political parties

Discourage ethnic-based politics

Based on Brinkerhoff 2007 p 11 with additions and reorganization by the author

Finding 7: Developing functional coordination mechanisms for capacity development is challenging

There is no question that donor coordination is important to ensure effective use of resources but coordinating effectively is more difficult than it would appear.  First, in terms of capacity development, the different definitions, methodologies, perspectives, and policies of donor agencies lead to confusion and it is not clear to what extent “capacity development’ differs from methods and processes used more conventionally.

Second, coordination is a dilemma.  It often takes country partners away from their regular functions, thereby slowing down decision making.  On the donor side, the more time spent coordinating, often with other donors, the less time there is to develop contacts with country partners and to cultivate a better understanding of the context. Country partners and donors need to find a balance between the essential functions of coordination and activities such as analysis of the political economy which are important for better programming. 

Third, coordination is not always in the interests of some of some of the groups who need to be involved to make it succeed.  Several military-civilian platforms have for example, been put in place in Afghanistan but with little benefit because of the dominance of one group over the others, lack of understanding among various actors and the rapid turnover of staff (OECD/DAC 2010c p 28). Some partner counties avoid coordination because it risks making them face problems such as corruption and the need for security sector reform. 

Ultimately, partner countries must do the coordination. There were some promising examples of this in the various documents and case studies consulted, for example, Timor-Leste and its use of whole of government approaches as described in the box below and Liberia which has used a broad based consultative process in designing its Poverty Reduction Strategy (OECD/DAC 2010j p 2). Donors need to help country partners to build the capacity to do more coordination themselves.

Whole of Government Approaches in Timor-Leste

The Timor-Leste government has used a whole of government approach for national issues such as food security, maintaining stability and security, and economic development.  Key examples of success include finding a solution for internally displaced persons, implementing a nation-wide insurance scheme and defusing rebels without further violence.  Inter-ministerial committees work in accordance with a whole of government approach and budget allocations demonstrate the same approach.

Taken from OECD/DAC 2010n (Consultation: Timor-Leste) p 23.

[1]Examples of tools for doing conflict assessments include Effective Conflict Analysis Exercises: Overcoming Organisational Challenges?, Report No. 36446-GLB, 21 June, 2006 by The World Bank, Conflict-related Development Analysis (CDA), 2003, Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, United Nations Development Program, New York and the Country Indicators for Foreign Policy, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

[2]Dilemmas are problems that defy easy solutions because they present choices between multiple, conflicting imperatives (Paris and Sisk p 306).