Technical cooperation: Introduction


In November 2011, the global community will meet in Busan, South Korea to review progress on the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action. Through its 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 Learning Network on Capacity Development (LenCD) and the Southern initiative CD Alliance, has carried out a process to reflect on the specific commitments and implications of the Paris Declaration and the AAA for capacity development. The preparation of a set of technical Perspectives Notes is a key input to that process. In all, five papers have been prepared on capacity development priorities in relation to:

  • the enabling environment
  • sector strategies and country systems
  • fragile situations
  • technical co-operation
  • civil society actors

The purpose of these Perspectives Notes is threefold: (i) Provide a review of the current state of play with respect to CD priorities highlighted in the Paris Declaration and the AAA. (ii) Provide an input to the Southern led “Synthesis Report” on key CD messages for Busan. (iii) Establish an operational vision for further technical work post-Busan. These Notes also will provide background for LenCD resource corners and learning materials.

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 (Box 1).

Box 1. Discussing Capacity Development
Different organisations and institutional networks view capacity development in a variety of ways, for example:

  • UNDP concentrates on four strategic priorities: institutional arrangements and incentives, leadership, knowledge and accountability.
  • NEPAD’s Capacity Development Strategic Framework has six cornerstones: leadership transformation; citizen transformation; knowledge and innovation; using African potential, skills, and resources; capacity of capacity builders; integrated planning and implementation.
  • The ECDPM capacity study distinguishes five core capabilities: to commit and engage; to carry out technical, service delivery and logistical tasks; to relate and attract resources and support; to adapt and self-renew; and to balance coherence and diversity.
  • The Accra Agenda for Action’s strategic priorities are: civil society and private sector engagement, country systems, enabling environments and incentives, capacity development in fragile situations, integrating capacity development in national and sector strategies, relevance, quality, and choice of capacity development support.

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. 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 with support from the OECD/DAC and LenCD. The team included James Hradsky, Nils Boesen, Anthony Land, Heather Baser, Silvia Guizzardi and Mia Sorgenfrei. James Hradsky led in drafting this Note on Technical Cooperation for Capacity Development, which subsequently benefitted from comments from the rest of the team, from peer reviews and a wider electronic vetting process through the LenCD global network. All comments from those involved that have helped contribute to a sound paper are acknowledged with thanks.

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.

Technical co-operation – the traditional aid instrument in support of capacity development

“Technical co-operation” (sometimes used interchangeably with the term “technical assistance”) is generally acknowledged by donors1 to include the traditional aid categories of technical assistance, training and educational grants. These potentially quite different support actions nevertheless have the common (and sometimes overlapping) objective of supporting the capacity development of the partner country.

With the onset of modern approaches to aid in the 1960s, technical co-operation and financial support, packaged in the form of short term donor projects, seemed reasonable initial responses to the challenges of overall development in the emerging countries of the day (UNDP 2002) and vestiges from this era are still found today. With greater experience in the use of technical co-operation over time, criticisms (particularly of technical assistance) surfaced, both from the donors and partner countries (cost; not aligned with country needs; lack of local management control), one written milestone for which was the well known Berg Report commissioned by the UNDP in 1993 (Berg 1993). An impetus for change in technical co-operation practice slowly built momentum as donor thinking shifted from a traditional focus on skills transfer supply to a more strategic and demand driven concept of “capacity development”. By viewing technical co-operation as a means to an end (i.e. capacity development), individual donors could begin to rethink their “good practice” policies in this area. By the time of the Paris Declaration (2005) donors and partner countries alike identified capacity development as one of their short list priorities. Today, technical co-operation is still one of the most visible aspects of donor action in relation to capacity issues and its focus is very much on how to do it more effectively. One international specialist has offered a helpful historical characterisation of its evolution over three “generations”, selected aspects of which are noted in Box 2. Today’s world of technical co-operation, depending on the aid agency, is largely transitioning from the second to third generations of this characterisation, although considerable first generation activity stubbornly remains.

How large is the investment in this particular form of assistance? OECD statistics suggest that aid use of technical co-operation has fluctuated around a fairly stable one-quarter of overall Official Development Assistance (ODA) over this timeframe, with major variations among donors. In absolute terms it represents a significant expenditure, perhaps in the $25 billion/year range in recent years2. This aid instrument still is a standard aspect of most forms of international aid, including that of non-governmental organizations, foundations and South-South co-operation. In fact, “technical co-operation” is so well embedded in aid operations that it is difficult for most donors (and partner countries) to identify and report upon. While only an order of magnitude estimate, one detailed analysis of 2003 ODA data submitted by the donor agencies to the OECD suggests that of the total attributed to technical co-operation, perhaps one-half is in technical assistance, with the remainder split between training and educational grants (and other minor categories).

Box 2. Three Generations of Technical Assistance

First Generation (prevalent in 1960s - early 1980s): Supply (and donor) driven; framed in 2-5 year projects; focused on gap filling at the level of individuals, tasks and the transfer of knowledge and techniques; use of industrialized world good practice; extensive focus on training. Tend to bypass country systems and to make use of substitution TA.

Second Generation (turn of century forward): Most donors now evolving towards this approach. Emphasis on country commitment and ownership; uses “linear” performance management; seeks to move TC towards capacity development; favours strategies of planned change; focuses on good practice models; delegates most aspects of TA management to outside management contractors; sees donor role as processing, contracting, monitoring. This approach responds to demands from domestic groups for control, clarity, efficiency, results and accountability.

Third Generation (emerging): Based on new needs of SWAps, Paris Declaration and better understanding of complexities of development. Uses context as starting point; sees indigenous institutions, culture and structures as key determinants; uses searching rather than planning; integrated with governance and political economy issues; aware of dynamics of change including informal level; deliberate effort to shift control and decision making to local systems and actors; build on strengths rather than weakness; need for longer term engagements.

Source: Peter Morgan, 2009

This Perspectives Note

This Perspectives Note makes an attempt to summarize the considerable learning about technical cooperation for capacity development that has occurred in recent years, particularly in support of the international aid effectiveness process. Specifically, reference in the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action is found at the level of paragraph 14 where it is agreed “…that technical co-operation is one means among others to develop capacity…” Paragraph 14(b) goes on to affirm that “Donors’ support for capacity development will be demand-driven and designed to support country ownership”, then states:

“… To this end, developing countries and donors will (i) jointly select and mange technical co-operation, and (ii) promote the provision of technical co-operation by local and regional resources, including through South-South co-operation.”

In reviewing attempts at collective learning since Accra, it is apparent that this topic continues to be a reform target for development co-operation leadership, North and South, and several aspects remain topics where additional review and dialogue among partners is needed. As will be noted subsequently, emerging experience collectively offers hope that some commonly accepted principles for better practice in developing capacity is possible by the time of Busan.

Three caveats about this Note merit remarking at the outset. (i) Because of the range of opinions and analysis on technical co-operation, it is modestly intended as an inventory of what has been said and where core consensus seems possible. (ii) It offers options rather than prescriptions. (iii) It is not meant be a definitive conclusion, but rather the starting point of a process of collective dialogue and change.


1 Key elements of traditional technical co-operation used for past OECD/DAC statistical reporting directives generally includes personnel (including experts, teachers and volunteers), study/skills assistance (traineeships and scholarships) and research on problems of developing countries.

2The OECD has attempted to work with the donor community to improve upon its recording and reporting of technical cooperation flows. A new and more specific nomenclature was established and initial reporting based on that format will appear in 2011.