Capacity development

The starting point for thinking about capacity development is in some short questions – ‘Whose capacity?’ and ‘Capacity for what?’ and, when those questions have been answered, ‘How?’. ‘Whose capacity?’ and ‘Capacity for what?’ should always be answered in terms of a development result, so that it is clear why the capacity is needed.  General definitions of capacity development link to broad target groups and general development results, as set out in this very clear example from CIDA:

The activities, approaches, strategies, and methodologies which help organizations, groups and individuals to improve their performance, generate development benefits and achieve their objectives.  

An example of how to answer the questions within a specific context, i.e. the ‘capacity for what?’ question is:

The aim of capacity development is to ensure that local health authorities have the conditions and resources needed to provide national immunisation coverage in order to reduce infant mortality.

Answering the ‘How?’ question is dependent on many factors and this learning package has been created to offer some help and guidance to those looking for ideas. 


Before looking at any definition the first point to mention is the use of two different terms – capacity building and capacity development.  In general it can be said that capacity building was in use before capacity development. One of the primary reasons for the change in terminology is that capacity building is now seen to imply starting at a zero point with the use of external expertise to create something that did not previously exist, and that this concept neither acknowledges nor respects the inherent capacity and organic development processes that exist everywhere. Capacity development, on the other hand, emphases the inherent existence of endogenous development processes in all countries and communities, and addresses the need to support and or facilitate processes that are already underway.  However, a point that links both these ideas together is the concept of ‘building on existing capacities’. So there is yet to be universal agreement about which is the most appropriate term and as a result both are still in common usage, though many organisations have moved away from capacity building in favour of capacity development. 

As with the definitions of capacity different agencies have their own definition of capacity development. The definitions reflect, in some cases quite strongly, the specific business processes and logics of the agencies that defined them, and that is entirely appropriate because a definition should always be context-relevant. Below are a few examples of the best known definitions:

Examples of capacity development definitions

ECDPM: The process of enhancing, improving and unleashing capacity; it is a form of change which focuses on improvements.

NORAD: Capacity development is a process by which individuals and organizations increase their abilities to successfully apply their skills and resources toward the accomplishment of their goals and the satisfaction of their stakeholders’ expectations.

OECD: The processes whereby people, organisations and society as a whole unleash, strengthen, create, adapt and maintain capacity over time. (Many agencies, for example EuropeAid, GIZ, ADB, FAO, and others have decided to adopt this definition.)

SDC: The process to improve performance at the individual, organisational, network and broader system levels with the aim of increasing management and resource potentials.

UNDP: The process through which individuals, organizations and societies obtain, strengthen and maintain the capabilities to set and achieve their own development objectives over time.

USAID: Approaches, strategies, or methodologies used by USAID and its stakeholders to change, transform, and improve performance at the individual, organizational, sector, or broader system level.

WBI: A locally driven process of learning by leaders, coalitions and other agents of change that brings about changes in sociopolitical, policy-related, and organizational factors to enhance local ownership for and the effectiveness and efficiency of efforts to achieve a development goal.

Looking at these definitions as a group, a few interesting points emerge, because despite the differences, some ideas are common to all or most of them. The definitions all describe the purpose of capacity development as some form of improvement in the lives, performance and circumstances of those concerned.  Change is a common theme in the definitions, but the implicit assumptions about how change happens are different.  The OECD and ECDPM definitions are based on the belief that change comes from within and capacity development ‘unleashes’ it; CIDA and USAID focus on inputs as necessary to ‘improve performance’; WBI states that change is a ‘driven process of learning’; and SDC’s approach emphasises the two dimensions of developing organizations and networks within a systems perspective.

Reflection questions (for group discussion or self-study)

Within your organisation or network of capacity development practitioners you might find it useful to explore two related questions that will help you to define your approach to capacity development. 

  • Which theory of change do you feel is most appropriate for your context? This question links to the approaches to capacity development in use in your work environment, including any national or local strategies, or approaches being used by donor agencies working in your sector.
  • How do you conceptualize organisations, their dynamics and relationships with the environment? Some concepts in current use are organizations as: machines; networked social organisms; families or communities; fitting with their environment; and, political arenas. How you understand your organisation influences very much how you look at related capacity development issues.

Where has it come from?

Capacity development has been emerging as a central approach within development for more than two decades. The table below shows how development started in the 1950s with a very simple focus on financial aid and has gradually, since then, changed through shifting approaches/paradigms.  The table shows step by step how thinking has evolved and brought new ideas into the practices of development through the decades. The various approaches of the past are building blocks, all of which are still in place.  It’s important to remember that capacity development has not replaced aid, technical assistance or technical cooperation; its introduction alongside those other approaches has brought about a paradigm shift for development.  However, it has to be noted that the overall paradigm is now very complex, with many different – sometimes conflicting – component parts.

The Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action

The consensus on the importance of capacity development was strongly articulated in the 2005 Paris Declaration and the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action. Both highlighted the importance of partnerships, and the Accra Agenda for Action also stressed the importance of country ownership and leadership. One of the outcomes of these statements is an understanding that development partners’ role is not to introduce their own initiatives but to support partner countries in translating capacity development concepts into their own tangible solutions, and work towards mutual understanding and support on both sides.

It is inherent in this paradigm shift that there are strong links between capacity development and aid effectiveness and that technical assistance and technical cooperation should be used as mechanisms to support capacity development. Because in the past technical assistance and cooperation were often donor driven, applying the change in thinking to the practice can create considerable challenges and as a result capacity development frequently gets caught up in the debates about mechanisms for aid. The really important message is that capacity development is and should be about locally led endogenous processes.

For the full text of these guiding documents, see the OECD web page Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action.

The table below shows how capacity development has emerged. The paradigm shift has been from an approach based on technical capacities to one emphasising the need to enhance existing human and organisational assets through close collaboration with individuals, organisations and societies. The focus is now on national ownership and leadership with regard to the broader political and social context.  The paradigm is still shifting as experience informs policy, practice and theory all the time.

The origins of capacity development





Development Aid

Developed countries lend or grant money to developing countries

Institution building
1950s and 60s

Objective was to equip developing countries with the basic inventory of public sector institutions that are required to manage a program of public investment

Focus was on the design and functioning of individual organizations, not broader environment or sector

Imported or transplanted models from developed countries were often used

Developing countries need money

Greater focus on investment and reporting than on results

Mounting debt

Dependence on foreign aid

Projects end when money runs out

Technical Assistance

Foreign experts come in to operate their own projects, which they expect to yield similar results to those seen in developed countries

– and –

Technical Cooperation

Greater emphasis on training, transferring knowledge, based on national policies and priorities

Institutional strengthening/development
1960s and 70s

Shift from establishing to strengthening institutions

Focus was still on individual institutions and not a broader perspective

Tools were expected to help improve performance

Developing countries should just model themselves after the developed ones

Few or no resources available locally

Developing countries should partner with developed ones

Projects launched, but disconnected from local goals or priorities

Dependence on foreign experts

Expertise not always transferred from foreigners to locals

The externally driven models often ignore local realities

Idea of ‘assistance’ highlights unequal relationship between developed and developing countries

Local expertise enhanced

Projects somewhat more in line with local priorities and goals

Driven by outside forces, opportunities missed to develop local institutions and strengthen local capacities


Development management/administration

Objective was to reach special public or target groups previously neglected

Focus was on delivery systems of public programs and capacity of government to reach target groups

Human resource development
1970s, 80s

Development is about people

Stressed the importance of education, health, population

Emergence of people centred Some of this change was influenced by political emancipation frameworks, conceived by Paolo Freire and others outside the aid sector, that were highly influential in the emergence of ‘participation’ as a concept and practice for development. development

New institutionalism
1980s, 90s

Focus was broadened to sector The word sector most usually refers to functions – health, education, agriculture, etc. but in this context the word was used to denote types of organisation and institution. level (government, NGO, private) including networks and external environment

Attention given to shaping national economic behaviour

Emergence of issue of sustainability and move away from focus on projects

Rooted in field of institutional economics

Set the scene for the emergence of the ‘governance’ focus that is now prominent

Capacity Development

A focus on empowering and strengthening endogenous capabilities

Capacity development
Late 1980s and 1990s

Emerged in the 1990s as an aggregate of many other development approaches

Re-assessed the notion of technical cooperation (TC)

Stresses importance of ownership and process

Has become “the way” to do development

Developing countries should own, design, direct, implement and sustain the process themselves

Makes the most of local resources – people, skills, technologies, institutions – and builds on these

Favours sustainable change

Takes an inclusive approach in addressing issues of power inequality in relations between rich and poor, mainstream and marginalized (countries, groups and individuals)

Emphasizes deep, lasting transformations through policy and institutional reforms

Values ‘best fit’ for the context over ‘best practice’; as one size does not fit all

This table is a combination of two other tables: Conceptual Predecessors to Capacity Development, on page 2 of Capacity Development: Definitions, Issues and Implications for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, Charles Lusthaus, Marie-Hélène Adrien, Mark Perstinger Universalia Occasional Paper No. 35, September 1999, and The evolution of UNDP’s Capacity Development approach on page 8 of Capacity Development: A UNDP Primer. Both documents are helpful background reading to understand the general concepts of capacity and capacity development.

Links to some models and approaches

Below are links to some models that have been developed by development agencies and institutes, together with the IDRC Outcome Mapping model.

The relevance of culture and context

In general terms a country’s culture is the system of values, beliefs, norms and practices of its society, including religious and traditional beliefs. Culture can vary a great deal from one country to another and sometimes even within countries between different geographic regions and or social groups. Aspects of culture that might be particularly relevant to development are, for example, traditional beliefs and practices about ownership of land, justice, and social hierarchies. Such beliefs and practices are often highly influential in terms of where and how progress can be made towards the achievement of development goals, and the pace of change. Concepts such as participation, for example, need to be adapted tolocal contexts, because how it is understood and applied in one culture might be very different to how people work with it in a different setting. This is why capacity development initiatives need local leadership and ownershipat the point of implementation.

Culture can often be slower to change than context because it is based on strong patterns of social beliefs and behaviours from the past. In this respect it is helpful to be aware of the syndrome of ‘path dependency’ which means that people continue to make decisions based on past or traditional practices or preferences even if apparently better alternatives are available. However, even though they may be slow and difficult to achieve changes in culture-based beliefs are often very important for capacity development. A clear example has been shown in places where the cultural barriers to girls education have been overcome, resulting in long-term positive impacts on family health and economy, and through them improved community wellbeing.

Context is a way of describing the combination of factors that apply to a place or situation at any given time. These include political and institutional systems, relationships between the country and its neighbours in the region and the world, the political economy underpinning the relationships between political and economic powers, the power dynamics between social and economic groups, and other economic, geographic and social factors. For example, a country’s agriculture sector might have the potential to produce food surpluses that could be sold into world markets to generate much needed income, but the route to ports is through neighbouring country B that is currently in the grip of civil war. Thus the context of the neighbour is a huge contextual factor in country A’s ability to expand its agricultural capacity and the national economy.

Capacity is always contextual in that it can only be appropriately defined and understood in relation to the innumerable environmental and cultural factors in the context under consideration. Context changes constantly, for example through the election of a new president and political party, the enactment of new legislations, or the signing of important trade agreements with neighbouring countries.  In the example above if peace came to the neighbour country B it would likely be possible for country A to establish the necessary agreements and logistic arrangements to export its produce, resulting in significant capacity development for both farmers and the national economy. Sometimes the change can be very quick and dramatic, as in several Asian countries in a matter of hours following the tsunami of 26 December 2004.  Previous development priorities for the affected areas needed to be put aside because of the urgent need to respond to the humanitarian crisis, and then later to rebuild after the devastation caused through loss of life and damage to many communities. 

The relationship between culture, context, capacity and change – whether achieved slowly over time or in a dramatic incident – is very complex in that capacity and change are embedded within context while at the same time it is the context that offers the potential levers for change. The context both impinges on and is influenced by a capacity development process, and it might also change for other reasons such as happened during the global economic crisis, people’s uprisings, regional instability, or a natural disaster. Without doubt one of the most important factors is the socio-political environment of a country and how it influences the leadership to promote change, to sequence it or to block it. For instance in a country emerging from an ethnic conflict there might be strong resistance to the devolution of power to local-regional councils, if the conflict brought one ethnic group to power and devolution means empowering the other in regions where it represents the majority.

Many agencies now recognise that assessment, implementation and learning processes need to start with the ‘big picture’ issues of power and politics, economic factors and cultural perspectives on gender and human rights. However, the big picture analysis needs can also be helpfully informed by consideration of any locally led initiatives that have proved successful and could, therefore, potentially make very constructive contributions to policy development at the national level. Awareness and understanding of the context at the start of a capacity development process is not enough, it is important to keep monitoring and responding to changes in the context in order to ensure continuing relevance. 

As the examples above show culture and context define the relevance and limits of any type of capacity development intervention, at all levels. Most important of all in any circumstance, national or local, is understanding whether or not the political will to change exists. There would be no point in expanding educational facilities to cope with all primary aged children without simultaneous initiatives with the local community leaders to overcome the resistance to educating girls. Decentralisation and deconcentration systems will not work if the political structure is fragmented by ethnic rivalries. Country A might never be able to negotiate safe passage of its goods to ports if country B’s governments has a vested interest in keeping country A poor. Cultural and contextual issues also affect the options for scale up and spread of good practice from one location to another. There have been many instances where resources were wasted on inappropriate initiatives because complex contextual factors, especially the political economy, negated the potential effectiveness of the interventions. Scale up activities are most likely to be appropriate when their design is informed by in-depth understanding that the same intervention or processes might lead to the creation of different results in different places.

Reflection questions (for group discussion or self-study)

Working through the following reflection questions might help you to pull together what you have understood and learnt from this information about capacity development.

  • What are the main ideas coming across about capacity development?
  • What are the interesting similarities and differences between the definitions used by different agencies?
  • Which ideas resonate for your organisation and context? Which ideas are not important, and why?
  • In what ways do any of these ideas add value to the way capacity development has been conceived and practiced in your context? 

Resources for further reading

OECD:  The Challenge of Capacity Development: Working Towards Good Practice. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, DAC Guidelines and Reference Series, Paris. 2006.

Ubels et al: Capacity Development in Practice, Earthscan, London, 2010.

Kaplan, A: The developing of capacity, Community Development Resource Association, Cape Town (1999)

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