Towards a shared understanding about the principles and values of capacity development

Why is agreement needed?

Good practice for capacity development has already been identified and documented in resources such as the OECD’s 2006 publication The Challenge of Capacity Development: Working towards good practiceand others. The challenges are now in how to operationalise what is known so that practice on the ground becomes more effective in contributing towards sustainable capacity and development results.  A step towards reducing the challenges of introducing change in operations and practice would be to achieve a degree of shared understanding about the principles and values of capacity development between development actors from all perspectives.  This would give everyone the means to talk the same language when working together to try to overcome challenges and agree about best practice for specific contexts. The point is not to try to make everyone adopt one set of ideas and think and work in exactly the same way: there are many risks in such an idea, not least stifling the creativity and diversity that are needed to respond in different contexts.  It is more about having a shared understanding so that everyone operates within the same general framework of principles. A sporting analogy might be that at present there are times when some development activities can seem like a football team trying to play a cricket team and neither finding that the game proceeds as they expect it to. Whereas football teams from opposite sides of the world are able to play together because they share the same understanding about the game and how to play it, even if they have different strategies, tactics or skills.

Having a common understanding, underpinned by some shared principles and values, of what capacity development is, why it is needed, and how to approach it would help all actors to resolve the challenges of operationalising good practice and agreeing on the level of results.

What is agreement needed about?

1) Capacity development as a locally driven process

Local ownership is a prerequisite for capacity development. Donors are external actors, with a role to support the process of achieving locally defined objectives. As with other challenges the issue now is how to operationalise this shift and change the nature and pattern of past relationships. This requires alignment and harmonization of donor support, flexibility to modify approaches as required, as well as context-specific knowledge and understanding. This also implies certain limits where country conditions are unfavourable. Ownership, in its broad and inclusive sense including decentralized structures as well as civil society, private sectors, etc., should be openly and trustfully acknowledged from the beginning of the dialogue. This implies true and realistic commitment from the partner countries as well as flexibility from the donor’s side supporting leadership. More transparency is needed for mutual accountability, both for capacity development results and for the costs of mutual investment.

2) Start from and build on existing capacities

The next challenge is about the recognition of existing capacities and how to use them as the basis for moving forward. The shift to starting with an appreciation of what already exists and how to build on endogenous processes is not yet complete.  All actors can do a lot to make this shift by changing the way they approach capacity assessments and the formulation of capacity goals and assessments before beginning activities.

3) Shift the balance from supply to demand-driven support to capacity development 

As noted elsewhere there is the recognition that sustainable capacity development is an endogenous process of change. This means that local actors know what capacity they need, how they think it can best be developed in their culture and context, and what support they need from development partners to achieve it. It also involves shifting all projects and activities towards programmatic and longer-term approaches tied to locally formulated capacity development strategies.  Everyone needs to work together to understand and agree how to make the strategic and operational shifts away from capacity development activities being based on external assessments and embedded in projects, to locally owned processes based on theories of change developed by local change agents.

4) Defining and measuring capacity results

There are many different ideas about how to define and measure capacity results within specific contexts. Among the challenges is the fact that sustainable results are often only achieved over time through multiple methods that address intricate and changing relationships between context and hard and soft capacities. Another is that in many contexts capacity development is a long-term process tied to political agenda, without a predictable, linear path.  Yet another is that the search for effective methodologies also needs to embrace recognition that soft capacity results are often essential prerequisites for hard capacity results to come into place. Results based approaches answer a lot of needs for some development actors, especially donors and taxpayers who need to see that their money is being spent to good effect.  Alongside this complexity theories hold that some aspects of capacity cannot be predicted and measured and that for multi-dimensional, multi-level and multi-sectoral contexts like large urban systems or post-conflict countries results can only be defined in broad terms that do not fit easily to many of the current ways of measurement. At present a lot of attention is being paid to finding effective approaches for ‘managing for capacity results’ i.e. to defining, implementing, monitoring and evaluating and adjusting capacity development efforts to effectively support sustainable development i.e. understanding not only ‘what’ has been achieved, but also ‘how’ it was achieved.

Reflection questions (for group discussion or self-study)

  • What are the most important principles and values that need to be agreed among all development actors?
  • What would be the advantages and disadvantages of trying to agree a common understanding?
  • What will help you and those you and those you work with agree a common language that reflects a shared understanding about capacity development?

Resources for further reading

This section is drawn from the following documents, all of which go into these issues in more depth:

Managing for Capacity Results: A paper for the Cairo Workshop on Capacity Development. Heather Baser, 2011. 

The Cairo Consensus on Capacity Development: Call to ActionMarch 2011.

Training and Beyond: Seeking Better Practices for Capacity Development Jenny Pearson 2011.  OECD   Development Co-operation Working Papers No. 1. Available here

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