07 October 2011

We need to talk about capacity-building

My new employers Oxford Policy Management have just published an interesting new opinion piece by Alex Matheson looking at the failure of capacity-building.
A 2006 Australian report ‘Capacity Building Evaluation’ states that the development community spends $15 billion annually on capacity development but is “unsure” of the return on its investment. In 2008, the World Bank concluded that no more than half of the $720m it spends on training each year actually resulted in enhanced capacity.
That bears repeating – less than half of World Bank spending on training actually does anything.

So why does this continue? Matheson explains how both donors and recipient governments have every incentive to carry on with the status quo and not rock the boat. For the recipients, well who doesn’t like an excuse to get out of the office for a few days of training? And for donors, it’s a nice clean easy way to spend some money, which may well have at least some short-term superficial outputs.

What is typically though needed in dysfunctional organizations is not more inputs into a bad organizational system, but the much more challenging job of managerial and organizational reform.

The first quick win is to be clear on terminology.

Training ≠ capacity development. 

The two are not synonymous (technical training for individuals can of course be very useful, we should just be clear that it is not going to create effective organizations, meaning the working relationships between individuals).

Finally Matheson offers up some more substantive solutions;
  • Making a prior political economy assessment of the barriers to capacity development and the prospects for building conditions for successful partnership. 
  • Not engaging unless the leadership group in the organisation is committed to the goals and is willing to allow space for change. 
  • Designing interventions that take account of the political and economic environment. For instance, organisational change strategies in civil services in South Asia must take into account the power and influence of cross-departmental cadres, and the strong bonds between batch-mates. 
  • Designing support programmes that allow enough time for new capacities to be institutionalised and are sufficiently flexible to survive political inattention, senior staff turnover, and periodic distractions. Important elements of this are establishing inclusive networks and engaging on a wide front to allow for changing partners and temporary reversals. 
  • Promoting a process of change that allows time and opportunity for confidence building through small successes amongst the leadership team, before addressing major challenges. 
  • Adopting a patient but persistent approach that keeps long-term behavioural goals in mind, exploits windows of opportunity, avoids unnecessary confrontations and focuses on results rather than publicising a badged reform.


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