22 June 2012

On capacity building

Hypothesis: Effective organisations are built by insiders who have learnt how effective organisations work whilst at a different, established, effective organisation, rather than by outsiders coming in and making bad organisations into good ones.

Application to development: it might be better for large international NGOs to directly hire more local staff to deal with ground-level implementation than to “partner” with local organisations and try to delegate tasks to them, and struggle with that whole capacity building thing, which is inherently incredibly difficult, especially when you are an outsider, and which very few people seem to really know how to do very well. If someone works for you directly, you have far greater control over their work, and they get to experience working in an established effective organisation, which may well do more for capacity building in the long run.

Any thoughts? In particular any data or evidence, even anecdotal?


A better stated hypothesis by email from Monica: a lot of the soft skills stuff that comes up with capacity building  (i.e. leadership development, management training) is very important but very difficult to teach. It is better learned through "modeling" than workshops. Think students in the West with expensive long degrees who still need to do unpaid internships to learn how to actually do a job.


Michael Clemens said...

Only somewhat related, but I think it goes to the heart of the point: Countries that send more people to study abroad in democratic countries become more democratic themselves:


Contrast this to the effectiveness of democracy promotion by outsiders without already-capable local partners, which has been awful:


This is just one facet of what you're talking about, but I do think it's apposite.

rovingbandit said...

Yeah I was thinking about the migration angle as well - for example Mo Ibrahim who learnt his trade working for British Telecom before founding Celtel, or all the African leaders with experience working abroad such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. But for those without the migration option it might be good to expand the opportunity available at the little islands of advancement in foreign organizations with effective management structures to as many as possible (I should note that many big NGOs already do a great job at hiring lots of local staff, but there also seems to be a fetishisation of partnering with local organisations, when maybe the priority should working directly with more local individuals? There is a great comparative study to be done across country offices of a single NGO which outsources work in some countries but does the same work in house in other countries).

Matt said...

Generally agree (although always some concerns about high-quality locals working for ineffective international NGOs and never being given any incentive to return to the local organisation).

I'm more convinced when locals go work in identical, effective organisations in removed settings. Instead of spending money on sending them away for (face it - useless) masters degrees in the UK, I think civil servants should spend 1-2 years shadowing their equivalents in developing countries. So if you're a budget officer in Malawi, you go work in the UK Treasury for a year.

Matt (@mngreenall) said...

How about a bit of both? Because I think the challenge in your approach is that there may not be much of an incentive for people who've worked for international NGOs - with relatively more stable funding, more promotion and learning opportunities, better terms and conditions, bigger scale and clout, and perhaps less political vulnerability - to go back to a fairly fragile and precarious organisation. I'm not saying it does not happen, but I think it is unfair to expect it. Of course, this could partly be resolved by massively improving the terms and conditions of funding that western organisations provide to "local" ones.

A second comment - I think what you are suggesting may well help bigger national NGOs in the long run, but I am not sure how much it will help community based organisations. On the other hand we probably need to rethink what we mean by and expect of "capacity" in community based organisations. The capacities that donors and western organisations value the most tend to be for things like filing grant reports and collecting the right receipts to justify expenditures. We expect them to "look" and "feel"like efficient organisations, and judge them according to these standards. But in the grand scheme of things these are probably not the capacities a CBO needs to do a good job in the service of its community.

Matt (@mngreenall) said...

oops, sorry other Matt, I meant to reply to the original post, not to your comment.

How Matters said...

This so-called "lack of capacity" is used to justify many antiquated practices in the aid industry. Capacity building, if an unexplored concept, is arrogant at best. 

The general (and often pejorative) assumption in the development sector that the capacity of "local implementing partners" should be measured by the degree of formal
structure and the differentiation of organizations is something that must be
re-examined. What about the capacity found in local civil society groups' deep contextual knowledge, embeddedness within communities, resourcefulness, language and cultural skills, and the ability to operative in a responsive manner to local needs? These are capacities that international NGOs and donors lack.
Thus the ability and penchant to understand and work with organizations of any size and type can and should become a core skill of anyone working on behalf of change. If there's any capacity to be built, perhaps it's our own. 

rovingbandit said...

There is an important distinction here between service delivery NGOs and advocacy NGOs. It is important that local advocacy NGOs exist, but I don't there is nearly as strong case for the existence of local service delivery NGOs. What matters is that services are delivered, and locals capacity is built. I don't think that whether this is done by international NGOs or local NGOs really matters does it?

rovingbandit said...

I agree that capacity building is ugly terminology, but there are real basic management practices which can be learnt and transferred and make organisations more effective, and real skills that individuals can acquire that can make them more effective, and for want of a better term "capacity building" seems a reasonable shorthand.

Aside from that, I really don't care about the "form" that organisations take but about their "function", and my impression from really very limited experience is that in general larger, older, firms and NGOs are often more effective than younger/smaller ones, because they have been through a process of learning and growing (with the exception of a minority of disruptive, innovative, new entrants). 

Surely local *people* have embeddedness, resourcefulness, language and cultural skills, and responsiveness to local needs whether they work for a big international NGO in their town or a local one?

Matt (@mngreenall) said...

I agree that the is a distinction between advocacy and service delivery. But few organisations fit neatly into one camp or the other. Most of the big international development NGOs in the UK do both. And the same is true of community organisations. Effective advocacy and service delivery both require capacity and good strategic abilities, so I am not convinced the distinction helps much with this discussion.

But back to your question - when it comes to service delivery, does it matter who does it? Probably not, if quality, relevance and cost are all equal. And though I have never worked on emergencies I would imagine that in such situations the prerogative should be to just go do the job whatever it takes. But let's say we are talking about healthcare delivery in a fairly stable environment. If I understand you correctly you are asking why we should favour national organisations if international ones can do the job better. I think part of the problem is that the playing field is not level. National organisations rarely get the chance to compete on big donor contracts, either because donor policies stipulate that money should go through internationals, or because they will only fund organisations that have had experience of implementing large sums of money. It works as a form of protectionism.

The bigger issue for me though, is that quality and efficiency are out only a function of an organisation's capacity. We are increasingly seeing good evidence of improvements in service delivery resulting from stronger local level accountability - for instance by making more information available to communities and by building better feedback loops that enable communities to demand better. I would argue that the farther away you put the locus of control and decision making - whether it be I'm a donor or NGO head office in Washington DC, or even in the capital city - the less likely it is that clear feedback will reach its target and influence it. And even if, as an international NGO, you strive to put nationals in charge, if the head office that is dealing with the funding (be it donor or national government funding) is sat in another country, there will be limits to that person's influence.

Are national or local level providers inherently more accountable? Possibly not, but I would argue that by being more close to the action, they are more accessible and amenable to the people who need to be telling them what they are getting wrong.

rovingbandit said...

Thanks again for the comments. Maybe I should clarify - I'm thinking of a situation in which an international NGO already has the funding. The question for them is whether to outsource the ground-level implementation to a partner or do it themselves. Taking this set-up as a given, this decision doesn't change where funding and ultimate control comes from. But in fact having a single vertical integrated organisation might actually facilitate better information feedback from the ground up to the top rather than worse. 

Matt (@mngreenall) said...

I think this is right but not for every type of service or in every context. Time to break out the anecdotes. My area of work is HIV and AIDS, with a particular focus on stigmatised and even criminalised populations. We've got good evidence that community cohesion or self organising by sex workers has enabled not only powerful advocacy for rights, but also effective service delivery - not clinical services, perhaps, but outreach, home care, and paralegal assistance. There are major barriers to groups like this becoming meaningfully involved in large national or international NGOs - including gaps in skills, stigma, the law, and in the case of sex workers, the policies of major founders (including national governments and overseas donors). Where they are involved, it is as front line servide providers - good, but not likely to have a major impact on organisational policy.But even if we could resolve these issues, I think going down the route of trying to have people from these groups directly employed by large NGOs would mean compromising the positive effects of community capital.

Having said all this, I think you are still spot on to point the finger at the questionable impact of capacity building. The quote you've given from Monique points to part of the problem, which is that capacity building all too often takes the form of training workshops and toolkits, with little emphasis on practice. When I look at what is expected of small community groups, of young leaders who are standing up for highly marginalised groups, and the lack of tolerance donors have for failures among these leaders; and I compare their experience to the years of fairly low pressure - and well paid - "apprenticeships" during which I was allowed to make mistakes and learn from them... I also think we need to find new ways of supporting and mentoring the people and the organisations who are out there on the front lines.

Thanks for starting this thread by the way: good food for thought!

Cynan said...

Just to jot down here due per twitter. Yes bringing in staff into the INGO (in occasional cases in great swathes) does happen - my anecdotes are from emergency response in Pakistan 2010 but I'm sure its not limited to there. Tends to be more in humanitarian response where urgency, command and control issues, logistical capacity, come to the fore. Agencies do go operational rather than partnering in development contexts less often. And indeed sometimes that can go so far as to be UN agencies going operational, and cutting out INGOs not just local NGOs, in situations of extreme political repression/manipulation when even INGOs cannot effectively operate but UN (barely) can. 

In terms of 'pure service delivery' I guess I'd echo Matt G's comment - it doesn't really exist, and where it does ;) it should be done by private sector or government not INGOs. Of course my view there could just be an inherited bias of decades of donors requiring an exit strategy..? EG here at HRI we've been studying stuff like water trucking markets in quite sketchy places and have ever more a bias towards using them rather than direct contracting and implementation. We often have hidden or highly indirect support costs (like, that policywonkbloggerbloke in HQ) that mean that predominantly service delivery stuff presents an opportunity cost, at least. 

Albert Soer said...

The 'who does what' touches on the issue of substitution. In principle, I believe that if a national organisation has the capacity to do, they should do and international (development) agencies should stay out of there. If the national organisations do not have the capacity to do, then international (development) agencies' first priority should be to assist the national agencies to develop their capacities to do in the future. If we do not do that, we are substituting, which I believe is not the idea of international development (but see also: http://europeandcis.undp.org/blog/2012/01/10/is-substitution-really-such-a-big-deal/).

The question then is how to tackle this capacity development. There is a lot available. Some useful links would be: 
-          Capacity-Net on Teamworks
-          National Implementation Capacities on Teamworks
-          UNDP’s Capacity Development site on Teamworks and public website
-          The UN Procurement Capacity Development Centre, an example of an online toolkit and knowledge repository for procurement capacity development
-        http://www.lencd.org/

In case an organisation has the choice to outsource or enter into a partenrship, or hire individual staff members, this choice then depends on the way in which this international organisation sees its role in the capacity development debate. Direct hiring would assume that these people are fired and then become productive in whatever setting, using the knowledge they have gained while being employed with the international agency. Maybe a an alternative way would be to offer staff exchange schemes or similar to the staff of the national agencies participating in the project.


rovingbandit said...

Thanks for the links Albert.

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