Capacity Building, by Ben
Green and Mike Battock of
the Civil Society Department, DFID
Capacity building has crept into the development lexicon. But is it more
jargon or can it be a useful development concept?
These days, any mention of civil society seems to include the term 'capacity
building'. But this term has come to convey such a range of meanings that it
may increase confusion rather than clarity, leading some in the development
field to suggest that it should be dropped altogether. However, an
examination of the broad spectrum of ideas and activities described as
'capacity building' reveals that they are essential in eliminating poverty.
A broad spectrum
Rather than tackling capacity building as a single concept, it is better to
look at a whole range of ideas, approaches and development interventions. At
one end of the spectrum is the purely technical input - the provision of
training to an agency's staff or setting up new financial or computer system
for example. Although these are isolated instances of development assistance
to have real meaning they must be considered as part of a broader process.
Further along the spectrum is organisational capacity building. Most
development work is carried out by organizations, whether they are civil
society groups or government ministries - capacity building is not the sole
preserve of civil society. To be effective in their role, these
organizations often need support in their own progress and development. This
organizational development not only focuses on the organization's systems
and physical assets, but on its people, its culture and its ability to plan
for the future.
An example of this can be found in east and southern Africa where the
organization 'Transform' helps 90 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to
achieve their potential and work harder towards their overall goal of
combating poverty through a structured programme of organizational change,
using African bodies.
Organizations, however, cannot and do not work in isolation. So further
along capacity building spectrum is institutional development - the
strengthening of links and development of the environment within which
organizations exist. This could mean, for example, bringing together
organizations in one country to share information and provide a more
effective lobbying voice. The development of meaningful partnerships
between governments and civil society is becoming increasingly important
with civil society now seen as having a key role to play in drawing up and
monitoring national poverty reduction strategies. There is, therefore, a
pressing need for capacity building that increases civil society's ability
to engage at national policy level for example by improving economic
literacy or by the provision of a legal framework that allows NGOs and civil
society organizations to operate more effectively.
At the end of the capacity building spectrum, the process can be defined not
just as something relating to organizations or institutions but to
individuals and communities in poor countries. In this context, capacity
building can involve strengthening people's understanding of their own
needs, entitlements and rights. Building their understanding and knowledge
in these areas and enabling them to organize themselves to respond to this
understanding, is a definition of 'capacity building' as a far broader
approach to development.
An example of this in practice is the Active Learning Centres in Kenya,
Tanzania and Zambia, where training improved the confidence of local women,
allowing them to participate in public life, allowing them to participate in
public life, understand democracy to campaign and lobby.
As is clearly apparent from these examples, capacity building is not
something that happens overnight. It is not a quick fix. To be meaningful
in the long term, capacity building is best done as part of a process,
rather than as an end in itself, carried out in partnership, and not as a
condition of funding or as something which is imposed on organizations in
developing countries by those in the developed world.
The importance of capacity building
Despite the confusion and disagreement which has sometimes arisen about
terminology, the concept of capacity building is essential to the
elimination of poverty. Increasingly significant amounts of development
funding - from a diverse range of actors (including the World Bank, DFID and
international and local NGOs - are now being invested in capacity building
Its significance has increased as approaches to development have evolved
over the last few decades. From support to the state, then to supporting
'the market', the emphasis is now shifting back to stress the importance of
national government. With these changes, the role of other development
actors has come to be seen as increasingly valuable.
Initially, NGOs were seen as the prime movers in this 'third sector'. Now,
however, there is more focus on broader civil society. The types of role
this section could fill include promoting the rights and entitlements of
citizens, engaging governments on their policies, and filling gaps in
service provision. But civil society often lacks the skills and means to
meet such a challenging and diverse range of functions. Hence the need to
There is a need to increase and strengthen capacity across the whole
spectrum outlined above, from increasing individuals' understanding of their
rights, through to creating legal environments where organizations can take
an active role in the governance of their countries. Although argument may
continue about the precise meaning of the term, there is a growing consensus
that capacity building is essential in order for civil society to fulfil its
potential to have a meaningful role in poverty elimination.