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A few years ago I was travelling in India with a man working with a grassroots NGO. He was going from one workshop to another. This is the dialogue we had

Me: What is your role?
He: I am the learning officer in (name of NGO).
Me: Yes but what do you do?
He: I participate in all workshops that (name of NGO) gets invited to.
Me: but surely you must be specialising in an area?
He: No. You see I am a graduate and I know a lot. Over the last six months I have been to gender, human rights, Non-formal-education, M&E and Reproductive rights trainings. Most of these were organised by donors who make grants to (name of NGO). Very often project people cannot go since they have implementation deadlines and so I go.
Me: (still not taking this one seriously) Hmm but what happens when you have 2-3 workshops in a row? Don’t you get the subjects muddled up by the time you get back to your office?
He: No no. It cannot happen. I have different notebooks for different workshops.
Me: speechless till today

So why am I breaking my silence today?

Well over the last two weeks I have been hearing the term ‘capacity building’ over and over. The height was the long Skype chat I just finished with an NGO I had been associated with in India. They were brainstorming with me on some capacity building venture they were planning. I found that they were clueless on why they wanted to build capacities, what would be achieved – all they knew was that they had a grant to build capacities of youth. I was appalled and felt that I had to get this out of my system before a new week began.

This is of course not a stray case. Most development workers, myself included, often get irresistible urges to build capacities of others.

  • Managers want to build capacities of staff.
  • Staff want to build capacities of partners.
  • Partners want to build capacities of communities.

and consultants and trainers (oops facilitators) laugh all the way to the bank.

I am surprised that with all the capacity building that has been going on for decades, we still have someone whose capacities need to be built left in the world. Many a time capacity building is just a euphemism for cramming 30 people in a room for a few days and trying to kill them with power-points and flipcharts and group work (that also takes care of the ‘participation’).  

Does one get to see improved social capital or skills then?

Well. Not really. Otherwise why would NGOs who have gone through at least 10 different capacity building exercises on Monitoring and Evaluation be completely unable to develop a simple framework that can tell anyone who wants to know if their work is making a difference? (true story)

I think that the biggest reason why capacity building does not work is because it is often in an area that the capacity builders are interested in. The buildees (not a word I love but just a play on the mentor : mentee that I keep hearing) could not care too much.

I am reminded of Sir Humphrey Appleby saying “Bernard, subsidy is for art, for culture. It is not to be given to what the people want! If they want it, they will pay for it. It is for what the people don’t want but ought to have!” Just replace ‘subsidy’ with ‘capacities’.

A few other reasons why capacity building does not work are

  • Boring methods.
  • Condescending and / or contextually clueless facilitators.
  • Poor design; often top down.
  • Participants unable to relate subject to their work.
  • Mismatched incentives of builders and buildees.

Finally, I think that any capacity building must be followed by letting go. If you want to build capacities of communities to decide for themselves and take action, you cannot insist that they take action in an area that you are interested in. It is for the community to decide what to do and how. The art of letting go and losing control is not one that most of us development workers have any mastery over.

I am not saying that all capacity building is useless. However, I would like to see these efforts being made in a bit more strategic manner. IMO capacity building should include

  • Setting objectives jointly – understanding the areas where capacities are to be built and how the builders and buildees see it.
  • Understanding the incentives of both groups – hopefully there is sufficient overlap.
  • Understanding what it means when capacities are built – how will it look like, what will be the change, how will one know that change has happened.
  • Determining the processes that will aid in capacity building – obviously training can be one of them but is not the only one for sure. You have exposure, learning while doing, mentoring etc
  • Ensuring that the buildee has the opportunity to practice what (s)he learnt, make mistakes and have help in getting them corrected.


This post was reproduced on WhyDev here.