Capacity Development not Training: Context, Partnership & Data for Effective Capacity Development

Dec 21, 2017 by Louise Stenberg Comments (0)

Louise Stenberg is a Senior Advisor for Capacity Development at Pact.

Last month kicked off an ongoing discussion on Oxfam’s blog about the challenges and complexities of capacity development in the aid industry. In the original post, Lisa Denny of ODI wrote about capacity development becoming the primary solution to identified problems, which leads to frequently disappointing results. At Pact, we see this as an issue as well, especially the four key challenges associated with this narrow focus on capacity building and especially training, which she highlights: limited approaches beyond training, focusing on technical not politics and power, limited definition of “capacity”, and not looking at the whole system.

I don’t think any organization has figured out how to completely solve these challenges, but at Pact, we are bringing some innovative ways to utilize our capacity development approach not as the primary solution, but as the support to build and improve systems to maintain solutions.

An easy step to overcoming the first challenge is for everyone to accept the fact that capacity development is not training. Training can be a key component of an overall approach, but it is not enough. This is true whether working with individuals, organizations, or systems. This is why customization and partnership are key to effective capacity development. You cannot package one approach that will work for everyone in any country or system. You must include other ways to learn or improve, whether through access to the needed tools or resources (financial and other) or through mentoring and coaching to ensure what you have learned or want to change is applied in the best way that will improve the work you are doing.

Over the last few years, Pact has been more diligent in capturing capacity development inputs, such as training, mentoring, peer exchanges, grants and other interventions, and analyzing how the combination or a single intervention leads to capacity and performance change. However, capturing this data consistently and ensuring its quality data is a struggle and when you implement in complex environments in diverse settings, can you make meaningful comparisons? This level of data can only contribute so much to the story of the impact of our work and the success of our partners.  

We do not implement capacity development in isolation because our partners do not operate in isolation. Over the past few years, all of our programming has become more integrated across technical areas. We don’t implement health or governance or livelihoods projects. Instead, we implement projects that impact the systems that influence a person’s health, livelihood, and ability to have their voice heard. This means that we need to know the political environment we are working in, often assessed through our Applied Political Economy Analysis process, and not operating in isolation.

Looking at the bigger systems and networks that beneficiaries and partners live and work in is also a growing trend. Our work is often not just with local organizations or community groups, but with networks of organizations and with the bigger systems they operate in, both formal and informal. Using Pact’s network analysis approach (Module 1 and Module 2)or resources like FSG’s System Mapping Guide and Root Change’s Systems Analysis approach, our programs and partners are looking at more systemic solutions to problems and how working in partnership can increase effectiveness and sustainability. As USAID states in their guide on Organizational Capacity Development Measurement: “Neither USAID nor partner organizations seek to develop capacity for its own sake, but rather to better empower their organization to achieve its goals and objectives.”

When integrating capacity development into any project, you must be ready to adapt as you learn from the work you are doing. Measuring progress and success in capacity development is a challenge, but we must be better at this. Through continuous monitoring, projects can better adapt to changing needs, challenges, political influences, power dynamics, and successes. This also means having strong partnerships with local organizations and government agencies so you adapt approaches together. Data is the key. Pact’s Capacity Solutions Platform, an online platform we developed to track and measure the results of our capacity development efforts, allows our staff and partners globally to access their capacity development data and better use this for decision-making and planning.

We don’t have all the solutions or answers, and even after 30+ years of doing capacity development, Pact still struggles to overcome the ever evolving challenges in the field. But by focusing on data to make strategic decisions and adapting our approach and tools to meet the needs of our partners, partnership, and capacity defined in ways that are meaningful to our partners, we continue to make strides.