By Rick James

This blog is no. 1 in a series of nine on the subject of capacity building:

No. 1: Calling our bluff on capacity building (March 2014)
No. 2: Cultivating capacity: returning to first principles (March 2014)
No. 3: Obsessed by assessment tools (April 2014)
No. 4: It’s (almost) all about leadership (May 2014)
No. 5: Cultivating character in capacity building (May 2014)
No. 6: Cultivating trust in partnerships (June 2014)
No. 7: Making it personal (June 2014)
No. 8: Letting go: the missing step in capacity building (July 2014)
No. 9: Strategic funerals in capacity building (August 2014)

International NGOs are under threat. Between 2009 and 2011 the proportion of funding through Northern NGOs as compared with direct funding to Southern civil society fell by 60 per cent.[1] Across Europe, government donors are questioning the added value of international NGOs (INGOs). They are no longer satisfied with glib INGO responses about ‘we build local capacity.’ They want to see evidence. They are calling our bluff.

This has been on the cards for decades. Repeated studies of INGO practice over the past 20 years[2] revealed that capacity building is always described as high priority – but few INGOs have any conceptual clarity about what it means. Hardly any have a clear capacity building strategy. Most still follow a fairly traditional top-down, compliance-oriented, and training-dominated approach.

In 1994, I did a study of international NGO experiences with capacity building and found a dearth of evidence, other than anecdotal, of whether any of these capacity-building approaches do in fact strengthen the partner, let alone evidence that allows us to come to any conclusions about the cost effectiveness of such investments.” Sadly, 20 years on, the situation has hardly changed at all. Despite the professed interest and commitment, there have been few serious efforts to monitor and evaluate capacity building.

Much of what has been called capacity building has been about compliance. It has focused on helping local partners become better managers of aid grants – not necessarily more effective development agencies. So training has often concentrated on proposal development, financial management, monitoring and evaluation, and reporting, rather than more fundamental issues of identity, leadership and strategy.

In other words, Northern agencies have directed capacity building toward what they need from their partners rather than helping local NGOs become autonomous civil society organisations.

There have been some notable exceptions to this rule. For instance, there has been some far-sighted and innovative investment in the training and formation of local consultants in many African countries in particular. Some European agencies have provided critical core support to strengthen local capacity building organisations.

Yet sadly such strategic, sector-wide initiatives have fallen out of favour in recent years as Northern NGOs have narrowed down their support to a more instrumental focus on projects with a direct impact on short-term results at community level. The idea of supporting an initiative that will benefit the whole sector rather than just a specific partner is no longer attractive. As a result, many local capacity building institutions have been forced to downsize. A number have been forced to close.

Some international agencies only begin to think seriously about capacity building as they contemplate exit from a country or a partnership. This is too late. They are left with few short-term options – so many end up simply throwing some local fundraising training at partners as a token gesture. Having exit in mind much earlier helps focus the mind. As one senior DFID staff member said at an INTRAC conference last year: “If we had known we were going to leave India in 2015, we would have spent the last decade focusing on capacity building, not service delivery.”

At same time as international NGOs have been supposedly building capacity, they have also been plundering the capacity of partners. As larger operational NGOs have expanded their programmes, they have tempted local NGO staff away with higher salaries. In Malawi for example, more NGO staff now work for international agencies than local ones. Those same international NGOs bemoan the lack of capacity in their local NGO partners.

Why have we all fallen so far short of our stated intentions in capacity building?

Reasons vary from agency to agency but overall it seems the international NGO sector has become obsessed by growth in the last 20 years. While talking the talk about impact and development, most agencies still describe and measure themselves first and foremost in terms of income. This does not sit easily with a serious focus on capacity building. Capacity building requires long time horizons and engaging in the messy realities of change.

Now donors are calling the international NGO bluff about capacity building. Capacity building is one of the few remaining roles open to international NGOs, as increasingly donors can directly fund Southern NGOs. Donors are therefore demanding evidence of impact in capacity building. There are real concerns that, like the story of the emperor’s new clothes, there will be nothing there.

At INTRAC, we are passionate for capacity building to make a difference. To do that it must be done well. Both joyful and bitter experience has left us with strong opinions. Over the next few months we will share some of these opinions developed over 20 years of capacity building.

Do join us on our journey… and join in with your own complementary and contradictory stories.

[1] OECD-DAC Evaluation Insight “Supporting Civil Society” 2013

[2] James 1994; James, Ryder, and Elliot 1998; Lipson and Warren 2006; James and Hailey 2007