By Rick James

This blog is no. 2 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)

There is a major problem with our foundations. We have fallen into the temptation of designing interventions based on at least two misguided assumptions: that we can control and predict another’s development; and that organisations behave logically, like machines. Given such shaky foundations, it is not surprising that we do not see the results we promised in our ambitious proposals.

If we are to contribute more effectively to building capacity, we need to go back to first principles about how organisations change. These should be our foundations for capacity building. But putting these principles into practice is not easy. It takes courage and humility.

To start, however, let’s take a quick look at the problems with our current foundations.

Fragile foundations

Myth: We can control and predict another’s change

The aid system is built on peddling the attractive notion that we can manage another’s development. Our proposals promise to deliver changes that are way outside our control. We justify our organisational existence (and personal contribution) by making big claims about the value we add and the difference we will make. To deliver on these ambitious promises, agencies are setting up more and more procedures to manage risk and ensure consistency of delivery.

What we end up with are top-down bureaucratic processes that are a world away from the grassroots development principles we used to espouse. Far from supporting change, the heavy procedures distract and paralyse. Our attention is on ensuring the aid delivery system is working smoothly when our focus should be on transforming lives. We need to recognise we cannot control another organisation – at best we can only disturb.

Myth: Organisations operate like logical machines

It would be so much easier if organisations were predictable; if we could be sure that if we did ‘a’ and ‘b’ then ‘c’ would happen. We know this is unrealistic. And yet so many capacity building programmes are based on such simplistic logic. The usual rationale goes: ‘if we change this structure or this system or give this training, then behaviour will change.’ Unfortunately our personal experience tells us that organisations are infinitely more complex than that. They are living entities of dynamic relationships, not lifeless machines.

Such simplistic assumptions are sadly the implicit foundations of much of our capacity building. The consequences are top-down capacity building programmes, rarely fully locally owned. Changes tend to be superficial – i.e. NGOs getting a bit better at securing and managing grants (‘working the system’). They’re a far cry from the transformative initiatives we aspire to.

Returning to first principles

It’s easy to criticise others. It’s much harder to make change happen in practice. So how do we make our capacity building more transformative? I believe we must return to first principles, as any good scientist would. We already know a lot about capacity building and how it works. Key principles have been ‘industry standard’ for some time (UNDP 2006, DAC 2006, Sida/Bergstrom 2005, ECDPM/Morgan 2006). These include:

  1. Capacity building is not yours, but theirs. Capacity is strengthened from the inside out, not the other way round – it’s what’s called an endogenous process. The motive for change needs to come from within.
  2. Capacity building is a complex process of human change. We know how difficult it is to change one person’s behaviour. Trying to change the behaviour of a group of people is exponentially more complex. Politics and emotions usually have a greater influence on behaviour than brute logic.
  3. Organisational change is profoundly personal. Organisations are collections of individual people. We have to take things personally if we are to change behaviour.
  4. Change happens through relationships – both within and between organisations. Building capacity is a collective process. Organisations are highly complex human systems operating in open environments. No NGO is an island. Your own organisation may need to change for another to change.

These principles have been around for years, but we seem to have forgotten them in capacity building. They have fallen out of favour with donors fixated on short-term results. They are unpopular because they involve risk. We have to accept some spectacular failures if we are to see genuine success. They also involve giving up control. It takes trust to let go and believe that other people can solve their problems better than you.

It takes courage and humility to design capacity building programmes on such challenging foundations. Only the brave avoid the temptation to sell quick-fix solutions to funders, with unreal predictions based on flawed linear logic. Only the humble accept that as outsiders we do not have all the answers. They have a healthy respect, even awe, for the complexity of human change. They are more realistic about the limited contribution outsiders can make.

Cultivating capacity

It may be a relief to acknowledge that building another organisation’s capacity is beyond us. We may play a part but ultimately it is not our process. We cannot determine how another organisation will change.

All we can really do is to cultivate capacity, not build it. We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted. We weed and fertilise. We encourage pollination. We can cut back and prune at times. But the plant has a life of its own. It is largely shaped by its identity and its external environment. We may never see the fruit or flowers that it will bear.

So let’s be more honest and humbly accept that all we can do is cultivate capacity. And let’s be courageous in aligning our efforts with the first principles of change