By Rick James.

Why do international NGOs not implement good practice in capacity development?

I was in an INTRAC meeting of large INGO families and bilateral donors recently when someone once again posed this question. When INTRAC asked this question in a study of INGOs a few years ago, we concluded that the answer lay in organisational character – the extent to which our capacity development programmes were influenced by vices or virtues.

We know what works in capacity development. A succession of studies from official agencies, academics and NGO practitioners have all highlighted similar principles of good practice. The issue is not about knowledge; it is deeper than that. The problem is that development agencies are not putting into practice what they know. When INTRAC analysed the practice of international NGOs in capacity development (James and Hailey 2007) and compared this with their own good practice principles, we found a disturbing difference. When we probed as to why this should be, moving beyond the superficial blaming of others in the external context, the underlying self-interest came perilously close to what Catholics would call the Seven Deadly Sins:

Pride – seeing ourselves as better than others.
Pride may be behind the thinking we have encountered amongst all stakeholders: we know better what others need; we are OK, but they have a problem; we can control how others develop; we do not need help from others; I cannot admit my faults; we do not need to work with others.

Greed – the acquisition of wealth or a longing to possess something.
Preoccupation with securing more funding or fees has undermined the practice of many stakeholders, pushed international agencies to take over work that could be done by local CSOs, and prioritised accountability to donors over impact on the poor. It may also be about wanting to retain the power in the relationship as well.

Lust – seeing others as means to our gratification.
Our pride and greed give way to lust – a lust for control, power, status. We use other stakeholders as means to our ends. Partnerships exist only in name. Different stakeholders are only interested in what others can provide for them. This instrumental, impure love for others leads to a lack of courage and boldness.

Gluttony – thoughtless excess, over-consumption or habitual greed.
We see this in international over-consumption of limited local human resources for capacity building. We also see this in local CSO 4×4 vehicles overwhelming communities. We see this in inflating salary levels and consultant fees…

Envy – a desire to have something possessed by another.
Envy may be at the root of our failure to collaborate with other stakeholders in capacity development. Local capacity development providers see others as competition and fail to work together and learn from each other. INGOs pull local CSOs in different directions with ‘their’ capacity development activities.

Wrath – intolerance, impatience, discrimination or extreme anger.
Wrath undermines capacity building when it leads to impatience. When artificial project deadlines prove unrealistic, this can lead to frustration and even anger.

Sloth – reluctance to work or make an effort and failure to use or develop talents.
Different stakeholders sometimes do not bother to apply their knowledge and are too lazy to prioritise. We do not actively seek to increase and implement our knowledge. We are not committed enough see it through.

So if vices are at the heart of the problem, perhaps virtues, their antithesis, should be at the core of the solution. Values are now common parlance in management, but virtues have been largely ignored until recently. Yet virtues are obviously not a new concept (Aristotle and others wrote a lot about them). Nor are virtues the same as values. Virtues bring in uncomfortable notions of moral absolutes; of right and wrong. Talking about good and bad has gone out of fashion in our relativist and post-modern world.

If we apply this thinking to capacity development, agencies wishing to protect and extend excellence in capacity development need the institutional virtues to support this. Such virtues might be:

  • Humility: Modest behaviour, selflessness, giving respect – opposes pride
  • Compassion: Kindness, contentment, satisfaction – opposes envy
  • Patience: forbearance, peace, ability to forgive – opposes wrath
  • Determination: Diligence, passion, courage – opposes sloth
  • Generosity: Sacrifice – opposes greed
  • Self-control: Mindfulness of other, temperance – opposes gluttony
  • Honesty: Openness, purity – opposes lust

The INTRAC meeting on INGO families in April 2013 highlighted again the increasing donor priority for capacity development. Presenters from both DFID and the Dutch Foreign Ministry emphasised that capacity development was the core element of their civil society strategy. Yet as one INGO participant admitted, “there is a huge gap between our rhetoric and reality in capacity building.” Clearly capacity development is no easy option. External contextual factors undoubtedly constrain our ability to put into practice what we know. But it is deeper than that.

At the heart of the matter, it is organisational character – our vices and our virtues – that determines behaviour. To implement good practice capacity development requires organisations to acknowledge and restrain their vices. But they need to go further – to cultivate and embed in our cultures the antidote of virtues. Living out humility, compassion, patience, determination, generosity, self-control and honesty in capacity development would transform our practice. We need courage to combine such virtues with the professional knowledge we already have of what works. Only then will our capacity development practice live up to our theory. Only then will it actually strengthen civil society and ultimately change lives.


DAC Network on Governance. 2006. “The Challenge of Capacity Development: Working towards good practice.” Paris: OECD Publishing.

ECDPM. 2008. “Capacity Change and Performance: Insights and implications for development cooperation. (Policy Management Brief No. 21).” Maastricht: ECDPM.

Eyben, R. (ed.) 2006. Relationships for Aid. London: Earthscan.

Fowler, A. 2006. “Systemic Change for Promoting Local Capacity Development, Working Paper for SNV.” Johannesburg.

James, R. 2010. “Vices and Virtues in Capacity Development.” IDS Bulletin 41 (3): 13-24.

James, R., and J. Hailey. 2007. Capacity building for NGOs: Making it work. Oxford: INTRAC.

James, R., and R. Wrigley. 2007. “Investigating the mystery of capacity-building, INTRAC Praxis Paper 18.” Oxford: INTRAC

Lipson, B., and H. Warren. 2006, “Taking Stock – A Snapshot of INGO Engagement in Civil Society Capacity Building.” Oxford: INTRAC

Morgan, P. 2006. “The Concept of Capacity.Maastricht: ECDPM.

UNDP. 2008. “Capacity Development Practice Note.” New York: UNDP.