Why is ‘Capacity Building’ Meaningless?

‘Capacity building’ is a buzzword which excuses almost any failing. Are your reports late or shoddily written? Is the project months behind schedule? Did your logistics manager send three thousand tonnes of plumpy nut to the wrong Congo? It’s not your fault or theirs – just shows a need for some capacity building.

There are two main problems with this. Firstly, the phrase ‘capacity building’ covers too many possibilities. Someone with ‘limited capacity’ may have never worked in the nutrition sector before, may be unaware of the ideal sample size in a difference-of-differences impact assessment, or not know how to read or write. Arguably I just built my bike’s capacity by replacing the handlebars. By holding so many possible meanings, the word becomes meaningless. As a consequence, people use the word as a substitute for thinking about what the training needs really are.

Second, it’s often not true that people need capacity-building. Obviously ‘limited capacity’ is a problem in much of the world. Everyone who has worked in humanitarian relief knows how hard it is to find qualified staff. However, equally often the problem is an inappropriately complex system. If your partner NGO is struggling with the reporting template, it may be because of their limited capacity – or because you didn’t put any effort into making the report accessible and comprehensible.

This really came home when I started to work in M&E systems for large, wealthy NGOs. Local staff were well-paid and mostly Western educated, with letters after their name and certificates on the wall. But when they struggled to cope with the demands of a complex M&E system, all too often the suggested reason was that they had limited capacity.

Looking more critically at the word, I feel a bit sympathetic. The term ‘capacity building’ aims to focus attention on the fact that people already have capacity, perhaps more so than the term ‘training’. (And why use two syllables when you could use six?) However, overuse has crushed the life out of it. We should specify exactly what type of capacity building is needed, and be quicker to examine other possible reasons for failure. 

Capacity Building – Rough Notes

P: Your issue with ‘capacity building’ appears to be more semantic than substantive – that it is used as a catch-all phrase which ultimately has lost real meaning. Agreed, however, this is a general problem with language / corporate speak: ‘training’ or ‘learning and development’ are just as meaningless if endlessly used as jargon. There’s not much that can be done about that, and I really don’t see the point in discarding it as a term, it just needs to be used more carefully and picked up when used carelessly.

Q: I agree that this is a more general problem – but think it is a very serious one. It’s not just that it’s meaningless, but actively prevents thought by acting as an easy acceptable substitute. This certainly isn’t a new observation (I’ve just been reading Orwell) but perhaps particularly active in the development sector. I guess these buzzwords will never be completely discarded – but in general it should be replaced by more specific terms. (I changed the text to reflect this)

P: Your second point is more interesting, and deserves more elaboration. It seems that we have designed and then imposed a system that demands a fluency in its processes, which are alien in many contexts – a bit like declaring Latin as the language of the governing classes, and then identifying everyone who doesn’t speak it as lacking ‘capacity’. Which is interesting. And I think the detail of how ‘capacity building’ is handled at field level is particularly worthwhile considering – why are there not more rigorous training programmes, funded by Country Offices, to teach basic skills that are blocking people from furthering their careers e.g. professional written English (especially in places such as South Sudan) if English is the working language – or basic computer literacy? Or established mentoring processes / making internal training opportunities clearer and more accessible etc.. At least in South Sudan, I found my staff were excellent, often with a far more nuanced understanding of the context than any foreigners, but held back by inability to use the ‘tools’ of the system. Often trainings or capacity buildings are one-off/ad hoc courses by externals like Red R or internal two-day courses on, say, financial management or M&E. Of course this varies by agency, by country, but mostly it just seems confusing, always ‘someone else’s problem’ and a problem rather than an opportunity. Wouldn’t it make more sense to identify the basic building blocks and have longer, several month long courses that invest in staff in the long term, rather than seeing ‘capacity’ as something that can be fixed with a one-off training (or then, can’t!) ?

Q: I love your latin metaphor. Part of the problem is that the ‘tools’ of the system are often communication; an ability to convey these nuanced understandings and convey this deep knowledge. This isn’t something that is easy to teach but maybe does need to be more clearly addressed. I completely agree about the inadequacy of current capacity building courses – better use of online learning, mentoring rather than training, more on-the-job learning are all essential.

However, in a sector characterised by very rapid turnover, it actually makes little sense to invest heavily in staff. There are several possible answers to this – for example, improving HR practices, more opportunities for career progression within each organisation, more opportunities for national staff to join as international workers. But it is also a sector-wide problem that needs a sector-wide response; joint training courses which all major NGOs contribute to, on the understanding that everyone will reap the benefits. It’s a tragedy of the commons problem- staff are shared resources which nobody wants to invest in.

P:  I would argue that issues with capacity building sit within a wider frame of the professionalisation drive. There is a lot of exciting initiatives focussed on professionalising core knowledges and skills in the humanitarian and development sectors – but the trouble is, as is endemic in the industry – it is ad hoc, agency dependent and not yet properly coherent. Perhaps the focus on capacity displays the attempt to professionalise i.e. invest in skills and training of staff – but not yet established enough to be considered as actual ‘education’?

P: A final comment – actually more of a question – to what extent do you think that ‘capacity’ is solely used for national staff i.e. non-Western? Do white, middle class, Western staff ever suffer from lack of capacity, or are they just overworked and perhaps inexperienced for the particular role? Is there a sniff of racism, or is this just pointless paranoia?

Q: Well, the blog post was sparked by the observation that white, middle-class Western staff were also being described as ‘having a lack of capacity’ – which really made me question whether there was any meaning to the term.

You are partially right about the different way in which the word is applied. However, there are no shortage of training/capacity building courses for middle class staff – if anything, there is more of a focus on that then for national staff. I suppose the problem is the assumption that a poorly written report (for example) reflects the fact that the author doesn’t know anything, rather than that they don’t have a good grasp of English. I suppose you could call that racism if you’ve had a bad day. But I’m generally cautious about using such an emotive word without good reason – maybe another blog post there?