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.