This week a news item caught my attention, an interview piece with Saleem Huq, the director of International Centre for Climate Change and Development. The commentary focused on the issue of capacity building, climate finance and how this is being dealt with in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
This is often a heated topic for debate especially when it comes to overseas aid and now climate finance: how do you build capacity in people and organisations in a way that is meaningful and effective?
This is not obviously just an issue for development aid or for developing countries; many organisations also struggle with how to effectively build capacity of their staff.
Capacity building: the common story
Saleem’s explanation of how this happens is worth a read (read here) but it pretty much tells a simple but familiar story where a consultant goes to a country, depending on the contract spends some time there, runs a few workshops, flies back home, files a report, makes recommendations and gets paid.
As Saleem aptly notes,“most of the money that has been spent (I won’t say “invested”) has gone to private companies in the developed country that allocated the money and if any capacity has been built it has been of those “consultants”.
Now, the objectives of the project or program have been fulfilled. Yet, at the country level, the real question is what was left behind.
This is what one of my good friends from Vanuatu calls “capacity substitution” and not capacity building.
True capacity building is where you leave something behind e.g. a set of skills that people can continue to use in the long-term, a system that keeps generating that knowledge in a way that has long-lasting impact on how a particular job is done.
So why is it so easy to accept the mantra of “let’s build some capacity” but so difficult to actually define what that means in practice, let alone to implement capacity building in a meaningful way?
Short-term learning sucks
I have my own capacity building stories as well.
I once participated in a program that was supposed to boost my capacity as a leader. The program consisted of attending three workshops in a year, without any follow-up in between.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Attending workshops is invigorating when you have a chance to really focus on a topic, meet new people, gain new knowledge and share experiences. I am not against workshops.
But I am against short-term learning.
At the time, I was lucky enough to be already in the Coaching for Leaders Academy, a community that has truly changed my life and my leadership group who keep me accountable for who I am and can be.
Leadership is something that can be learned but it needs long-term commitment, everyday practice and constant monitoring of your own behaviour, those of others, and deep on-going self-reflection of values and principles.
Many capacity building programs and projects however use the tip of the iceberg model where individuals gather together for a burst of knowledge and then return back to work or their institutions without a long-term plan how they should use that knowledge or how they should grow as leaders.
Or the all too common model that Saleem notes in his article where only one person travels to another country and provides his/her expertise without being able to develop long-term systems to build specific capacities within that country or department or organisation.
How to judge value
But I don’t want to be too cynical here either. In order to truly understand what capacity building means, we also need to ask those whose capacity is being built.
Some people like the workshop model and it suits them well. Some are too busy to engage in a more long-term format and can find such short meetings more valuable.
But I would say that the majority of us need the long-term view and commitment to change things and learn new skills.
Still, the value of a capacity building program ultimately lies with those who participate.
If we want to truly understand what value for example “building resilience” or “capacity building for climate adaptation” workshops, programs and projects have, we need to do a proper follow-up to see how such knowledge and skills have changed people’s lives.
We need to also think how we can truly built systems that are long-lasting and can help people not only to learn new skills but also maintain those skills in a changing context.
There is no silver bullet here as each individual and organisation is different in their needs, ways of learning, and commitment to then implement what they have learned and have capacity for.
New paradigm for learning and building capacity?
But perhaps it is time to start thinking in a more long-term systematic way what the target group whose capacity we want to build needs, the best modes of learning to deliver access to new knowledge and skills, and how we can then measure and evaluate what success looks like in that context.
Saleem suggests investing more in universities that are building capacity and have a track record in doing so.
This is not a bad idea especially given how universities are now becoming more flexible in the way they teach, embracing new opportunities such as flipped classrooms where students go through material at home and come to class to debate and reflect.
If we are serious about capacity building, we need to truly innovate in the way we design such programs and projects, delivering value to the participants directly, and enabling long-term sustainability of those skills and systems.
I am very excited to see what kinds of innovations emerge and are embraced in this area, and of course continue to advocate for lifelong learning as the main capacity building skill that we all need.