This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
After several decades of unsuccessful development efforts in Africa, the international development community has reached consensus that good governance is a “critical prerequisite for sustaining development.” Good governance is in turn seen as contingent upon “environments of developed human and institutional capacities,” which has led to a proliferation of capacity building programs. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), as of 2011, overseas development assistance invested in technical cooperation in the last 50 years amounts to “as much as USD 400 billion, […] of which training and other learning-oriented programs constitute a prominent part.” However, due to the dominant prescriptive, supply-driven, one-size-fits-all, and fragmented nature of most such initiatives, the majority have failed to achieve meaningful results. For example, less than one third of the civil service reform projects implemented by the World Bank between 1987 and 1997 “were rated satisfactory.” In the last ten years, the international development community has revisited capacity building challenges in the context of its aid effectiveness agenda and outlined a strategy for shifting away from the dysfunctional old paradigm. Yet, “current practices are deeply entrenched and cannot be changed easily.” Recent evaluations show that although “understanding about the issues has deepened, little has actually been done.”
Inattention to Context
There is consensus in the recent capacity building discourse on the need for moving away from best practices and “politically unachievable” far-reaching reforms informed by the liberal democratic ideals of the Global North. The new direction is towards country-specific interventions based on a thorough understanding of the root causes of limited governance capacity in Africa, as well as the “institutional, policy and resource factors” that constrain the implementation of programs. The OECD has thus formally identified the comprehensive analysis of local contexts as “a strategic starting point in mapping out country-level action” at its High Level Forums on Aid Effectiveness. Yet, this commitment has remained mostly at the level of rhetoric, and the specific steps towards its operationalization remain unclear.
Development scholars have found that attitudinal and institutional factors such as the “non-receptivity of policy makers towards policy analysis” and the “politicization of policy making” greatly constrain the effectiveness of capacity building programs. Likewise, “process-oriented reforms which may threaten the vested interests of stakeholders […] within existing state structures” are highly susceptible to failure. Therefore, capacity building interventions need to be carefully tailored to the limits of the complex contextual environment. Where the economic and political environment is less conducive, capacity building programs should seek more “basic and politically less contentious reforms while creating opportunities for more comprehensive reform and generating momentum.”
Even before proceeding to analysis of the contextual constraints, the team charged with conducting the assessment should have a thorough understanding of the “state formation processes” of the particular country. Instead of using “imported notions of what states are, what they should do, and how they should do it,” the team should “analyze the colonial origins and legacies of the post-colonial African state.” For example, capacity building in the public sector must take into account the interests of “the social institutions of disaffected and historically marginalized communities, while also taming informal ‘client-network’ relationships that underlie formal governance structures in many African states.”
Thus, the failure to observe context through local conceptual lenses results in a distortion of analysis towards “a focus on concrete and obvious (to donors) expressions of incapacity such as the absence of certain technologies or procedures,” which “are often symptoms, not causes, of organizational and institutional dysfunction.” In the strategic peacebuilding literature, this distinction is framed as the ‘episode’ and the ‘epicenter’ of conflict. Exploration of the “relational and historical patterns” behind the current manifestation of the issue is seen as essential, since it leads the analyst to a better understanding of the “epicenter of conflict, which is always capable of generating new episodes.” This conceptual similarity between the emerging approach to capacity building and strategic peacebuilding creates an opportunity for further cross-fertilization and knowledge exchange between the two disciplines.
Disregard for Local Ownership
Along with the need for a thorough assessment of the local context, another disregarded factor in traditional capacity building interventions is that of local ownership. The old supply-driven approach based on “the transfer of knowledge and techniques from the North” in accordance with “priorities based on donors’ own resources/needs rather than [those] of recipient countries” has long since proven inadequate. The international development community has acknowledged that “activities need to be built on local interest” and an ‘inclusive partnership’ with the recipient country leadership “that harnesses the energies of all significant stakeholders.” This participatory approach has to be incorporated in all stages of the capacity building intervention, starting with a joint assessment of the context analysis to better understand the authentic causes of incapacity. A “local, endogenous process […] reflecting local priorities and interests” is thus likely to be both more effective and more sustainable in the long-term.
While local ownership is a widely espoused principle in the development literature, it is particularly relevant to capacity building interventions because their purpose is learning and “learning is an organic, internal process and ultimately any outsider’s role can only be to support its emergence.” In strategic peacebuilding, this understanding has led to the adoption of an ‘elicitive model’ of training (Lederach), which “provides a process for people to engage what they know and build on that knowledge.” Instead of “passing on to the participants the approach, strategy or technique mastered by the trainer,” the latter has the role of facilitating the simultaneous processes of knowledge sharing among participants and joint knowledge creation. Thus, by applying Lederach’s ‘elicitive model’ on both the micro level of training activities and the macro level of holistic capacity building projects, practitioners can initiate more participatory and locally owned capacity building processes.
Lack of a Systems Approach
Conventional approaches to capacity building at state institutions have presumed that “the weakness of public administration [is] managerial and could be remedied through […] technical advice and training,” failing to take into account that “public administrations are embedded in a complex, interdependent system.” The latter consists of “the bureaucratic apparatus as a whole,” as well as “political institutions and social, economic, and political interests more broadly.” Therefore, “stand-alone training interventions” unable to “capture cross-sectional issues and opportunities” are unlikely to have any significant macro-level impact. The absurdity of such fragmented linear projects is illustrated by situations in which “public agency staff is often trained for specific tasks before they are positioned to use the training or before measures are taken to retain them.” What is needed instead is a holistic approach aligning a “strategically coordinated set of activities aimed at individuals, institutions, and sectors” with the long-term project objectives.
Because of the systemic nature of the factors affecting capacity, some scholars have argued that the very concept of capacity building has to be defined as a set of closely interrelated elements, simultaneously addressing different spheres of influence. While the names different scholars use to describe these spheres and the number of spheres vary, one useful conceptual framework developed by Mulatu Wubneh identifies the following four elements: restructuring of value systems, development of human capacity, transformation of institutional capacity, and modification of organizational structure. (Appendix 1) The capacity building intervention thus aims to affect change in each of the four spheres, while taking into account the influence of the political and economic environment in which they operate, as well as the dynamic interactions among them. A strategically designed intervention hence seeks to harness the energy of the changes generated in each sphere into a synergetic macro-level change process. In addition, each of the spheres is to be seen as a ‘sub-system’ comprising of its own set of interrelated elements. Within the human capacity development sub-system, for example, some of the elements are “recruitment, training (skills), performance evaluation, remuneration and incentives.”
To manage such complex capacity building interventions, practitioners have to make explicit their working assumptions about “how and why a set of activities will bring about the changes [they] seek to achieve.” In other words, they have to develop a coherent theory of change, which will allow them to scrutinize these assumptions and ensure that the causal links between activities and objectives are well substantiated. There usually are multiple theories of change functioning on the different sub-systemic levels, as well as one overarching theory of macro change. Apart from facilitating the design and management of the change process, the theories of change are of crucial importance to its monitoring and evaluation aspect.
Systemic Peacebuilding Assessment (SPA) 
The value of the SPA in the capacity building context is in that it serves as a tool for incorporating all three of the above identified principles – quality context assessment, local ownership, and systemic intervention – into the capacity building process. It also facilitates the design of the theories of change underlying the process and the monitoring and evaluation of results. The purpose of the SPA is to “reduce the complexity of a given situation in a way that produces actionable knowledge.” It allows the practitioner to ‘step back’ and observe the way the different actors and factors within the system interact.
Ricigliano bases the SPA on a Structural, Attitudinal, and Transactional (SAT) model of systemic peacebuilding change. The structural dimension “refers to systems and institutions designed to meet people’s basic human needs.” The attitudinal level in turn captures “the shared norms, beliefs, social capital, and intergroup relationships that affect the level of cooperation between groups or people.” Finally, the transactional domain comprises the “processes and skills used by key people to peacefully manage conflict, build interpersonal relationships, solve problems collaboratively, and turn ideas into action.” There is clearly some conceptual similarity between Wubneh’s systemic view of capacity building (Appendix 1) and Ricigliano’s SAT model; for example, the value systems domain may be seen as equivalent to the attitudinal dimension. Yet, capacity building practitioners can choose to either adapt the SAT model to their context or conduct the SPA on the basis of Wubneh’s or an alternative systemic model from the capacity building literature.
The essence of the SPA is in identifying key factors in each of the SAT domains and mapping out the ‘dynamic causality’ among them. Dynamic causality, unique to a systems as opposed to a linear approach paradigm, is “the notion that any part of a system acts as both a cause and an effect.” Thus, “the impact of any one factor reverberates around the system until it comes back, in one form or another, to affect the factor that made the initial impact.” Thus, the visual systems map resulting from the SPA takes the shape of a “causal loop diagram” capturing the “causal relationships and dynamic feedback” among the different factors. Ricigliano provides detailed guidance in his book on how to draw systems maps as a useful visual tool for practitioners (See Appendix 2 for a sample map).
One of the most helpful practical aspect of the SPA is that is allows practitioners to “work with, not against, the energy and motion of the system” by “identifying and nurturing forces for change that already exist in the system,” instead of “trying to coerce people in the system into a different way of behaving.” This powerful potential of the SPA illustrates its usefulness as a tool for converging the principles of quality context assessment, local ownership, and systemic intervention. The SPA further facilitates the discernment of “leverage points” – spots in the system “where the dynamic energy of a feedback loop is likely to augment the impact of a […] program.” If, for example, in the systems map, one factor stands out as having direct links to a high number of others, and thus pressure exerted on it is likely to have “strong ripple effects,” it should be targeted with priority in the capacity building intervention.
Monitoring and Evaluation
Monitoring and evaluating (M&E) the impact of capacity building projects is challenging for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most widely acknowledged one is the presence of numerous contextual factors “that can influence participants’ performance after the training activities.” Yet, many of the difficulties, including this one, can be resolved through the use of the systems map and the theory of change developed on the basis of the SPA process.
Instead of using these tools, conventional M&E approaches tend to measure “what the agencies themselves provide,” (for example, “the number of technical systems installed, or the number of people who have completed a training seminar”) while failing to capture the effects of “what partners do.” Another common M&E shortcoming is measuring “the immediate impressions of the participants and trainers” after the completion of the activity. Even efforts to determine whether participants have successfully acquired the skills intended to be transferred during the training fall short of measuring the overall impact of the capacity building program because they are confined to just one of the spheres of the capacity building system. (Wubneh, Appendix 1)
To measure overall impact, capacity building practitioners need tools that allow them to trace the change process from the smallest intervention within each of the four spheres to the systemic macro change level. The “Ripple model” developed by Rick James serves this purposes. It visualizes the capacity building intervention as “a drop of rain which lands in water – the ripples flow outwards to bring about changes at the internal organizational level of the client and then ultimately to the level of the beneficiaries of the client.” (Appendix 3) Thus, the model provides a simple conceptual framework orienting the practitioner towards testing the theories of change developed at the beginning of the intervention. Yet, in doing so, one depends almost entirely on the clarity and detail of those theories and of the quality of the indicators set to measure the intended results on each level. Because both the theories and indicators are set at the design stage of the capacity building initiative, M&E can be seen as a path-dependent process, the parameters of which must be competently set in partnership with all stakeholders from the very beginning.
A careful review of the capacity building literature and practice in the last few decades shows that capacity building is a complex, long-term process the design and implementation of which necessitate a great amount of data collection, analysis, networking, planning, and other resource-intensive activities. To be successful, it needs to be based on a viable theory of change building on a thorough understanding of the dynamic relationships within the complex systemic context of the capacity building intervention. It requires long-term involvement and constant monitoring and evaluation to ensure that the macro change process is on track. With this realization, actors within the international development community should at the very least stop light-heartedly prescribing capacity building as a panacea solution to poor governance in Africa and the Global South more broadly. Ideally, the lessons learned from several decades of unsuccessful capacity building efforts and the emerging shift of discourse will result in a fundamental change of capacity building practices towards a long-term, elicitive, locally owned, demand-driven, and context-specific systems approach.
Source: Mulatu Wubneh, “Building Capacity in Africa: The Impact of Institutional, Policy, and Resource Factors,” African Development Review 15, no. 2-3 (2003): 170.
Source: Robert Ricigliano, Making Peace Last: A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding (Paradigm Publishers: 2012), 125.
Source: Rick James, “Practical Guidelines for the Monitoring and Evaluation of Capacity-Building: Experiences from Africa” (Occasional Paper Series No.36, INTRAC, October 2001), 8.