Memo to Aid World: Drop “Capacity Building”

March 24, 2014

I have always chafed at the idea of “capacity building” – a donor fallback in developing countries whenever progress on a donor-financed project is slow. Too much of what donors mean by capacity building has turned out to be training sessions, workshops, and nice trips of mid-level technical staff from low-income countries to Paris, London, and Washington.

The problem is not individual “capacity” (there are lots of competent people in ministries in low-income countries), but limited organizational “capability” – whether because of poor incentives, longstanding organizational culture based on hierarchy and compliance, or government ministries built on patronage instead of performance.

Here is a refreshing new report from Australia that says the same (in a more discreet manner). 

"Where there is no consensus [on the principles, purpose and functions of… institutions], international assistance may more usefully focus on supporting the underlying mechanisms of change (e.g. processes of representation, consultation, networking and information flows), and the organizations through which different social interests are expressed (e.g. business associations, trade unions and non-government organizations)."

Moreover, donor-sponsored evaluations too often fall back on “lack of capacity” to explain lack of progress. From the report:

"The [evaluation] found that advisers from the…mission to Solomon Islands frequently attributed lack of progress to the extreme lack of capacity within the Solomon Islands Government; in the view of the evaluators, attention should be focused on how to do more with the capacity that already exists."


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.