What people mean when they say “capacity building” varies greatly – and in important ways. So, and with apologies to Haruki Murakami, I want to clarify What I Talk about When I Talk about Capacity Building. I think of capacity building as [defn] the planned development of knowledge and skills and other capabilities through provision of targeted learning opportunities to individuals.
I have in mind a range of activities that provide structured learning opportunities for individuals and groups. Among other things, this includes training courses and series of structured topical exchanges among would-be learners with access to valuable knowledge resources.
My own work focuses on helping developing country public officials in building the skills they need; hence, when I talk about capacity building I am thinking specifically about the kinds of activities that will work for learners in this context.
Many people link capacity building implicitly to a reform process (e.g. implementing a new funding system for hospitals). Hence, when they assess whether capacity building is “working” these people would look at what is going on with the reform process. If reform implementation is stalled, they might suspect that capacity building activities were poor or implemented in a way that constrained reform progress. To assess the ultimate effectiveness of capacity building activities, they would scrutinize reform results.
That is not my definition. I recognize that provision of good quality and timely learning opportunities to individuals involved with reforms can be very helpful. However, I am uncomfortable linking capacity building to reforms. There are many opportunities to contribute to valuable development and social goals by providing learning opportunities to public officials in instances where no reform is envisaged. Even where a reform is taking place, the chain of influences that links learning support provided to reform results is typically long and complex; frequently, the complexity of this relationship makes it impossible to meaningfully assess capacity building activities’ effectiveness by scrutinizing their contribution to reform results.
Hence, I use the phrase capacity building activities to refer to learning and skill-building support for people irrespective of whether there is a reform happening (or hoped-for). I see capacity building activities as any learning opportunity that supports public officials in building the skills or accessing the knowledge they need to do their jobs better. Using this framing, capacity building activities’ effectiveness would be assessed by examining the degree to which they helped public officials to do their jobs better.