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Capacity Building 

A process through which people of a given society are motivated to transform their physical, socioeconomic, cultural, political, and spiritual environments for their own well-being and the advancement of their society.

Turay, T. (2001). “Sierra Leone: Peacebuilding in Purgatory”, pp. 157-173, in Smillie, ed., Patronage or Partnership: Local Capacity Building in Humanitarian Crises. Ottawa: IDRC/Kumarian Press. 


The following is from Ian Smiliie (Smillie, 2001, pp. 7-23) :

"Capacity building, often used synonymously with institution building, institutional development, and organizational development, is in some ways as old as development assistance itself. Slogans such as "helping people to help themselves" point directly at capacity building. The proverb "teach a man to fish" is about building capacity for self-sufficiency. In the 1950s and 1960s, community development focused on building self-help capacities within rural communities. A major purpose of technical assistance has always been to enhance the capacities of individuals and institutions through training, research, and counterpart relationships. Schools, vocational training, and universities all aim to build human capacities for self-development.

The 1969 Pearson Commission Report on international development—the first of many such commissions - spoke extensively of the need to build administrative capacity in developing countries, especially capacity to absorb political and economic change (Pearson, 1969, p. 232). In 1974, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) coined the term capacitation, suggesting that: “A "capacitating" operation does not try so much to define or control the future as to establish present conditions or capacities that will permit a given society to meet its problems in the future. The emphasis in such an approach is not on setting future appropriate output targets but on diagnosing current weaknesses and potentials, finding appropriate policies and constantly monitoring the course of development.” (Wolfe, quoted in Eade, 1997, p. 16).

Morgan has tracked the concept of capacity building from its origins in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was based to a large extent on the idea of equipping developing countries with a basic inventory of public sector institutions and, later, strengthening them to improve their performance. By the 1980s, the idea of institutional development had gained several new features. In addition to government, the private sector and NGOs had been added to the mix. The time frame had also changed, with institutional development seen as a longer-term process of restructuring and institutional change. It had become "more concerned about the adaptability and responsiveness of development institutions … [and it had] moved beyond the framework of individual organizations. For the first time institutional analysis began to look at sectoral perspectives and at groups of institutions. … Finally, institutional development began to address itself to the sustainability issue—not just the 'what works?' question, but the 'what lasts?' question." (Morgan, 1994, p. 9).

What is "capacity building"? That is the problem. It includes everything that was covered by the different definitions of "institution building" and much more besides. … Aid agencies would be wise to have no truck with the new jargon of "capacity building" and to insist on using language and terms that have identifiable and precise meanings. (Moore, quoted in Eade, 1997, p. 9).

Moore's imprecation notwithstanding, it is impossible to avoid a term that is in such widespread use. Part of its definitional problem has to do with target and purpose. In some cases individuals, a community, or an organization are to be strengthened. In others, the target is a sector, such as agricultural or health, while in others the target may be an entire societal subset. Fowler has helped to sort this out by separating organizational development from sectoral development and institutional development, the latter representing a broad cross section of organizations, such as informal sector entrepreneurs, or "civil society."

Another area of necessary clarification has to do with the purpose of a capacity building effort. In some cases, capacity building may be seen as the means to an end—for example, enhancing the capacity of a local NGO to deliver emergency assistance. In others, the end may be more important than the means—the development of an organization capable of developing and managing its own programs and strategies independently of outsiders. In some cases, the process of capacity building may be more important than either the means or the ends—such as the stimulation of greater coherence around an issue or within a community. Table 1, adapted from a typology created by Fowler, is an attempt to distinguish both target and purpose in capacity building. This sort of typology suggests that capacity building is considerably more complex than originally conceived in the training programs and technical assistance of the early development decades. It also suggests that capacity building requires serious attention to target and purpose, as well as to considerations of process. And it helps to explain why capacity building seems to have had little success over four or five decades of experimentation. The reason is that it was usually and unambitiously lodged in the upper-left sector (under "Means") of Table 1, strengthening the capacity of organizations to carry out specific functions, often designed by outsiders."

Table 1. Concepts of Capacity Building (adapted from Fowler, 1997, p. 188)





Building the capacity of an organization: organizational development

Strengthens the organization's ability to perform specific functions, such as refugee-camp management

Builds coherence within internal operations; develops the possibility of continued learning and adaptation

Improves the organization's viability, sustainability, and impact in relation to its mission

Building the capacity of an institutional subsector (e.g., health, credit, emergency assistance): sectoral development

Strengthens the ability of the sector or subsector to improve its overall impact

Develops mutually supporting relations and understanding within the sector or subsector

Achieves confident and meaningful interaction with other sectors and social actors based on shared strategies and learning

Building the capacity of civil society: institutional development

Improves the ability of primary stakeholders to identify and carry out activities to solve problems

Enables and stimulates better interaction, communication, conflict resolution in society, enhancing social capital

Increases the ability of primary stakeholders to engage with and influence the political arena and the socio-economic system in accordance with their interests


"After almost half a century of conceptual refinement and considerable shortcomings in practice, capacity development has moved beyond simple ideas of organizations and human resource development. Rather, capacity building involves the whole network of relationships in society: within, between and among households, neighborhoods, grassroots or community-based organizations, unions, religious confessions, training institutions, research bodies, government ministries, the private sector, NGOs and donor agencies—whether official or nongovernmental, Northern or Southern. Capacity building is also concerned with creating new relationships of mutuality and reciprocity within a given society and beyond (Eade, 1997, pp. 21-22).

These definitions, and others like them, draw on the (mostly inconclusive) capacity building experience of several decades. The problem is not so much the definitions as the context into which they must fit. Because contexts differ so widely and because the intent of a capacity building effort may differ from one agency or one situation to another, writers offer general, all-inclusive, and high-sounding definitions. These no doubt bewilder the average field-based project officer who must decide whether to give a training course or to "build civil society"—or, more pointedly, whether to forget about the long term and to take immediate action in aid of people who are "dying like flies" in the here and now. Context, purpose, and target will ensure that an appropriate approach in one situation is inappropriate in another.

To conclude, in order to be effective, a capacity building approach must be clear in its purpose: does it intend to create a specific capacity within a single organization, or does it aim to build the institution and its capacity to undertake independent thought and action? Second, the target must be clear— whether a single organization, a sectoral activity such as health delivery, or an institutional subset such as civil society. The time required and the complexity of the exercise will increase depending on the depth of change envisaged. The simple transfer of information may not require great effort, but building knowledge, changing behavior, and altering attitudes require investments with significantly different orders of magnitude."


Smillie, I. (2001). “Capacity Building and the Humanitarian Enterprise”, pp. 7-23, in Smillie, ed., Patronage or Partnership: Local Capacity Building in Humanitarian Crises. Ottawa: IDRC/Kumarian Press.

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