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Capacity Development 

The process through which individuals, organizations and societies obtain, strengthen and maintain the capabilities to set and achieve their own development objectives over time.

United Nations Development Program (2008), p 1-2. Supporting Capacity Development: the UNDP Approach. New York. Retrieved on June 22, 2008, from 

Capacity development is a more normative and less technique-oriented concept than institutional strengthening or institutional development. (Morgan, quoted in Smillie, 2001, pp. 7-23)

Fukuda-Parr, S., C. Lopes, and K. Malik (eds.) (2002a). Capacity for Development Cooperation: New Solutions to Old Problems. New York/London: UNDP, Earthscan.

Fukuda-Parr, S., C. Lopes, and K. Malik (2002b). “Overview”, pp. 1-21, in S. Fukuda-Parr, C. Lopes, and K. Malik, eds., Capacity for Development Cooperation: New Solutions to Old Problems. New York/London: UNDP, Earthscan

Smillie, I. (2001b). “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.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) (2008b). “Capacity Development”. Retrieved on June 22, 2008, from

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) (2008c). Supporting Capacity Development: the UNDP Approach. New York. Retrieved on June 22, 2008, from

According to UNDP, capacity development is much more than supporting training programmes and the use of national expertise – these are necessary and on the rise, but it is important to include response and support strategies for accountable leadership, investments in long-term education and learning, strengthened public systems and voice mechanisms between citizen and state and institutional reform that ensures a responsive public and private sector that manages and delivers services to those who need them most.

The UNDP approach to supporting capacity development brings together a value base, a conceptual framework and a methodological approach. It is underpinned by the following basic principles:

·         It gives tangible expression to the concept of national ownership, which is about the capabilities of making informed choices and decisions.

·         It is not power-neutral and involves relationships, mind sets and behaviour change. It therefore emphasises the importance of motivation as a driver of change.

·         It is a long-term process and can be promoted through a combination of shorter-term, often externally driven results and more sustainable, locally driven, longer-term ones.

·         It requires staying engaged under difficult circumstances.

·         It links the enabling environment, the organisational level and the individual level, promoting an interdependent approach.

·         It moves beyond a singular focus on training to address broader questions of institutional change, leadership, empowerment, and public participation.

·         It emphasises the use of national systems, beyond the use of national plans and expertise. It questions the use of stand-alone implementation units; if national systems are not strong enough, they should be reformed and strengthened, rather than bypassed.

·         It demands adaptation to the local reality. There are no blueprints. It must start from the specific capacity requirements and performance expectations of the environment, sector or organisation it supports.

·         It demands a link to a broader set of reforms, such as education reform, wage reform and civil service reform, to be effective. There is little value in capacity development initiatives that are designed as one-offs or in isolation.

·         It results in unintended (capacity) consequences. This must be kept in mind during the design phase and should be valued, tracked and evaluated.

·         It provides a systematic approach to measuring capacity development, with the use of “good practice” indicators, case evidence and available data analysis. It also brings together quantitative and qualitative data to give grounding and objectivity to perceptions and judgments on capacity assets, needs and progress.

(UNDP, 2008c, pp. 1-2)

Capacity development is a more normative and less technique-oriented concept than institutional strengthening or institutional development. It is the ability of individuals, groups, institutions, organizations and societies to identify and meet development challenges over time. It implies reshaping the relationship between donors and developing countries with the objective of making endogenous capacities the central focus of attention. It sets the strengthening or development of individual organizations in a much broader framework of sectoral or national efforts to improve development capabilities.

(Morgan, quoted in Smillie, 2001, pp. 7-23)

The concept of capacity development has evolved significantly - from a narrow preoccupation with training and technical assistance to dealing with the capacity of individuals, organizations, and the broader institutional framework in which they operate to deliver specific tasks and mandates. The literature underlines the distinction between capacity development and human resource-development: capacity is more than the capacity of individuals to do specific tasks, and it is not limited to training and technical assistance. The expansion in levels (individuals, organizations, and institutions) and in instruments (training, incentives, leadership development, and organizational change) has linked capacity development closely with governance - the traditions, institutions, and processes by which the state acquires and exercises the authority to provide public goods and services (Box 1).

Capacity development interventions should address the requirements of an effective state and engaged society. An effective state delivers public goods and services to the population, provides an enabling environment for growth and private sector development, and ensures peace and security. An engaged society participates in public decision making, contributes to the provision of public goods and services, and holds authorities accountable for the means and results of public action. Societal engagement is thus both an end and a means. The capacity development efforts needed entail three capacity levels (human, organizational, institutional) for the effective state and the engaged society (Table 2 and Figure 2).

Box 1. Key Features of Capacity Development

First, enhanced capacity should be treated as a goal in its own right, not merely as a means for achieving other development objectives. The capacity building approach (of the early 1990s) emphasized that a root cause of poverty, illiteracy, and ill-health was lack of capacity: in government, to design and implement proper development strategies, and, in society, to hold government accountable for its actions. Only if political and economic institutions functioned properly would development achievements be scalable and sustainable.

Second, support for public sector capacity building needs to address three dimensions of public sector capacity:

Human capacity: individuals with skills to analyze development needs; design and implement strategies, policies and programs; deliver services; and monitor results.

Organizational capacity: groups of individuals bound by a common purpose, with clear objectives and the internal structures, processes, systems, staffing, and other resources to achieve them.

Institutional capacity: the formal “rules of the game” and informal norms - for example, in collecting taxes, reporting on the use of public resources, or regulating private business - that provide the framework of goals and incentives within which organizations and people operate.

Third, demand as well as supply factors shape capacity constraints and capacity building opportunities and outcomes. Public sectors are often weak. Not just because of their lack of capacity, but also because their weakness benefits powerful interests.

Therefore, capacity building efforts will succeed only where they take adequate account of the prevailing local politics and institutions, and are country owned rather than donor driven.”

Source: World Bank, 2005a, pp.7-8.

Table 2. Capacity Development Issues and Levels

Capacity Level

Effective State

Engaged Society


Skills, professionalism

Capable social actors


Performance, incentives

Access to information / decisions


Good governance

Open space for participation

Figure 2. Capacity Development Goals, Outcomes, and Processes


 (WB, 2005, pp. 14-16)



According to Fukuda-Parr (2002, pp. 9, 10 & 20) capacity development needs to be addressed at three levels: individual, institutional and societal.

  • Individual: This involves enabling individuals to embark on a continuous process of learning - building on existing knowledge and skills, and extending these in new directions as fresh opportunities appear.
  • Institutional: This too involves building on existing capacities. Rather than trying to construct new institutions, such as agricultural research centres or legal aid centres, on the basis of foreign blueprints, governments and donors instead need to seek out existing initiatives, however nascent, and encourage these to grow.
  • Societal: This involves capacities in the society as a whole, or a transformation for development. An example is creating the kinds of opportunities, whether in the public or private sector, that enables people to use and expand their capacities to the fullest. Without such opportunities, people will find that their skills rapidly erode, or become obsolete. And if they find no opportunities locally, trained people will join the brain drain and take their skills overseas.

All of these layers of capacity are mutually interdependent. If one or the other is pursued on its own, development becomes skewed and inefficient. One source of confusion here is that capacity development is typically also understood as human resource development. This is unfortunate. Capacity development is a larger concept. It refers not merely to the acquisition of skills, but also to the capability to use them. This in turn is not only about employment structures, but also about social capital and the different reasons why people start engaging in civic action.

This more rounded view of capacity development contrasts with previous convictions that all that was required for the poorest countries to move forward was to slim down their public administrations and to reduce market distortions - to “get the prices right”. This may have balanced national budgets, but it also tended to erode local capacity. There is an advantage to getting prices right, but it is even more important to get the capacities right.

If technical cooperation is to work for capacity development, only institutional innovations - new models - most appropriate to today’s social and economic environment will overcome constraints and challenges. This means:

  • starting with the motto “scan globally, reinvent locally”;
  • trying out new methods—such as networks that make the best use of new types of learning; and
  • trying out innovations that address asymmetry in donor-recipient relationships, such as pooling technical cooperation funds and developing forums for discussion among southern nations.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in developing such innovations lies in the human mind itself, which can remain imprisoned in old assumptions and practices. Institutional innovations will have to be built on new assumptions about the nature of development, effective development cooperation, the aid relationship, capacity development and knowledge. These assumptions have to shift to new assumptions in order to build a new paradigm. The key elements are listed in Table 3.

Table 3. A New Paradigm for Capacity Development

Capacity development is arguably one of the central development challenges of the day, as much of the rest of social and economic progress will depend on it. To begin with, it is an imperative for economic survival in today’s knowledge-based market environment. But if the purpose of human development is to extend human capabilities, then capacity development is not merely a stepping stone towards higher levels of human development; it is an end in itself. For individuals, for institutions and for societies, this demands a continuous process of learning and relearning - from each other and from the world around them.

If all the stakeholders are to make fundamental progress, they will need to experiment with new approaches and seize fresh opportunities presented in the network age. Jointly, through this new paradigm, they will need to design institutional innovations to support capacity development.

(Fukuda-Parr, 2002, pp. 9, 10 & 20)



For the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the capacity development process consists of five following steps that are embedded into a programming process (Figure 3):

(1). Engage stakeholders on capacity development

(2). Assess capacity assets and needs

(3). Formulate a capacity development response

(4). Implement a capacity development response

(5). Evaluate capacity development

 Figure 3. Capacity Development Process

Important Notices
© University of Toronto 2008
School of Public Policy and Governance