Some advice for those managing large capacity development projects
June 29, 2012 - Ajoy Datta, Overseas Development Institute, UK
Donors invest a significant amount of their Southern research funding on developing capacities to produce and use research knowledge. Given the inherent difficulties of pursuing such ends, especially in rapidly developing societies, what advice can be given to would-be consultants tasked with developing capacities sustainably? This is a question explored by a recent paper by Ajoy Datta, Louise Shaxson and Arnaldo Pellini who reflect on recent experiences of the ODI’s Research and Policy in Development programme in managing relatively large capacity development projects.
The paper’s primary message is an obvious one - capacity development as a deliberate process is an inherently political one. If change processes are not owned and led by those whose capacity is being developed, they are unlikely to happen (or, if they do, to be sustainable). Political pressure – internally or externally – is key – without which capacity is unlikely to improve sustainably. And unless an organisation has a clear idea of where it is going and why, capacity development efforts may well run into the sand. Funders, consultants and clients need to allocate time during the inception phase of a project (or even during a pre-project phase) to consider the full ramifications of developing capacities, not shying away from some of the more political aspects. During this, consultants can help actors with sufficient power and influence within the client organisation to understand what is happening in their organisation, develop a vision of what they want it to be in future and a strategy to help them to get there. In other words, they need to understand how organisational change happens and how they can best engage with it. This might involve strengthening an organisation’s vision and mission, in addition to improving individual skills and abilities to help the organisation as a whole achieve its goals.
Secondly, approaches focused on single entities have tended to be limited in their impact as they do not deal sufficiently well with actors and their relationships with one another. Hence, capacity development needs to focus not just on the capacities needed to produce technical results, but also on what it takes to build more effective and dynamic relationships between different actors within a system (be it an organisation, a sector or a country). More advanced capacity development approaches such as action learning, knowledge networks and multi-stakeholder platforms have complemented the more traditional methods such as workshops and study tours. However, despite this expanded repertoire, traditional approaches still tend to dominate, particularly in developing countries, perhaps because clients may be more risk-averse in selecting newer tools. Nevertheless, practitioners should select approaches that do not rigidly apply a single method but seek to combine different approaches that promote longer or periodic engagement and address the needs identified. But without investing considerable time in building up trust in the relationship between client and consultant, and in the process of learning about the organisation, projects may remain stuck in fairly conventional approaches to capacity building.
Thirdly, negotiating exactly what the consultant is responsible for (e.g. outputs or outcomes) using Champion's consulting grid can help all parties to clarify what types of relationship are needed for particular tasks and what approach to managing the project they should take, and allow for structured discussion of the internal political issues. If at one end of the spectrum, consultants are asked ‘simply’ to deliver outputs and activities, the Logical Framework Approach (LFA) remains a useful project management methodology, enabling them to measure the quality of outputs against predefined targets. However, if consultants are asked to work with the client (in partnership) and take some responsibility for say, achieving greater levels of capacity, they need to reflect on the effect that outputs and activities have on the organisation/environment. Continuous or at least regular monitoring and learning become critical activities to help consultants together with the client capture both anticipated and unanticipated changes (if any), confirm, improve or reconfigure the project team’s understanding of how change is likely to come about and respond appropriately. Where consultants are responsible for outcomes (such as changes in capacity) as well as outputs (such as workshops and manuals) the Outcome Mapping methodology provides a set of steps and tools to help to manage the process. These help teams to gather information, and make decisions, about a project’s contribution to behavioural change among actors the project has direct interaction with. It encourages reflexive practice, continuous learning, flexibility, participation and accountability. However, for the project team to be reflexive learners, the client’s, funder’s and especially the consultant’s organisations need to facilitate this through its own learning culture and systems.
Fourthly, promoting capacity development can be a difficult process: it needs an appreciation of many domains of knowledge and many disciplines including organisational development and management science; multi-stakeholder processes; related insights from social and political science; and behavioural psychology; as well as being able to listen deeply and understand how consultants’ own motives and world views affect their perceptions of events and dynamics within a particular setting. Like for doctors and teachers, an understanding of these issues is not necessarily brought about through formal teaching processes. Hands-on experience is also crucial, through, for instance, immersion in context and learning by doing. Furthermore, capacity development services are often overseen by Northern-based organisations, with local capacity development providers, although growing in number, still playing a marginal role. While foreign organisations may have staff with excellent technical skills, they often lack, for instance, an in-depth understanding of the local context and cultural sensitivities; are unable to speak the local languages; or may be unfamiliar with professional, formal and informal networks. Moreover, Northern consultants building capacities of Southern organisations can, if not carefully managed, reinforce existing power and knowledge asymmetries. Hence, there is significant merit in deploying local capacity developers, either on their own or in collaboration with Northern counterparts.