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The Capacity Building Game

The Capacity Building Game

By Makarand Sahasrabuddhe

A few years ago I was travelling in India with a man working with a grassroots NGO. He was going from one workshop to another. This is the dialogue we had:

Me: What is your role?
He: I am the learning officer in (name of NGO).
Me: Yes but what do you do?
He: I participate in all workshops that (name of NGO) gets invited to.
Me: but surely you must be specialising in an area?
He: No. You see I am a graduate and I know a lot. Over the last six months I have been to gender, human rights, Non-formal-education, M&E and Reproductive rights trainings. Most of these were organised by donors who make grants to (name of NGO). Very often project people cannot go since they have implementation deadlines and so I go.
Me: (still not taking this one seriously) Hmm but what happens when you have 2-3 workshops in a row? Don’t you get the subjects muddled up by the time you get back to your office?
He: No no. It cannot happen. I have different notebooks for different workshops.
Me: speechless till today

So why am I breaking my silence today?

Well over the last two weeks I have been hearing the term ‘capacity building’ over and over. The height was the long Skype chat I just finished with an NGO I had been associated with in India. They were brainstorming with me on some capacity building venture they were planning. I found that they were clueless on why they wanted to build capacities, what would be achieved – all they knew was that they had a grant to build capacities of youth. I was appalled and felt that I had to get this out of my system before a new week began.

This is of course not a stray case. Most development workers, myself included, often get irresistible urges to build capacities of others.

  • Managers want to build capacities of staff.
  • Staff want to build capacities of partners.
  • Partners want to build capacities of communities.
  • and consultants and trainers (oops facilitators) laugh all the way to the bank.

I am surprised that with all the capacity building that has been going on for decades, we still have someone whose capacities need to be built left in the world. Many a time capacity building is just a euphemism for cramming 30 people in a room for a few days and trying to kill them with power-points and flipcharts and group work (that also takes care of the ‘participation’).  

Does one get to see improved social capital or skills then?

Well. Not really. Otherwise why would NGOs who have gone through at least 10 different capacity building exercises on Monitoring and Evaluation be completely unable to develop a simple framework that can tell anyone who wants to know if their work is making a difference? (true story)

I think that the biggest reason why capacity building does not work is because it is often in an area that the capacity builders are interested in. The buildees(not a word I love but just a play on the mentor : mentee that I keep hearing) could not care too much.

I am reminded of Sir Humphrey Appleby saying:

“Bernard, subsidy is for art, for culture. It is not to be given to what the people want! If they want it, they will pay for it. It is for what the people don’t want but ought to have!”

Just replace ‘subsidy’ with ‘capacities’.

A few other reasons why capacity building does not work are:

  • Boring methods
  • Condescending and / or contextually clueless facilitators
  • Poor design, often top down
  • Participants unable to relate subject to their work
  • Mismatched incentives of builders and buildees

Finally, I think that any capacity building must be followed by letting go. If you want to build capacities of communities to decide for themselves and take action, you cannot insist that they take action in an area that you are interested in. It is for the community to decide what to do and how. The art of letting go and losing control is not one that most of us development workers have any mastery over.

I am not saying that all capacity building is useless. However, I would like to see these efforts being made in a bit more strategic manner. IMO capacity building should include:

  • Setting objectives jointly – understanding the areas where capacities are to be built and how the builders and buildees see it.
  • Understanding the incentives of both groups – hopefully there is sufficient overlap.
  • Understanding what it means when capacities are built – how will it look like, what will be the change, how will one know that change has happened.
  • Determining the processes that will aid in capacity building – obviously training can be one of them but is not the only one for sure. You have exposure, learning while doing, mentoring etc
  • Ensuring that the buildee has the opportunity to practice what (s)he learnt, make mistakes and have help in getting them corrected.


Makarand Sahasrabuddhe is a development practitioner and who has been working in the field for over 17 years.  He have traveled and worked extensively across South Asia. He had the opportunity of working for a short time in the South Caucuses region.  He is presently working with Oxfam GB in the Horn, East and Central Africa Regional Centre, based out of Nairobi. His views expressed are his alone and may not represent the views of the organisation that he is working with. This is a crosspost with his own blog here.


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9 thoughts on “The Capacity Building Game

  1. […] extremely misleading. As Makarand Sahasrabuddhe said: “Many a time capacity building is just a euphemism for cramming 30 people in a room for a few […]

  2. For an industry that hates generaliziations, we sure like to generalize. To say all capacity building is bad because it is done poorly simply sounds bitter. Rather that say “I would like to see it done…”, why not start doing it that way?

    Building capacity (when done well) is a hell of a lot more valuable to our counterparts than buying them something. There are plenty of cases of capacity building done well that have helped to lift organizations to greater heights in a very sustainable manner.

    We are much much better at building capacity than we were 20 years ago, and we are getting better at it all the time. Its now clear that our objectives is to help our counterparts help themselves, and most of the projects I’ve been associated with strive to do that, even if they aren’t fully equipped with the right tools to do it.

    The future of development IS capacity building. This is what the developing nations are demanding in the Paris and Accra Summits, and this is where the money is going. I think its vital to contribute to the debate not with negativity, but with clear ideas of how we can make this work.

    1. This post did not say all capacity building is bad.

      If anything it is an argument for MORE capacity building done better.

      It is a very familiar and well-formed critique that is thankfully not buried in a wonky working paper, academic journal, or the forgotten bowels of a development think tank.

      Sometimes a sharp critique is perceived as being negative in a context where the dominant narrative in the literature, conversation, is overly positive.

      Let’s face it, we capacity-builders are often more celebratory than self-critical.

      When they are self-critical, the voices of the so-called partners are marginal.

      It also points out that the problem is not with capacity building per-se, but who defines it, the lines of accountability, the measures of success, the dynamics of funding, and the importance of learning and feedback.

      I really appreciate Makarand’s very concrete and sensible recommendations as a starting point for an extremely important discussion.

    2. Geir Sundet

      Building capacity more valuable than buying them something… This reminds me of the Hungry Man book, “If a man his hungry, don’t give him a fish … organise a workshop … agree on clear objectives … don’t forget advocacy … participation … and the sustainable mainstreaming of gender.” For anyone who has not seen this classic work yet, look here –

  3. Joann Ricci

    I agree and want to weigh in on a few strategies we use at the Greater New Orleans Foundation to ensure the “capacity building” and more important, learning, works for everyone.

    First, we co-design based on what practitioners in the field tell us they need. We surveyed and convened over 200 npo leaders before we did anything

    Second, we asked folks from the nonprofits in our community if they would serve on a “design team” to share their wisdom, insights and talk about what works and doesn’t and connect that information in the development.

    Third, we develop and implement the offerings with folks who work in nonprofits and do the work. And we offer a variety of offerings–101 trainings, coaching, communities of practice, case studies, and open this up to executive directors, board members and other staff.

  4. Great story!

    As a gatekeeper in the field of philanthropy, I love the term “capacity building”.

    It is such a meaningless term loaded with all of the negative associations that you highlight, that when I hear or read it repeatedly (and gosh, don’t we love to repeat it as if it has some deep totemic power?) I know that 99% of the time the project will lack substance, focus, or urgency.

    Why is it always about the builders and why does everyone continue to get away with it if so much of it is a charade?

    1. Excellent question. One that I have pondered over. Before I get into the reasons, I think that we have to agree on the fact that capacity building per se is not a terrible idea. A large number of development ills ARE related to low capacities; be they skills, perspectives or behaviours.

      Then what is the problem? Why don’t we achieve anything? A few probable reasons from my side

      1. The capacity builders, in general, come from relatively privileged classes (does not matter what level of capacity building we are talking of) and therefore tend to genuinely believe that *they know better*. This leads to a top-down approach based on what one party thinks is right – the result? The buildees could not give a hoot.
      2. Donors support in good faith because, as we have agreed, capacity building is required. However, having once supported they do not follow through with the right questions. They ask – (a) have you done the CB? (b) did you write the report, (c) have you spend the money in accordance with the contract terms. They rarely ask (a) what change has happened in the buildees? (b) how do you know? (c) where do they and you go next? (d) what have YOU learnt?

      The day builders drop a ‘know-all’ attitude and the day we start asking the right questions, we will see a change.

      1. The use of the term ‘capacity building’ is grossly misunderstood by some of the users as well as those who listen / hear such a jargon. It is different from training (as I see from the 9 words that you hate in the development sector); training and capacity building are used interchangeably, where as both are different and distinct from each other. I fully endorse on the ‘know all-attitude’ of some trainers (facilitators in capacity building).

        As regards evaluation, neither the donor nor the organization the staff of whom get the training or attend the workshop, include evaluation in the whole scheme. Need assessment by the organization, which is duly analyzed by the donor does not exist in most cases, which makes any evaluation post such training or ‘capacity building’ irrelevant.

        But what makes it irrelevant- is it the statistics – target and achievement to be reported and not measuring and reporting the qualitative issues? I am of the opinion that a target driven approach – donor’s targets of funds received and ‘utilized’, number of people trained, the ‘ beneficiary’ organization’s capacity to use the funds in the budgeted period, number of people trained vis-a-vis targeted, verifying/inspecting organizations analyzing the reasons for not achieving or achieving and overachieving the targets and its effect on funds-‘sic’ – leads to the loss of quality in such issues.

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