What does capacity development mean for UNDP?

01 Jan 2009

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United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) emphasizes capacity development in all its policies and programmes.

New Horizons - In November 2008 Jens Wandel, Deputy Regional Director and Regional Centre Director, was interviewed about capacity development.

Question: What does capacity development mean to you? How would you explain the concept of capacity development to someone who has never heard of it?

Answer: Capacity development is an approach to development that respects the abilities that already exist in a country, even though they may not be formal. We insist on taking the time to understand the assets that exist and find ways to build on them, and make them stronger.

Culture and societies are always complex, and to really understand a country and how it operates, you need to speak with people from that country. They are the ones who can provide real solutions to development challenges that will work, and last over time.

We insist on taking the time to understand the society of a country and its institutions and organizations and its people – what they know, what they do, how they work together, and why, how one level may affect another – and work with them to figure out what they need. Capacities in an organization operate within a society and can be affected by such considerations as laws, the economy and education levels.

UNDP has the world’s best expertise at our disposal; we can bring experts and governments together. Expertise has its place and has the potential to contribute significant positive change, but it has to take experience into consideration. People are the real wealth of nations. They have the answers to their development solutions, and UNDP helps to bring those answers to the surface.

We also have an obligation to make sure that when we leave, changes are sustainable. Development programmes need to be owned and led by a country because the support we provide will eventually end. So, capacity development is closely associated with the concept of sustainable development. And sustainable development relies on national ownership.

This should not be confused with crisis support, which addresses an immediate problem – where the UN provides emergency food or financing. We are not talking about the capacity to survive, but rather to thrive.

On a related note, sometimes we fail terribly, because we helped a country build an institution, or invested in developing the capacity of a specific group of people and then a civil war sets in again, and the whole thing unravels. Or you have, like now, a financial crisis that can set us back.

However, human capacity, especially if it is built based on the people who are there, it tends to be resilient. With strong capacities, it is possible to recover more quickly from a temporary crisis.

Q: The more you examine the concept of capacity development, it starts to appear quite revolutionary and demands a change in the way UNDP, and other international and national partners do business. How do you see UNDP changing because of the focus on capacity development? What is our main challenge? 

A: For too long traditional development assistance relied solely on outside expertise, and development organizations and donor countries decided the course of a country they may have known little about. There was a ‘we know best’ mentality.

There has been a shift in thinking, and the importance of developing national capacities is now widely accepted.

As UNDP we are changing because of this realization. We have to provide evidence to our partners that this approach works, because at the end of the day, UNDP plays an intermediary role between a set of donors, and a set of clients – and we’re accountable to both. It is this alignment between the client’s goal and our goal that is important because we attach our success to their success.

We assist in such areas as developing the capacity for our clients to deliver social services, or to carry out a planning process that is inclusive, or to find solutions to a regional development challenge. We do not dictate exactly how it should be.

It’s an enormous leap of faith to attach your own success to your client’s success. You really have to have confidence in your approach. And success can only be achieved when our goals are aligned with the structures or organizations we are working with. Sometimes we have to say no.

But if there is a way to do it, we will. Because what can happen is that if we don’t believe in making the effort and taking the risk, then you do what, in the social sciences, is called ‘creaming’. That means that we ‘cream’ those countries and those institutions that have the biggest chance of success. And then you leave all the tough ones to somebody else.

Our job is the inverse. Our job is: we will take on the toughest and most difficult capacity development challenges in the world. We will go out in Somalia, we will go out in areas where you have total institutional collapse. We will go out in societies that change very rapidly, and still have confidence in our method. Why? Because we come from a base of human development. We will talk to the individuals. We will start from there, insisting that the capacity can be built on human societies, based on our universal value base.

Q: Let’s fast forward some years into the future and go to a time where the capacity development approach is integrated and applied by all national and international partners. What does this world look like? How has development assistance changed? How are international and local partners working differently? 

A: Now, we are still finding the right balance between expertise and experience. In a world where capacity development is acknowledged as an effective avenue to sustainable human development, we will be able to talk about this much more completely.

We are still trying to drive more content into our concept of capacity development – because capacity development does not happen in isolation. It is how we build capacity for managing climate change, how we develop capacity for building housing associations so they can better manage their residential areas, and their assets. It is how we develop capacities for regions to better manage their agricultural production. So you can tie the concept of capacity development to quite specific development outcomes. And you can really make the connection.

In a world where complexity is rapidly increasing, the capacity development approach is the only effective means of trying, in a sense, to manage ourselves. It is that willingness to surrender to an inherently democratic process, as opposed to surrender to somebody else’s advice, expert advice, that’s a deep psychological change that can take place, but it will take time.

The capacity development approach also does not say that expertise is not needed. Rather, it insists that expertise is part of that process that delivers an outcome. And expertise is not the only voice.

We have to be very careful because capacity development and capacity of a group of people is very similar to investment. So, we always have to understand that capacity development and how much we invest in that has to be commensurate with what we’re trying to achieve. That also means that more capacity is not always better. It is a focus on which capacities are necessary for what we’re trying to achieve. In other words, "fit for purpose."

Now, we are very often judged on our ability to build. If we build, we declare success and then we leave. And that’s not enough. Capacity development is an insistence that societies and societal relations are complex, and this is actually a complex response. And that’s the type of response that’s adequate for the situation. And our ability to also understand that will be a big part of our success.


Q: There is a growing request for a rapid capacity assessment approach. How can we ensure that "rapid" or 'light' does not mean rushed and low quality? Is the request for a light assessment or rapid approach a way around facing up to some of the more difficult issues and questions that capacity development demands?

A: For capacity development to be relevant, we need to be able to provide our input to the development process in a timely fashion.

The idea that longer means better quality has little empirical basis. However, forced capacity development initiatives have been bad for development – that is the key point in many findings.

Taking longer can lead to inaction and continuation of dysfunctional relationships under the guise of doing things thoroughly. Whether initiatives are quick or longer-term has little to do with facing the "difficult" issues. Often structural change can successfully be brought about by carefully leveraged interventions - some short, some long.