The Dangers of Capacity Building

I’m sitting with the MIS officers during a training session on data use in districts facilitated by my colleagues Mina and Jennifer at the Tolon district. We’ve been tasked with brainstorming three barriers to data management at the district–the easy part–and three potential solutions to those barriers–the hard part.

“I think one suggestion would be to have more capacity building for MIS officers,” Sadiq says. The rest of the group emphatically agrees, but something about the suggestion just doesn’t sit right with me. Since starting work in Ghana, I’ve heard that compound buzzword countless times. And I haven’t been here long. It seems like building the capacity of, well everyone, is all the rage in Northern Ghana. Some quick research tells me that in fact, it’s a hot topic in Development in general right now. (Check out the UNDP’s 2008-2011 Strategic Plan; Capacity Building is a core element).

But, what does “capacity building” even mean?

I decide to challenge the discussion group by posing my question to them. “Ah, but what does that ‘capacity building’ look like, Sadiq?” I ask. There is small silence before the officers jump into a description of the barriers to data analysis that they currently face. They don’t give me any description of the capacity they’d like to see built, or how that might happen, but I’ve got my answer: they don’t know. 

It’s as if the MIS Officers see “Capacity Building” as this silver bullet solution to all of their data woes, without really knowing how to demand it for themselves. I can only talk of my own experience, but this is an attitude that I’ve experienced very often firsthand or within two degrees of separation either from other JFs or through my office.

For example, in my first week with the RESO alone, Alhassan was gone for 2-4 hours of each day for workshops. Everyday I would ask him who was delivering the workshop and he would give me similar answers every time. “The training comes from Accra,” he would say, meaning that it comes from the GoG at the national level (read: from donors). When I pressed about the content, I’d usually get a one-phrase answer: data, administrative skills, good governance, etc.

After the training had finished, Alhassan would arrive back at the office and complain about time lost from doing his work. It seemed as if the time spent building his capacity was actually hindering his ability to perform the functions of his job, which is directly connected to improving Ghanaian education and, by extension, helping to develop the country. Alhassan’s attendance at all of these capacity building workshops actually decreased his capacity to do Development.

Still, the training sessions run almost daily at the REO.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I do believe that capacity building is one good way to help individuals in a developing country create solutions to the issues they face (after all, it’s basically what I’m doing this summer). But that’s all that it is. Furthermore, when nearly every donor pushes capacity building without coordinating with other donors, the result is a lot of time wasted for important players like Alhassan, and a lot of curricula that say potentially different things on the same topic. In the end, the value of capacity building is massively diluted to the point where it means almost nothing to its beneficiaries.

That’s why I challenged the MIS officers to tell me what they wanted from training, instead of blindly requesting it. I think that a key to successful capacity building is to base it around the true demands of the beneficiaries. Too bad that’s so often not the case; for the most part donor mandates-not beneficiary needs-drive capacity building activities. Beyond that, capacity builders have to realize that just teaching someone a set of skills doesn’t mean that they’ll use them.

I mean, we all know that flossing is essential for oral health, but how many of us actually do it? Capacity building is just a starting point and behaviour change is the next, more challenging step. It’s also the part that’s much more difficult to measure. After all, you can tally up the number of flossing tutorials you’ve done, but figuring out who is using the flossing techniques you’ve taught afterwards requires constant check-ups and low-feedback research.

It’s a challenge, that much I understand, but I can tell you from the ground that the capacity building is here and that Ghana could use a little more behaviour change as well.




2 responses to “The Dangers of Capacity Building

  1. Great post Chris, and great question to be asking and seeking an answer too! Keep up the excellent blogging 🙂

  2. Simone Charron

    Hey Chris! I realize you wrote this a while ago, but here’s my answer 😛 I really like this post. Even here in Ottawa, I find that I hear the term “capacity building’ thrown around alot in conversation. It had me thinking as well- just one of those terms that sometimes people pick up and use, making an idea or statement look better or more effective. And I totally agree with you- capacity building is important, even somewhat key, but the term most definately needs to be truly considered when used. I’m glad you challenged your colleges with your question! It’s time to get more people thinking about this.

    Keep up the great posts! 🙂

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