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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Defining capacity building goals: a still challenging task


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Establishing objectives for capacity building initatives can become as challenging as defining how to measure their success.

Let me throw out some out-of-the-box thinking first. Goals are very appealing because they are usually linked to desires, right? We are daily driven by goals (well, hopefully!). When we have shared and inspiring goals, we work harder but feel less tired; also, others tend to respond better to us. There is a psychological aspect of setting goals that I feel has not been sufficiently explored in our field of work.  In fact, SMART objectives sometimes kill the much-needed chemistry and motivation people who work in development need to do their everyday job. I remember this issue was raised very frequently when I was helping Save the Children UK develop an M&E methodology for their policy influence. “Advocates need inspiring and hopeful goals, not just rational and measurable policy objectives”, many argued.  When we become too technical and rational we might jeopardize a lot of energy that builds on a different fuel.

Second, and after re-examining how we have worked for the past five years within Spaces for Engagement in Latin America, coordinated by CIPPEC with the support of GDNet, my first conclusion is that the most important thing is the need to have a coherent approach when establishing capacity building objectives. I have arrived at this simple reflection after discussing with colleagues about our activities, watching others conduct diverse types of capacity building activities, and reading literature on the topic. To be honest, I believe there is no ideal way to do this and there are several valuable approaches (from having a theory of change or framework to guide your efforts to establishing with participants specific objectives per activity). Any of this might work as long as we have a coherent approach.

A coherent approach requires that we are very well aware of and effectively link: 1) who we are (including the time, human and financial resources we have), 2) what we want to achieve, 3) with whom we want to work, and 4) under which principles. These are among the many factors that influence the process of establishing goals and I will come back to them very soon.

Third –and obviously- implicit or explicit in how we define capacity building goals is our own concept of capacity building. Have we spent some time in our teams to discuss what we consider capacity building? Have we shared this with others? In our case, we have not fully done this homework. We do have an implicit concept of capacity building: for us and the way we work it implies diverse efforts to develop or strengthen the individual or the organization’s ability to better link research and policy.

Finally, instead of going into detail about the different ways we can establish capacity building goals (and their advantages and disadvantages), I would like to share some factors that we could consider in the process of defining objectives:

  1. Do we consider capacity as a means or an end or both? Capacity building could be part of a larger goal of our organization or program (i.e. create a community that enables policy informed by research) or could define all that we do (i.e We help health care policymakers better use research). It could also link both.

  2. Level: according to Mendizabal, Datta and Young (2011) Capacity building levels are commonly divided into: 1) individual –skills and abilities (Costello and Zumla, 2000); 2) institutional – structures, processes, resources, management and governance (Struyk, 2006); and 3) system-level approaches – coherent policies, strategies and effective coordination across sectors and among governmental, non-governmental and international actors (Nuyens, 2005).

Level clearly depends on who you are and the resources you count with to develop capacity: a think tank based in Perú that needs to continuously seek for funding in an environment where funds for Latin America are decreasing might probably decide a different level from the Think Tank Initiative who works in Africa, Asia and Latin America with secured long term funding or Ausaid investing 100 million AU$ in developing the knowledge sector in Indonesia.

  1. Timeframe: linked to the level of intervention, we can set up long term goals or prefer to have very short ones tied to specific activities. For example, working with universities to enhance how future researchers interact with future policymakers implies a much longer intervention than if we want to conduct an initial workshop that prompts the interest from the university to take up a change in curricula.

  2. Purpose and principles: many players in this field explicitly indicate the intent or direction of their capacity building efforts. There are many who emphasize that capacity is for performance (i.e. strengthen financial stability); others promote efficiency, effectiveness, sustainability, etc. (i.e PEPFAR considers capacity building as the ability of individuals and organizations or organizational units to perform functions effectively, efficiently and sustainably). Hence, we should think whether we just want to develop a specific capacity in itself, if we want to improve performance based on that capacity and/or if we also want to improve something else.

  3. Participation of those whose capacity building will be built: there are several ways of engaging participants in defining expected outcomes of a capacity building effort. INASP and IDS, for example, in their Training Programme: Pedagogy Skills for Trainers of Policy Makers asked participants on the first day of the training to write down in post-it notes what were their own objectives. These were then matched to the facilitator’s objectives and most of them coincided. Furthermore, two new objectives identified by participants but not included in the facilitators` original objectives were added to the list.

I am very keen on hearing from you about this topic.  We want to become better at establishing goals but I am not entirely convinced on how to do this. Inspirational ideas are welcome!

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