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Whose capacity…really?

A so-called “lack of capacity” is used to justify many antiquated practices in the aid industry. And if left an unexplored concept, capacity building is arrogant at best.

Illustration from “The Barefoot Guide to working with organizations and social change”

The general (and often pejorative) assumption in the development sector that the capacity of “local partners” should be measured by the degree of formal structure is something that must be re-examined.

What about the capacity found in local civil society groups’ deep contextual knowledge, embeddedness within communities, resourcefulness, language and cultural skills, and the ability to operative in a responsive manner to local needs? These are capacities that international NGOs and donors lack.

The Community Development Resource Association offers the following perspective,

Donors need to engage in self-reflective practices themselves in terms of their own organizational needs. Yet the honest donor will admit how little this is practiced, how little responsiveness there is, how little real listening, and how many preconceived programs and methods are foisted on communities.

Some of these are in response to superficial fashions of the time, some of them to political pressures which are of northern, rather than southern, origin…If donors cannot respond to what is needed with considered flexibility and openness, then they should avoid the straw allegiance to the concept of capacity building, and even development itself, for it can only be regarded as posturing.

Perhaps the ability and penchant to understand and work with organizations of any size and type can and should become a core skill of anyone working on behalf of change. We need funders, aid practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and do-gooders thinking carefully and differently about what it is to do justice to local people’s own vast and vital efforts in the developing world.

What do people need to develop? Technical assistance, oversight, and inspection? Or resources, solidarity and encouragement?

If there’s any capacity to be built after decades of development aid, perhaps it’s our own.


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Could this video could also be about international aid? Hmmm…do you think? (HINT: Yes!)

In the international aid context, the squares of the future (donors and INGOs) must also focus on building their own skills to accompany and support blobs (local groups, community leaders, and grassroots initiatives), rather than overpower or co-opt them. A deeper understanding of the challenges blobs face in serving vulnerable families and communities in the developing word is key to unleashing their potential.

Squares continue to refer to the absorptive capacity needed to implement large-scale programs and as such, blobs are implicitly coerced to develop such capacities in order to gain access to squares’ resources. Instead, we need sound organizational development initiatives that will increase blobs’ responsiveness and resourcefulness, rather than distract them from their constituency. A new set of fundamental skills is necessary for those working in the square institutions—the ability and penchant to understand and work with blobs of any size or type can and should become a core capacity of squares.

Aid squares, how are you restructuring and revising your processes, rather than asking your blob “partners” to change?


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