The inconvenient truth about ‘capacity’ strengthening in global development

To work with effective and progressive civil society movements in low-income countries, do international NGOs need to do less capacity strengthening, and work as allies of these movements instead? Drawing on lessons from a new report, Natalie Lartey discusses how advocates can advance this agenda.

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8 December 2020

Natalie Lartey is a communications and advocacy officer

Woman adding stickers to a poster on the wall

A woman food vendor participates in a food systems workshop in Al Alto, Bolivia (Photo: copyright Fundación Alternativas)

Everyone wants poverty in low-income countries to decline. We want development outcomes to be sustainable and based on local solutions that are embedded in, and owned by, states, civil society and citizens. The development sector relies on capacity strengthening of civil society partners to drive this agenda. 

But capacity strengthening can be a slippery thing – thick with ideas of ‘fixing’ African, South Asian and Latin American countries.  

In development circles we define capacity strengthening as supporting Southern civil society organisations (CSOs) to gain the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to reach a particular aim. But here is where the inconvenient truth lies – in the main, CSOs already have the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to drive national action on any number of issues, such as health, education, housing or hunger.

Capacity may be present to different degrees, knowledge may need to be packaged in professional formats and skills and abilities may need to be honed – but it is always there. 

This does not mean there are no capacity challenges. Recent discussions about decolonising development provide a timely reminder that Southern CSOs operate in a development sector that is still overwhelmingly anglophone, white and male, with a power base firmly rooted in the global North.

CSOs’ position in the sector often disadvantages them in terms of access to funding, development discourses, political influence and power. These are structural issues that no amount of capacity strengthening is likely to change. 

Agency and capacity strengthening

Experience from a five-year advocacy programme, Sustainable Diets for All (SD4All), jointly implemented by IIED and Hivos, shows that broadening out the definition of capacity can help strengthen the results CSOs deliver. 

Working in five countries – Bolivia, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia – SD4All worked with CSOs on access to, and affordability of, diverse, healthy and sustainable diets.  Advocacy capacity strengthening was juxtaposed with the idea of agency of citizens, CSOs and their movements.

Agency fundamentally relates to power – to people’s ability, as individuals or organisations, to act independently and be agents of their own destinies, and – in the case of SD4All – their development. Yet citizen and CSO agency is rarely considered in capacity strengthening, despite its role in helping people with lived experience influence policy. 

Learning from Sustainable Diets for All

A recent report from SD4All shares the programmes experience of defining and understanding agency, within the context of food systems advocacy and CSO capacity strengthening. 

Through collaboration with producers farming Andean heritage grains in Bolivia and market traders in Zambia promoting the informal food economy, the report highlights some of the benefits and tensions of adding agency to capacity strengthening work. It shares four important reflections:

  1. Start with agency: Investing in agency can be a way of promoting allyship with and between Southern CSOs and citizens.  As an international stakeholder, also working as an ally to CSO movements, rather than an organisation that improves their effectiveness, can have benefits.
  2. Recognise different types of knowledge: Positioning citizens and CSOs as informed stakeholders with knowledge, skills, and relationships that add value to the policymaking process recognises their capacity.  It also challenges the unwritten rules of capacity strengthening that positions international ‘experts’ as development leaders, keepers of knowledge and conveners of political spaces.
  3. Equality of relationships matters: Discussions about how structural inequalities within the aid system impact CSO capacity can be useful. They may unearth unintended pressures CSOs face to find common cause with policy priorities championed by their capacity strengthening partners, rather than citizens. 
  4. Capacity strengthening is a two-way street: Work through horizontal rather than vertical capacity strengthening processes that clarify each stakeholder’s role in improving their ability to address a common advocacy issue. Include implementers in the process and foster capacity strengthening as a two-way street.     

Towards a new approach

We need to learn more about the structural as well as operational issues that impact CSOs as they lead movements promoting change on national and international issues. It is critical to identify how international actors need to change, grow and improve considering the need for more balance and fairness in the global aid system.

As advocates that specialise in structural change, it is up to us to shine a light on the paradox of capacity strengthening and move towards new approaches that create space for agency and power, allyship and joint endeavours that strengthen collective capacity to deliver change.

About the author

Natalie Lartey (natalie.lartey@iied.org) is a communications and advocacy officer, working on the Sustainable Diets for All programme.

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