Capacity, institutions, and relationships

The World Bank blog had a great post last week that takes an interesting view on one of development’s shibboleths: capacity building. Rich Mallet breaks down the concept a bit and notes how, in practice, it usually involves resources and technical training. But he draws on some work by ODI and others to argue that:

capacity is a relational concept. That is, capacities are developed through social relationships, and the nature of those relationships has profound consequences for the ability of an agent, an organization or a system to get things done.

(Emphasis mine.)

I don’t think I’ve seen it put quite this way before, but the framing resonates. The capacity of a system hinges on the social relationships within it. Mallet looks at the national, district and community levels, focusing on cross-sector relationships, the relationships between service providers and users, and the relationships within bureaucracies. This last one is especially interesting.

More generally, I see relationships as critical to understanding capacity at the organizational and institutional level. After all, that’s what we’re usually talking about under this heading: building capacity of a given organization, whether that’s a government bureaucracy, an NGO, or something else. The term “capacity building” has become synonymous with workshops and technical trainings, because we often assume that the capacity of the institution is just the sum of the capacities of the individuals within the institution, or maybe because we see the capacities of individuals as the greatest constraint to the capacity of the institution, even if we see other factors as relevant. Or maybe just because trainings are easy and everyone likes free lunch.

Making use of the relational nature of capacity in order to build an organization’s capacity means thinking harder about how organizations actually function. Big changes that restructure org charts or reallocate budgets seem dramatic, but they only deal with the formal, documented processes and systems of an organization.

The informal channels of influence and discourse are just as significant in determining outcomes. These informal elements are all about relationships — where people have lunch, how someone got hired, who used to work where, etc. So much of an organization’s capacity lies in these informal networks. Yet they are typically opaque to outsiders and even many insiders, which can mean they get ignored or assumed to be unimportant by change agents.

Understanding the relationships that exist requires a much deeper embed with an organization than a mere skills needs assessment of staff. And changing those relationships takes much longer than a day’s workshop.